rolling in the deep blue: discover maui below the surface with atlantis submarines

My six-year-old Josie and I were overdue for some one-on-one quality time. She loves swimming but hasn’t gotten the hang of snorkeling yet. So the idea of venturing near a live reef in a state-of-the-art submarine at a depth of more than 130 feet sounded like a wonderful plan, a well-deserved little brother-free adventure for my young explorer.

For 25 years, Atlantis Submarines has been leading these fascinating eco-friendly deep-sea tours that has expanded to 11 sites in Hawai‘i, Guam and the Caribbean. President and founder Dennis Hurd had a vision while running Hyco, a company that operated smaller submersibles for the oil industry. He would conduct site inspections of oil rigs, taking clients 6,000 feet deep in the water. Seeing great potential in sharing the experience with the public, Hurd endeavored designing and rounding up capital for a larger vessel that could accommodate more people. In 1986, this vision became a reality with Atlantis I, which took its first passengers off the coast of West Caribbean’s Cayman Islands.

“Over 13 million people have done these tours and nobody has needed our safety equipment,” part guide and part comedian, Mel Stout gave a light-hearted safety briefing as our ferry propels out of Lahaina harbor. “I’m not even sure they work. It does work, just kidding!”

Jokes aside, Mel assured everyone that it would be a smooth ride. Being the first of its kind, the company’s design is held as the standard by which the U.S. Coastguard certifies other vessels. In an emergency, the submarines are designed to return to the surface safely without human intervention.

Our group—about 20 for the 48-passenger sub—covered a broad age spectrum, from an infant to a handful of elderly folks. It will be a quick trip to the dive site where Roxie awaits, a Lego-blue tugboat for the Atlantis IV, our designated underwater chariot. After a bit of anticipation and lots of bubbles, Atlantis IV quickly emerged before us. Choreographing a switcheroo with the outgoing group, we entered the sub via some steep but manageable stairs and into a long chamber with viewports on each side. Josie’s excitement is palpable. As we slowly submerged, Mel promptly cues the Mission Impossible theme song. What the ocean had in store for us was more than anything I expected.

We reached a gorgeous reef with overlapping platelets and almost right away, we came upon a massive school of blue-lined snappers or taape. The silver cluster swayed in flowing synchrony while surrounded by other friends—pairs of butterfly fish, yellow tangs, an eel, and a peacock grouper to name a few.

“The blue lined snapper and peacock grouper are not native to the island,” explained Mel. “They thought they could improve our commercial fishing by introducing other species. They were released in our water in 1956. The snappers were too small to catch; our reef system stunted their growth. The peacock grouper is linked to ciguatera poisoning. You cannot eat it; it will disable your nervous system. They put a stop on importing fish after that.”

Our pilot, Tony Partridge, deftly maneuvered around to make sure that both sides enjoyed the same visuals. We glided past a bed of dancing seaweed (Halimeda algae) and encountered our first reef shark, Josie’s first sighting outside of an aquarium. She also spotted a sea cucumber lining the sand, and a puffer fish darting across. She gushed over each discovery, truly in awe of the rich, layers of marine life surrounding her.

Mel kept us entertained and informed. We learned that as the water gets deeper and farther from natural light, colors eventually fade to black and that’s why we all looked very blue at the moment. This also helps vibrant species blend in with the reef, a camouflage against predators.

Moments later, we are drawn near a silhouette of a sunken ship’s bow. Built in Germany in 1920, the Carthaginian is a 120-foot-long vessel that was retired off Lahaina’s shores in the 1970’s and procured from Lahaina Restoration Foundation almost six years ago. “It cost $1 to buy and about $300,000 to sink the ship,” said Mel. The historic ship now functions as an artificial reef and a dive site for marine research. We reached 140 feet in depth when we spied our second shark taking shelter below the ship’s deck and a sponge crab not too far away. During whale season, there’s an incredible chance of catching a glimpse of our beloved humpbacks.

While cruising back to the harbor, Josie laid her head on my lap for a quick rest. As I stroke her hair and misty clouds drape over the West Maui mountains, I feel grateful. My intention that morning was to share a fun and extraordinary time with my daughter. And that, we certainly did.

–eliza escano

AT A GLANCE…

WHAT •

Atlantis Submarines, a pioneer in public-passenger submarine operations that offers eco-friendly marine tours in Hawai‘i, Guam and the Caribbean.

WHERE •

Check-in at the Pioneer Inn Hotel located at 658 Front Street, Lahaina.

WHEN •

Trips are offered daily.

HOW •

For more info, call 667-2224 or visit http://www.atlantisadventures.com.

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