Tip of volcano is divers' haven. Hawaii's Molokini crater: most popular skin-diving spot in Maui

From the air, the tiny islet of Molokini crater looks like the sliver of a new moon floating in the depths of a turquoise sea. Actually, this little island is all that remains of a once active volcano crater that, over the centuries, has been eroding back to the sea whence it rose some 10,000 years ago. The island itself is now a bird sanctuary, and the waters within its sweeping protective arm encircle an underwater marine preserve, protecting schools of blossom-bright tropical fish and marine life. Molokini is the most popular skin-diving spot in Maui.

Several days of rough weather prevented any tour of Molokini during early days of December. Finally the sea calmed, the sun came out as brightly as it ever can, and a jovial, high-energy crew greeted 60 excited divers as we clambered aboard the Ocean Activities Center's catamaran Wailea Kai out of Maalaea Harbor.

Tony - crew member, bus driver, diving instructor, and stand-up comic - introduced the international crew, including a diver from Tokyo whose job, Tony said, was to keep these Japanese tourists happy.

A Mexican crew member was responsible for the Spanish-speaking tourists on board. A show of hands revealed no Spanish-speaking tourists, and Tony ribbed him for failing to get any Spanish-speaking folks to sign up for the cruise. ``Better do better next season, or you're shark bait,'' Tony teased to the delight of all on board - including the crew, who laughed along as if they were hearing Tony's jokes for the first time.

The sail to Molokini takes about an hour. Those who choose, and have an extra $10, may do some trolling for fish along the way. Or, for free, just scan the waters for humpback whales, or count the dolphins that follow the boat.

Those who were qualified to scuba-dive were briefed while the snorkeling majority got instructions on skin diving. Most on board were malihinis (newcomers) to the sport of snorkeling. ``We have flippers in sizes up to 14,'' said Tony, slapping a pair together like a trained seal. ``If your feet are bigger than size 14, you don't need flippers,'' he laughed.

``And don't worry, we'll see plenty of fish. We've been coming here and feeding them for 12 years, and they know it,'' said one of Tony's sidekicks, trying to convince an older couple that it was easy to snorkel and worth it.

Waterproof plastic cards showing 60 fish most common in the area were hawked for five bucks. ``You can use them to identify the fish you see, and they make a great souvenir,'' said Tony, fanning them out like playing cards. ``You'll notice an asterisk beside the picture of the whitetip reef shark,'' he said, pointing to the color portrait of the long grey denizen of the deep. ``That means `do not touch or molest.'''

``Thanks for clearing that up for us, Tony,'' one of the crew shouted.

``Don't worry,'' he added, trying to calm a few who were having second thoughts. ``Reef sharks are harmless. Thousands of tourists have been coming out here for the past 12 years, and there's never been a problem with sharks.''

With masks and snorkels in place and flippers on, we buddied up and waddled like penguins down the ramp of the catamaran and plopped face down into the 75-degree F. sea.

Two of the crew in small rowboats kept a watchful eye on everyone. ``Now if you see either of us flash the OK sign, we're not saying we're OK, we're asking if you are, so give us the sign back,'' said our Mexican friend in one of the boats.

``And keep within the posted areas,'' Tony shouted as we took to the water. ``There are currents out there, and it's a free one-way trip to Tahiti if you get caught in one. ``One more thing, keep off of the island, it's a bird sanctuary, and there's a $10,000 fine for walking on it.''

Despite warnings, the dive here was calm and full of wonder. Pieces of bread were handed out to the divers and eagerly taken by schools of lemon-colored butterfly fish. Parrotfish in rainbow hues stared curiously into our face masks while black, white, and yellow Moorish idols swam by, quite unimpressed. Yellow tangs, always in single pairs, seemed happy to keep their distance as they caught the crumbs of white bread that floated to the ocean bottom, some 25 feet below.

Some divers, who had rented waterproof cameras, took turns snapping shots as more fish gathered to feed.

Tony, who became more serious once he got his feet wet, surfaced each time he spotted something of interest to explain it, and then dived again to point it out; brain and antler corals, black sea urchins with their six-inch spines, a slippery snowflake moray eel, and even an occasional empty bomb shell casing back from World War II days when this defenseless little island was used for target practice.

A few five-foot whitetip reef sharks were seen as we swam over them and no one so much as batted an eye, as they took off for deeper water.

As spectacular as the fish are here, the coral, although abundant, is rather disappointing. Swift currents prevent much of it from attaining impressive size or shape.

The hour-long paddle among the coral and fish was a bit exhausting but still seemed too short, as we climbed back on board and sailed back to Maalaea Wharf. A lunch featuring plenty of fresh fruit, sandwiches, cold cuts, and cheese was enjoyed. During the meal, the crew took turns giving solos on a conch shell, to a response of raspberries from their captive audience.

After all, conch shell concerts are rather limited, as musicians only are capable of making one note. Practical information

You have only to pick up a free copy of This Week Maui, or Maui Gold magazine to see how many diving trips are available on this island. These magazines also have dollars-off coupons for numerous island activities. Trips of Molokini are competitive, ranging from $40 to $50.

All diving gear is provided on board. If your feet are larger than Size 14, consider traveling with your own flippers.

Trips usually start early in the morning so a light windbreaker can come in handy. Waterproof sun screen is practical to carry.

If you would like to become a qualified scuba diver, three- to five-day courses are available. They run about $250 and up. For further information, contact Ocean Activities Center, (808) 879-4485, Paradise Activities, (808) 879-8188; Lahaina Divers, (808) 667-7496.

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