Updated: Apr 26, 2022
Kayak scuba diving is a fun alternative to charter boat diving in Hawaii!
Have you ever wondered if there was another option to marathon surface swims when it comes to getting to some of the dive sites on the island? I had the same question when I first started diving around Oahu. Don't get me wrong, I still love jumping onto local dive shop boats, but there's nothing quite like the freedom and adventure of scuba diving from a kayak. You can choose where you want to go, explore new areas, and do everything on your own time.
Full disclosure, I would definitely consider myself to be an amateur kayaker. I haven't done any crazy long or multi-day kayak trips like some of the more intense sportsmen here on Oahu. With that being said, all of the advice in this article either come from practical experience, or from asking a million questions to the more seasoned kayakers here on the island. If you ever need some great advice on kayaking around the Hawaiian Islands, I recommended talking to John, the owner of Go Bananas Watersports in Honolulu.
Be prepared, this is a long article! We tried to cover as much information as possible so you have everything you need for your first kayak diving trip.
Well, the overall concept is really as simple as it sounds. Pick a dive site you already know, or somewhere that you want to explore. Find a suitable place to launch your kayak from, and you're in business! You can launch from almost any beach, and paddle right out to your selected spot. Anchor up and complete your dive! It's always a awesome adventure, and you usually end up enjoying the trip just as much as the dive. Plus, wildlife is far more likely to approach you on a kayak. I've gotten to kayak with a pod of dolphins, a group of sea turtles, and even had a monk seal swim up.
BONUS: If you have your sidemount certification, kayak diving is even easier. No worrying about switching around tanks on your BCD, and getting in and out of the water is easier.
Selecting a Kayak
It's important to select the right kind of kayak for the job. In order to go scuba diving off the kayak, you'll want to get what's called a sit-on-top (versus one you sit inside). A sit-on-top kayak doesn't have a closed cockpit, making them easier to get in and out of. They're usually wider and more stable, making them easier to get in and out of.
When selecting a kayak, you should choose one that has plenty of room for you and your gear. Some people are tempted to get a two-person kayak to maximize the amount of stuff they can bring, but you'll end up paying for it when trying to paddle and control it. Make sure the kayak is comfortable for your body size, and that there's an external cargo spot for tanks (closed-hatch cargo holds can be a hassle).
I'll admit that I'm a little bit biased when it comes to selecting a kayak, because I love my Ocean Kayak Scrambler. It's a great, entry-level sit-on-top kayak that does well in almost any situation. There are nice deep storage wells in the front and back to keep tanks, gear, and snacks. As a bonus, if the waves are too big for scuba diving, you can take these kayaks out to certain spots on the island and surf them!
If this is your first time kayaking, I would recommend renting a kayak from a local shop before deciding to purchase one. There are various shops throughout the island, but my favorites are Go Bananas Watersports in Honolulu and Twogood Kayaks in Kailua. Don't be intimidated if you have a small vehicle; the rental shops managed to safely secure two kayaks to the top of a little Volkwagen Golf.
What to Pack
As silly as it may sound, making a packing checklist is a great idea. There's nothing worse than paddling out to a dive site and realizing that you forgot something. Now is also a good time to check the surf, the currents, and the weather.
- Dive weights
- Mask, fins, and snorkel (bring your snorkel to help recon dive sites)
- Mask defog
- Dive computer
- Dive compass
- Wetsuit (optional in Hawaii!)
- Paddle and paddle leash
- Anchor and/or tow line
- Extra paddle leash
- Dive Flag
- Surface Marker Buoy (I recommend 2)
- Life jacket (In Hawaii you are not required to wear it; unfortunately your BCD doesn't count)
- Hat and long sleeve rash guard (to protect yourself from the sun)
- Reef-safe sunscreen (you'll get burned coming back in if you don't reapply)
- Emergency whistle
- Plenty of drinking water, snacks, and an electrolyte drink (I love the lemon Liquid IV!)
If you plan on doing this often, it would be a good idea to invest in this gear. Remember, most of the gear you buy in Hawaii can be used for multiple types of adventures!
- Paddling gloves
- Net bags (good for securing smaller gear)
- Extra 550 cord and stainless steel snaps
- First-aid kit
- Folding kayak carts (seriously, these are amazing for those far away parking lots)
- Waterproof bag for cell phone or other sensitive items
- Boat marker lights (if you're out during dusk/night)
- Signaling device
- VHF Marine Radio (Really good to have for emergencies or bad weather notifications)
- Floating Cooler (these are seriously amazing and tow well behind your kayak)
Packing the Boat
Kayak diving requires a little bit of planning, adjusting, and fine tuning. Most ocean kayaks have just enough room for everything you need, so you've got to think carefully about where and how you stow every item. You'll likely be carrying a heavy load on your kayak, so be sure to weigh your gear and check your kayak’s weight capacity. An over-weighted boat will be sluggish, hard to control, and and increase the chance of tip overs. When loading, keep the overall kayak weight centered and low.
Before doing anything with your kayak, set up and fully test your dive gear. Pre-assemble your BCD, weights, tank, and regulator, making sure that everything is working properly, and your tank(s) have a full fill. Remember, nothing is worse than paddling out and realizing you have an empty tank or a bad o-ring! Adjust all your BCD straps, and clip on any extra gear (like your surface marker buoy). Once you've assemble and tested all your gear, be sure to turn off your air to prevent accidentally losing air while launching the boat.
Now that you have your scuba gear checked, it's time to pack your boat. You MUST tie each major or indispensable piece of gear to the kayak with a tether (don't rely on the bungees). Think like an astronaut: a short tether can prevent your fins from drifting off when you're distracted or fighting the surf. Always prepare for your kayak flipping over and dumping in the surf; if your gear is well-secured then you won't loose anything. This includes your paddle as well!
As you think about how to pack your kayak, think about the order that you'll need your gear (first in, last out). Generally, your tanks and pre-assembled BCD should be on the bottom of the one of the external storage wells (tank down). Use cargo straps or sturdy tethers to secure it, and bungees to prevent anything from flapping around. Make sure your hoses are not crimped, and your regulators are safely tucked in. I generally make sure my mask, fins, snorkel, and anchor are easily accessible since you'll need them first.
Now for your clothing. Obviously this is going to vary based on where you are diving, the weather conditions, and personal preference. Wetsuits can quickly overheat you and restrict your motion. Some people will wear half the wetsuit while paddling out, leaving the top half exposed. Others who are very talented will put their wetsuit on in the kayak (with careful balancing) or the water. Personally, I recommend wearing a rash guard, swim trunks, and booties when paddling out in Hawaii. If it's cold enough for a wetsuit, I bring separate wetsuit tops and bottoms so I can easily slip them on in the water.
Getting into the Surf
Getting into the ocean with your fully loaded kayak can be a challenge, especially if the surf is rough. My best advice is to be patient, watch the water, and remember that slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.
Drag your loaded kayak to the edge of the water and watch the surf to get an idea of the wave sets. When you spot a break or lull in the waves, pull the kayak out to about knee-deep water. In one smooth motion, give the kayak a small push, jump in, and start paddling. Keep the nose of the kayak pointed directly into the waves, paddle, and punch straight through the waves. Don't let the kayak get sideways against the surf, because a small wave can tip you if you're sideways. If a wave washes over the front of your kayak, lean back and hold your paddle high until it passes.
The return trip should be the exact same. Watch for the lull, and then follow the backside of a wave into shore. Keep your nose pointed straight to shore the entire time, and hop off one you're in knee-high water. Be sure to hustle dragging the kayak out of the water before the next big wave hits, or you'll be in for a rough time. Once you practice this a few times, you'll be able to surf the whitewater into shore and minimize the amount of work you're doing.
Use the paddle to help you balance, and have fun! Everyone will wipe out a few times while trying to do this; it's all part of the fun. As long as your gear is secure, you can quickly recover the boat and get back on top. If you really can't seem to get in and out of the surf without flipping, check your weight distribution.
Now that you've paddled out to your dive site (without exerting yourself too much), it's time to anchor. I use a small collapsible kayak anchor specifically designed for the ocean. I recommended using a small length of short chain to attach directly to the anchor, with a braided nylon line. Some people suggest using winders, but I advocate using a small mesh anchor bag. Alternatively, you can drift dive with your kayak by towing it along with you. if you plan on doing this, be sure to have large clips to attach the line to your BCD.
When you get to your site, you should stow your paddle and get your mask, fins, and snorkel out. You want to plan where your dropping you anchor, making sure it's close to your intended dive site. You also need know where you are dropping your anchor, so you aren't accidentally hitting any coral or marine life. If you plan on doing some snorkel recon of your dive site, I suggest maintaining some sort of connection with your kayak (either with a tether or your anchor line).
Once you've found a suitable place to anchor, drop it down. Let out a generous amount of line so that the line isn't under too much tension. Once you've confirmed the anchor is down, attach the line to the bow (front) of the kayak. Any other kayakers diving with you should hook their bow line to the back of your kayak (always tie together in a straight line, not side-by-side). Once everything is settled and tied off, wait a few moments before getting ready to dive. Make sure your anchor is set well, and that you aren't drifting off your site. You can double check your anchor placement once you descend.
One of the most important steps once you're anchored up is putting up your dive flag. You want it to be tall and highly visible for two reasons. It'll make you more visible to other boaters, and it can help you find your kayak if you surface away from your anchor line. On a rolling ocean, a flat kayak can be hard to find without a tall flag. You may also want to consider attaching a signalling mirror about 15-25 feet down your anchor line. The flashing metal will make it easier to find your line should you get a little turned around.
Be cautious if you decide to try and tie off to the underwater mooring balls around Oahu. The local dive boat operators are usually pretty courteous, and will either ask if they can tie off on the same ball or offer to let you tie off to their boat if they plan on hanging out for a while. The larger tourist operations have allegedly cut the lines of unsuspecting kayak divers.
Now comes the actual fun part. The most important rule at this point is to keep everything attached to the kayak until it is securely attached to you. This includes knives, masks, and cameras, because most will sink quickly if they fall off the kayak. If you haven't already, put your fins on. You should put your fins on first and take them off last, because they give you a lot more stability and can help you get back in the kayak.
Your next step will be making sure your tank is on, inflating your BCD, and rolling it overboard (tethered to the kayak). Once you're in the water with your fins and mask, you can slightly deflate your BCD to put it on while in the water. Only detach the tether when your BCD is fully strapped to your body. Before you head down, make sure the gear remaining on the kayak is secured, and that your paddle is secured to the boat with its own strap.
Once you've finished your dive, getting back into the kayak should follow the opposite process. Tether your BCD to your kayak, slightly deflate it (to help get it off), and then remove it. Once you've removed the BCD, fully inflate it again. If you're wearing a weight belt, take it off before trying to get back in the kayak.
Keep your fins on to get back into the kayak. The most reliable way to get back on your kayak goes like this: use a few powerful fin kicks to get high up out of the water, and belly flop at a 45 degree angle across the top of your kayak. Be sure not to grab the other side of the kayak and roll it on top of your head. Smoothly roll around onto your butt, then pivot to a sitting position as you swing your feet up and over.
Getting your gear safely back into your boat can be a bit of a challenge too. Remember, it's far easier to roll/drag the tank and BCD back on the kayak than it is to lift it straight out of the water. Once everything is back aboard, double check the tightness of all your cargo straps and tethers and make sure nothing has come loose.
At this point, I recommend taking a few minutes to catch your breath, drink some water, and have a snack. Give yourself a pat on the back, and enjoy the scenery. Resist the urge to immediately pull up the anchor and start paddling, or trying to swap your tanks the minute you get back into the boat.
Here's a good video of one way to get in and out of your kayak.
Here are some things you should consider when you're kayak diving:
Mount a visible dive flag (not just an orange swim flag) on your kayak when you're diving. This is really important for two reasons: First, it'll help other boats see you and not run into your kayak. Secondly, the flag will let other boat captains and the Coast Guard know that they don't have a missing person on their hands when the see your empty kayak. You should also make sure someone knows your kayak diving plans, including how long you plan on being out in case something goes wrong. Attach a waterproof tag with your contact information and emergency contact information somewhere on your kayak. If you are separated from you kayak for any reason, the Coast Guard will know who to contact.
Avoid areas that have a high amount of boat traffic, and stay out of their way. Understand the basic ocean rules of the road to avoid irritating any boat operators. This is especially important if you decide to do any kayaking during dawn, dusk, or night hours. Use plenty of lighting to make sure you can be seen from far off.
Be really careful kayaking around Pearl Harbor. The area around that location is a Naval Defense Sea Area, and the Naval Security Forces do not take kindly to people straying into the wrong areas. Double check the NOAA navigation charts to see where to avoid.
Safety Considerations With Scuba
Remember, vigorous exercise, before, during or after your dive, can contribute to decompression injuries. Plan your trip to avoid strenuous paddling, keeping in mind that strong currents, winds, and surf conditions may cause unexpected exertion. To mitigate this risk, you should be well-rested prior to your dive trip, use a conservative dive plan, give yourself some extra time on your safety stop, and be mindful of your dive profile. As always, check the water conditions and always maintain a healthy respect of ocean dangers; if in doubt, don't go out!
Dehydration and significant fatigue can also contribute to decompression injuries. Be well hydrated before your trip, and make sure you bring plenty of water onboard your kayak. I also recommended bringing some high-energy snacks (like trail-mix or snack bars) and an electrolyte drink (like Gatorade or Liquid IV) with you. If you get burned out during your trip, the snacks and drink can be a lifesaver.
Happy diving! If you have any questions or comments on this article, contact us at email@example.com
- Scuba Steve
AUTHOR'S NOTE: We received no compensation or endorsement for the links in this article. They're posted here purely because we think they're great resources!