If you want to hear humpback whales singing underwater, it's important to get the depth right.
Dive too deep and their calls grow mumbled and indistinct. Stay too close to the surface and other noises, like the splashing of nearby snorkelers or even the squeals of children playing on the beach, can overpower everything. And generally it's best to hold your breath, especially if you're using a Snuba regulator that's churning out Darth Vader impressions each time you inhale or exhale.
Hovering now above the sandy ocean floor, an arm's length or so from a vertical wall of black lava rock, I quit breathing for a moment into my Snuba regulator, a mouthpiece connecting me with 20 feet of tubing attached to an air tank floating on the surface, and marvel at the unmistakably clear sound of whale songs.
"That's the male whales serenading females," Demetrius Xenos, a guide for Maui-based Shoreline Snuba, told me during a later interview. "They're here purely to try and get chicks and make babies — the same thing the rest of the visitors are doing."
A certified dive master with 15 years of scuba experience, Xenos takes folks out regularly to try Snuba, so named for its mixture of snorkeling and scuba, at Kaanapali Beach's famous Black Rock, a large lava formation fronting the Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa.
"Snuba is basically scuba diving without all the hassles," Xenos explained. "It's going one step further than snorkeling, [and] you don't need to be certified, so you don't need to take any classes to try diving and get the experience of breathing underwater."
Shoreline Snuba first partnered with the Sheraton Maui in early 2012, offering the activity to Valley Isle visitors interested in a different view of the remarkable underwater structures at Black Rock, a longtime favorite for snorkelers, and a closer look at the attraction's vibrant coral formations and plentiful sea life.
"I loved it because I wasn't expecting to see that much since it's a Snuba excursion right off the shore," said Judd Barrington, a concierge at Lahaina-based Beach Activities of Maui.
"We saw turtles and all kinds of fish," he continued. "We also saw a couple of eagle rays, and there was even a monk seal hiding beneath one of the rocks, just kind of cruising there in close, which is really uncommon."
A terrific option for those who enjoy snorkeling but have been a little intimidated by the prospect of a scuba dive, Snuba enables folks to get a feel for the wonderful freedom of breathing underwater without some of the equipment, which can weigh up to 40 pounds, or safety issues involved with scuba diving.
And Shoreline does regular free demonstrations in the Sheraton Maui pool for visitors looking to try Snuba even before hitting the ocean.
"We recommend it to a lot of parents that want to take kids who aren't old enough to scuba dive just yet," Barrington said of Shoreline's Black Rock ocean experience. "Even if you're not comfortable going underwater, it's fine to stay at the surface as long as you'd like. There are 5-year-old kids that go out with their dads, and they'll just stay at the surface while dad dives up to 20 feet."
Not long after the early 2012 launch of its partnership with Shoreline Snuba, the Sheraton Maui Resort emerged from a four-month, $6.5 million overhaul to each of the 23-acre property's 508 rooms, many of which are located just a few hundred yards from Black Rock: a sacred place known to Hawaiians as Puu Kekaa.
"The renovation was done to really refresh the look and feel of the guestrooms," said Tetsuji Yamazaki, general manager at the Sheraton Maui, adding that warm Hawaii colors, textiles and prints were used throughout. "The decor, the paint, the carpet and the furniture were all updated, and we added WiFi to all the rooms."
According to Mary Alice Moyer, a travel planner working for Now Voyager Travel in Huntington Beach, Calif., the rooms at the Sheraton Maui, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2013, feature a far cleaner look today.
"They're also making very good use of space in the rooms," she continued. "The new furniture and how it's positioned just gives them a much roomier feel. They've really done an excellent job."
For Moyer, the Sheraton Maui's location and property layout have long been especially helpful selling tools.
"Being at the upper end of Kaanapali Beach, the property feels somewhat remote, and you don't feel like you're in the middle of too much foot traffic," she said. "It's also a large property and can accommodate a lot of people, but you don't feel mobbed at all, [and] everybody really has their own space."
Opened in 1963, the Sheraton Maui was the first major Hawaii resort built on a Neighbor Island and, perhaps more impressively, has been a Sheraton property since day one. Business was brisk at the hotel in 2012, according to Yamazaki, and the forecast is for more growth this year.
"The good thing is that we're seeing an increase in flights," he told me, adding that most of the hotel's guests travel from the U.S mainland. "One example is that Hawaiian Airlines is doubling its direct flights from Los Angeles to Maui this summer, and that's great news."
One long-standing Sheraton Maui tradition that hasn't changed much over the past 50 years is the property's cliff diving, or Lele Kawa, ceremony. Honoring the great Maui chief Kahekili's legendary dive from Black Rock to prove his spiritual strength, the hotel's nightly ritual begins just before sunset with the blowing of a conch shell, followed by the lighting of torches across the property and up a narrow trail to the summit of Puu Kekaa, where the diver makes a flower lei offering to the ocean before plunging into the surf.
"I really enjoy the dive there at Black Rock," said Moyer, who makes a point of mentioning the ceremony to clients. "Particularly for people who have not been to the Islands before, that is something that gets them all atwitter because they really think, 'This is Hawaii!'"
and see www.shorelinesnuba.com
for more information. The Black Rock Snuba experience is $95 per person.