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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Maher

West Maui Adventures: Mala Wharf Dive Site

Diving at Mala Wharf, Chad and I must have seen at least 20 turtles! It was the most turtles I have ever seen clustered in one dive site. There were so many, that one brushed the top of my head with its little arm! We even saw a white tip reef shark!

Mala Wharf is in Lahaina near Pu'unoa Point just south of Lahaina Cannery Mall. Mala Wharf is also called Mala Pier. It was once a shipping facility for Maui’s pineapple and agriculture. In 1992, a 30ft surf destroyed the end of the dock, due to Hurricane Iniki (which was also the same hurricane that occurred during the filming of Jurassic Park). The pilings of the devastated pier turned into an abundant artificial reef, home to a plethora of turtles, white tip reef sharks and a vast array of marine life.

It is best to dive the site at high tide, because of the 50 ft shallow walk along the rocks that parallels the remaining pier. It was a difficult walk even at high tide and wearing booties. The weight of the scuba gear and the uneven walk can be tiresome and challenging, but it is worth it if you can safely get out there.

This dive site is considered an easy to intermediate dive. It is also considered a shallow dive site, because max depth is 40ft. For me it was challenging, because of the strong southwest current we experienced. We had to swim against the pushing current, careful not to swim too close to the debris and coves of the pier pilings scattered along the ocean floor. Concrete and metal rebar stick out of the pilings which can cause injury if you swim to close and bump up against them by accident.

At Mala Wharf, we showed up at about 8:30am. Even though we showed up early to the dive site, it was hard to find parking and already a bunch of divers and people were out there enjoying the water. This spot is also where people take their speed boats and fishing boats out into the open ocean, so it is required by law that you dive with a dive flag.

We parked near the restrooms and shower. We got our tanks and weights from Maui Diving and attached it to our BCD and suited up. Fully geared, it was a 160 ft walk from the car and from there we made our precarious 50 ft walk parallel the remaining pier which in total took a good 10-15 minutes. If you are a diver, you know that carrying scuba gear for more than 5 minutes can get heavy and starts to take a toll on your back. With the BCD, weights, and tank, it was challenging because the rocks make it so that you can easily twist your ankle.

All the aches were forgotten when we started to float at the end of the pier with our BCDs fully inflated. BCD stands for Buoyancy Control Device. The BCD looks like a vest with air pockets and weight pockets. The air pockets can inflate and deflate, controlling your floatability. Chad gave me a briefing of the site and began to unfold the dive flag. With our inflator/deflator hose, we released some air from our BCD’s, and submerged into the ocean. We descended to a depth of 6 ft and Chad tied the end of the dive flag to a piece of rebar.

Immediately when we descended, I could see the innumerable goat fish hovering over the sandy bottom as if they were resting or meditating. Hundreds of them were around us. As we swam along the right of the demolished pier, I noticed the corals honeycombed around the pillars that lay haphazardly like fallen “Jenga” blocks. Every so often I would look up and see a green sea turtle descending into the depths after having just taken a breath of air. I would even see a yellow tang, no bigger than the palm of your hand follow a turtle swimming to the surface.

Some corals are pyramidal shaped, and others grow in beautiful chaotic patterns and cover the pilings. It is the home of thousands of colorful little fish that swim all around in every direction. I noticed box fish, black and white striped Moorish idols, puffer fish, swarms of angel fish, and parrot fish, and especially goat fish. Goat fish are green and yellowish, and many mingled together.

The visibility was about 50ft-100ft. I could clearly see the light playing along the sandy bottom and reflecting off the fish and the pier, accentuating the iridescence. In the distance I could hear the cry and singing of whales. They swim in the channel between West Maui and the three neighboring islands: Molokai, Lanai and Kaho'olawe. It is whale season this time of year. The female whales bring their young to the warmer oceans surrounding Hawaii in the wintertime.

Chad spotted a small white tip reef shark in a crevice between two fallen pillars. I stayed behind a few feet because I didn’t want to disturb Chad while he was taking a picture of it. I am also cautious person. When I am diving, as much as I want to give sea creatures space, it is inevitable that sometimes I have a close encounter by accident.

Out of nowhere, I feel something touching my head! I look behind me and it is a big green sea turtle! Its arm was brushing the side of my head and moving my mask. Startled, I jumped a little and then the turtle became startled! The turtle jerked itself away from me while I ducked to avoid getting hit with the shell!

After that I started to laugh into my regulator. Seawater started to seep into my mask. I could not stop my face from contorting because of the mild shock of what just happened. I struggled to clear my mask for a second, blowing bubbles from my nose into the mask and pressing the top to my forehead, all the while suppressing the need to laugh.

Continuing the dive, at depth of about 30ft we came upon a platform of a broken structure. We admired the many turtles that seemed to be resting or meditating in unison with each other on a platform. There must have been at least seven turtles on the platform! I never saw that many turtles clustered together like that. We hovered around that area taking pictures and absorbing the beauty of the conjugating turtles.

From there we turned back toward the dive flag, and we slowly surfaced. I spit out my regulator and laughed loudly. “Did you see the turtle brush up against my head?” I said to Chad.

“Really?! No, I didn’t see that! There were so many turtles down there! They were coming from everywhere!” said Chad

“Yeah, I almost lost it down there because I was laughing so hard,” I said.

We had a 60-minute dive, even though we were exerting ourselves against the current. We are experienced divers, and we know how to conserve and “sip” our air, allowing for longer dives. We started at 200 bar and ended at 50 bar in our air tanks. We both wore 5 mm wetsuits, and the water temp was 77 degrees Fahrenheit.

We made our way back to the car and rinsed off our gear at the showers and returned the tanks and weights at the dive shop. For lunch, we had bagels and coffee at the nearby cafe called Westside Bagels, only a 3 minutes’ drive from the dive shop. The coffee was unbelievably smooth, and the bagels were freshly made that day. The ingredients in the avocado bagel sandwich tasted fresh. It was a perfect way to celebrate an unforgettable dive!

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