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The underwater world of Kailua Bay off of Hawaii Island’s Kona Coast has long been coveted as a premier destination for scuba diving. With calm, crystal-clear water that’s protected from standard tradewind patterns by a pair of massive mountains, the area rewards divers with below-the-surface visibility that can exceed 100 feet. So when Atlantis Submarines decided to expand its operations to the Hawaiian Islands in 1988, it just made sense to debut in Kona.
In reality, the “groundwork” for the company’s Kailua Bay adventure began 18,000 years ago when lava flows off the island’s coastline created what is today considered one of the most magnificent reef systems found anywhere. This 25-acre fringing coral reef garden boasts a vibrant ecosystem thriving with brightly colored fish and marine life accessible even to those preferring to explore in a dry, controlled manner.
Count me within that group. On a recent outing aboard a 48-seat air-conditioned Atlantis submersible, I could easily see why scuba divers become so addicted to prowling underwater. And while I’ve been told that there’s much more of a rush if you are actually out in the action, I was content checking out all the beauty from the large viewing portal in front of my seat.
The adventure took off from Kailua Pier, where Atlantis’ Kalia shuttle transported us to the dive site. To be on the bay with colorful Alii Drive in the foreground and Mount Hualalai as a backdrop was a pleasure.
During the 10-minute ride, we were given a safety briefing, advised on how to board the vessel and told what we were likely to see during our journey — everything from white mouth moray eel and trumpetfish to longnose butterfly fish and endangered green sea turtles.
More spacious inside than you might imagine, this 65-foot technologically advanced passenger submarine had two rows of back-to-back seating, so we all had our own viewing port plus ample headroom and legroom. There was also a fish and coral guide for easy reference of what we were likely to see. But that wasn’t really necessary since our guide was quick to report whatever came into view.
It was also surprisingly quiet as we descended. With delightful unpredictability, the marine world exploded and kept us on the edge of our seats. As the setting continued to unfold, we were treated to a nautical show that displayed how nature formed Hawaii Island and the vibrancy of its thriving marine world.
Atlantis has helped the colorful scene via a pair of sunken shipwrecks that have naturally been transformed into artificial reefs serving a higher purpose. They have become safe havens for the area’s many varieties of fish and delicate marine life.
Atlantis also offers adventure packages combining the undersea wonders of its submarine tour with such activities as the Royal Kona Resort Luau, Body Glove whale watch cruise and a snorkel adventure. Though a great opportunity to gain firsthand insight into the importance of reefs while in Hawaii, it was by no means simply an “ooh and aah” activity with potentially negative environmental impact. The company’s battery-powered submersibles emit nothing more than compressed air into the ocean and since they are so quiet, they don’t impede natural activity. This conservation commitment is at the core of Atlantis’ operational philosophy. Atlantis was even honored with Hawaii Ecotourism Association’s highest designation in 2011.
“Atlantis sees our success linked to the responsibility of being a good steward for Hawaii’s marine life, the land and sea,” said Ronald Williams, Atlantis Adventures’ chief executive officer and president. “So it was an honor to receive the Hawaii Ecotourism Association Gold Certification in 2011. It validates the essence of our mission and underscores our commitment to marine conservation.”
Departing daily from Kailua-Kona Pier at 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m, tours last 1¼ hours, with 45 minutes underwater and a 30-minute transit to and from the dive site. Rates: $109 per adult and $45 per child under 12. Minimum height requirement is 36 inches. Commission: 10 percent