Last updated: 04:36 PM ET, Sun December 20 2015

A Submarine Ride Through Waikiki’s Delicate Undersea World

Features & Advice | Will McGough | December 20, 2015

A Submarine Ride Through Waikiki’s Delicate Undersea World

Photos by Will McGough

The wind blew through the palm trees and across the water as I stepped on to the shuttle boat. We shoved off, and the open sea was choppy, swaying the vessel from side to side. This would normally be a recipe for a long day, but it was no worry to me, for I wouldn’t be on the surface very long.

Up ahead, I could see the submarine breach the surface, and the shuttle boat spun around to the far side of it. From the railing, I looked down at the deck of the sub. The hatch came open, and the crew climbed out, throwing ropes to our craft. In the background, the skyline of Waikiki was standing tall alongside the Diamond Head volcano, beautiful and bold against the blue sky.

I climbed down to the main deck and stepped off on to the sub. The deck was wet, and I thought about how, in a few minutes, the whole thing would be underwater. The crew instructed me to turn around, and I slowly stepped backwards down into the hatch, finding the ladder with my foot. Rung by rung I went down. Looking up, the light of day was reduced to the small circle of the hatch, which looked like a sun itself when you stood at the bottom in the dark and looked up.

The sub cabin is small — claustrophobes need not apply for this adventure.

I took my seat, back to back with another passenger in a row of seats running right down the middle of the sub. Overhead I heard the hatch close, and the captain sounded the alarm. I felt the sub begin to sink. My stomach did the same as bubbles rushed past the window, the water churning as we dove. There was no turning back now, no more fresh air or sunlight — only what we had brought with us. As we went down, fish began to appear in the portholes, yellow and blue and grey.

I could no longer see Waikiki, but that wouldn’t stop it from taking center stage under the sea, though not in its usual role as tropical paradise hotspot.

A company called Atlantis operates these hour-long submarine dives, billing the experience as a way for people who can't (or won't) scuba dive to explore the depths of the ocean. And it certainly delivers. The ride took me down to a depth of 115 feet below the surface, which, according to Atlantis, puts me in a very special group. Apparently, the percentage of the human population that has reached a depth of 100 feet is less than one percent.

So, that in itself is worth the ride, as is the chance to breeze past seaweed farms, artificial reefs, sunken ships and sea turtles without getting your hair wet. It is these experiences that sell tickets.

But, at its core, the mission of Atlantis and the submarine rides is not to show off the sea turtles. Rather, it is to spread the word about ongoing offshore environmental issues, most of which are the fallout of Waikiki’s creation.

As far as the numbers go, Waikiki is the most popular landing place for tourists visiting the Hawaiian Islands. People flock to the now-legendary beach for its relatively calm surf, happening hotels, high-end shops, food scene and nightlife. Most people know that. The story that remains untold is that everything you see in Waikiki, including the sand, has been brought in for the purposes of tourism. None of it is natural.

In fact, Waikiki used to be a marshy, taro-growing region before the decision was made to create what exists today. The Ala Wai Canal, which runs through the center of the city, was created to dry out the land, and then the sand was shipped in from Australia and California. Unfortunately, that sand — which wasn’t there before — is being washed out to sea by the tides, coating and killing the reefs directly offshore.

In an attempt to restart the ecosystem, Atlantis, in partnership with the University of Hawaii, has worked hard to restore the underwater life by building those reefs and seaweed farms that keep your eyes glued to the porthole.

Also, the University of Hawaii, National Marine Fisheries Service, and the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources all observe and collect data from these Atlantis-built reefs, studying how reef regeneration occurs and how humans can best aid the process in places that have deteriorated.

All of this is information you learn aboard the sub as you gaze at the undersea vistas, and it adds so much context to the visual experience. Coming back up to fresh air, I felt enriched all around. I had taken my first submarine ride and seen dozens of colorful fish, yet the main reason I so enjoyed the tour was because I respected its honest nature. Atlantis has nailed down what it means to encourage responsible tourism, combining a novel, fun experience with an educational takeaway.

For me, the latter was so powerful that I offer this advice: When you go and board the sub with the skyline of Waikiki in the background, take a good look. When you come back up to the surface, you may never see it the same.

If You Go: The submarine ride itself lasts an hour, but plan a half day for all the logistics. Atlantis runs submarine tours on Oahu (Waikiki), Maui (Lahaina) and the Big Island (Kona), each with a slightly different focus. You can read about them here.

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