Snuba makes underwater diving a cinch

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Special to the Los Angeles Times

As I plod toward the surf, I’m trying to channel a bit of orca because nothing in the ocean messes with Shamu. I just hope some do-gooder doesn’t try to free me or toss me a mackerel. I plan to be underwater for 25 minutes, and I’m told the artificial blubber of the neoprene wet suit will be comforting.

My wife, Terri, and I have hooked up with an outfitter for a swim with a twist — snuba — off the beach in Kaanapali, Maui. Think of it as scuba for dummies. Mask, fins, regulator, cool bubbles floating upward — the vast numbers of which indicate I need to slow my gaspiration rate — it’s regular “Sea Hunt” stuff, and you don’t need a license or certification.

“The ‘OK’ gesture is a question and an answer,” says Yorkie, our guide. “If I do it and you’re OK, don’t give me a thumbs-up because that means you want or need to go up.” If I were running things, we’d be flashing the old Hang 10 sign, but she is in charge so I take in her speech about safety, comfort and having fun in the briny depths. I pledge to remember to equalize often the air pressure in my ears while descending, and should I engage, à la James Bond, in an underwater tussle with a thug hell-bent on world destruction, I will be able to clear my mask. I also vow to tightly purse my lips around the regulator and not gnaw on it. A few more how-tos and a quick run through a medical checklist, and it’s water time.



The best way to Maui

From LAX, Delta, United and American offer nonstop service, and Alaska, US Airways, United and Hawaiian offer connecting service (change of plane) to Kahului Airport. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $528.

Shoreline Snuba,, (808) 281-3483, offers beach excursions from the Marriott Maui Ocean Club, Westin Kaanapali Ocean Resort Villas and the Kaanapali Beach Club in Kaanapali. It also coordinates boat dives with several vendors in both west and south Maui. Couples and family dive packages available.

As the name suggests, snuba is scuba-esque, but the tank stays on the surface rather than lashed to your back. Purists might scoff at the T-ball quality of it all; Jacques Cousteau was a rookie once too, and he’s the guy who invented modern scuba.

Terri and I are doing the shore version, swimming out from the beach with a small raft containing the tank rather than dropping in from a boat or fixed platform at sea, as can be done in some locales.

Remembering Yorkie Lesson No. 11 — “Your body will follow your head” — down I go. Ten, 15, maybe 20 feet, which is the limit to the air hose; I haven’t been this deep since my older sister invented the game she dubbed Baby Brother the Submersible, which I equated more to controlled drowning.


Go ahead and laugh, scubaistas, but this rocks. Twenty feet isn’t exactly down to the abyss off the backside of Molokini, the blown-out volcanic crescent off south Maui, and the tank-on-the-raft thing hints at training wheels. Yet I’m gliding underwater largely unencumbered, and I can breathe rich, wonderful puffs of good old air. Nice.

Yorkie plops a hunk of rock in my hand, and it starts to wriggle, something a rock shouldn’t be doing. She puts the grayish mottled lump back on the sea floor and puts an index finger upside her head. That’s my cue that a bit of education is in the offing, but the lecture will have to wait. Back topside, she tells us the little darling is a sea cucumber.

For the wary, Yorkie — and I would surmise all guides with Shoreline Snuba — is conscientious and helpful, pausing often to give the OK sign and expecting one in return. At one point she swims over — she’s tank diving — and adds another hunk of ballast to my weight belt. What with the neoprene and being zaftig, I was a touch too buoyant. Now my body does follow my head.

Terri plays tag with a small school of tangs and directs us to a honu munching away in turtle bliss on a sea salad clinging to a rock. Yorkie taps her temple to remind us to talk later about the two lionfish wedged in a crevice. Clown fish, eel, wrasses, several of my all-time fave Hawaiian sea critters, the plucky/cranky riot of color the locals know as humuhumunukunukuapuaa, or the Picasso trigger fish; it’s a nice sampling if not the broad, deeply representative census to be found on more active reefs. Taking it all in at fish level for 25 minutes isn’t chopped bait. This is one area in which snuba beats snorkeling.

Snorkeling, however, is free once you have the gear, and you can do it as long as you want and wherever you want. Our excursion cost $95 a person, the wet suit is $10more. Photos, which we didn’t buy, plus a few trinkets, can be had as part of an all-of-the-above package for $149. With orientation, waddling to the beach, kicking around, diving, rolling back onto shore with all the grace of a penguin on land — me, not Yorkie and Terri — and talking about what we’d seen, we burn up about 90 minutes. Time and dollars well spent? Yes, for scuba neos like us. And the little Cousteaus will love it.

But if you go, know that the killer whale has migrated back to the mainland.