Adventure

Big island

On Hawai'i, the Edges of Earth expedition team dives with the Big Island's living legends.

Words by Andi Cross
Photographs by Adam Moore & Marla Tomorug

“It all started with our Volkswagon van,” Teri reminisced as we sat together at the Honokohau small boat harbour. “We had five sets of scuba gear that we were running out of that thing, taking people on shore dives. It wasn’t until 1983 that we got our very first boat called the Blue Dolphin. We’ve come a long way since then.” As she walked us through tales of getting started, we couldn’t help but think about what life must have been like then. Big Island, Hawaiʻi present day was a sight to behold—so it must have been that much more spectacular four decades ago. 

Teri and Jeff Leicher were humble when talking about their substantial contributions to Kona’s diving community. Yet their conversations revealed a wealth of unparalleled stories and experiences few on the planet could ever claim. Their journey, filled with remarkable moments both above and below the water, made it clear that their passion was, and always will be the Big Island. Over the past 40+ years, this deep-seated love has driven them to not only spotlight this place as a premier diving destination but also ensure it remains safe, accessible, and sustainable for future generations of divers.

In 1981, Jack Clothier, a pioneering dive instructor, along with his wife Tina, established Jack’s Diving Locker on Big Island. Jack, already a well-known figure for his role in popularising diving in Hawaiʻi during the 70s, became a local legend. The launch of their dive shop, cheekily branded with the motto ‘Have a Wet Dream Come True’, sparked a significant movement in USA-based diving. This development attracted enthusiasts from around the globe to Hawaiʻi, especially to Big Island, eager to see it all for themselves. 

The accessibility of scuba diving to a broader audience began to materialise in the late 60s and early 70s, with the establishment of professional associations like PADI and SSI. It was during this period of growing mainstream interest that individuals such as Jack, Tina, Jeff, and Teri were seeing their dive careers take off. Tragically, Jack’s sudden passing from an aneurysm during a jog, just eight months after opening the shop, led Jeff and Teri to step in and begin managing operations. Eight years later, they officially took over from Tina, transforming Jack’s Diving Locker into one of the most sought after dive shops in all of Hawaiʻi. 

“How did it all begin for me? Well, it was when I was six years old. I was inspired by a TV show called Sea Hunt and I decided that I wanted to scuba dive for the rest of my life,” Jeff shared as he smiled looking back on his early choices while we let the sun set around us at the harbor. “I was growing up in Sacramento and my dad bought us a scuba tank from the Sears catalog! We started practicing in the backyard pool and nearby river. By 16, I was diving the local lakes and rivers and I was hooked.” 

Jeff’s first visit to Hawaiʻi during his college years marked a pivotal moment in his life, leading him to exchange the temperate Californian waters for Hawaiʻi’s tropics. By 1976, under Clothier’s mentorship, Jeff became a certified scuba instructor, laying the foundation for a lasting friendship. It wasn’t too long after his training that Jeff and Teri met. When we asked him what it was about Teri, he recalled the moment he fell for her. “I asked her if she wanted to go see sharks on a dive and she said yes. It was right then that I knew she was the one,” However, at this point Jeff hadn’t seen a single shark on the 1,000+ dives he had done. 

Jeff and Teri have devoted their shared lives to evolving Jack’s Diving Locker from its humble beginnings into a flourishing operation it is today. It now boasts five boats, two storefronts, and a dedicated staff of about 50, catering to a diverse range of divers – from the most seasoned to novices. Not to mention, they’ve attracted a roster of celebrities, with the Grateful Dead even playing an instrumental role in their growth. In the late 1980s, Jerry Garcia became a frequent diver, logging 500 dives with Jeff and Teri, and his bandmates soon followed suit. In fact, this group of unlikely people became forever friends. 

The story of how Jerry Garcia “saved the day” is one that both Jeff and Teri were excited to look back on. Not just because of their long-time friendship with this classic rock legend, but because this was another inflection point for the pair. No longer were they just operating dives, but they were becoming instrumental in the policies and best practices put in place on the Big Island when it comes to diving, conservation and marine habitat and species protection. 

Teri and Jeff were driven by a mission to safeguard Big Island’s untouched reefs from the damage caused by boat anchors. Seeking expertise, they consulted Teri’s father, a Naval Scientist based on Oahu, and turned their attention to Florida’s pioneering approach of using pins and moorings as an alternative to anchoring directly on the reef. Supported by the University of Hawaiʻi, they embarked on an experimental project installing pins into the lava to test the efficacy of their reef protection method. They secured a verbal approval from governmental authorities to proceed, marking the beginning of their innovative conservation effort.

As their conservation project gained momentum, Jeff and Teri faced legal challenges. Accused of unauthorised drilling to install the pilot buoy system, they appeared before the Land Board. In a pivotal court appearance, Jerry Garcia, along with the Kona Boating community and State Legislators, passionately advocated for the project’s approval, highlighting its potential for reef protection. The couple not only received a pardon but Jerry & The Grateful Dead, via THE REX FOUNDATION, made the first financial donation to help expand their efforts.

This pioneering initiative in Hawaiʻi led to the creation of the non-profit, Malama Kai Foundation, which has worked diligently in the  widespread adoption of (the Statewide Day Use Mooring Buoy systems), now a standard across the state. Today, with over 90 moorings installed along the Kona coast, Jeff, Teri, Jack’s Diving Locker and a dedicated team of volunteers continue to oversee the maintenance of this system, establishing a new benchmark for responsible and sustainable diving practices.

There was another side to diving with Jeff and Teri that took the world by storm and that was their flagship offering: night diving with mantas. Teri recalled, “We took Keller out on his first Manta Dive in 1985. A few years later, Keller and his wife Wendy joined the JDL team. Keller was wowing people both topside and underwater. His energy and enthusiasm became focused on learning about and protecting the manta rays. At the time, there was little information available about these animals. Keller became the Manta Man, and he never looked back.” And that was the exact experience we had diving with Keller Laros as well. 

It was shortly after he started working for Jack’s Diving Locker that Keller was identifying mantas on the dives, documenting his sightings. And 32 years later the ‘Manta Man’ is still at it. He established the nonprofit, Manta Pacific Research Foundation, with a focus on manta research, education and conservation. Tethering the nonprofit to the work of Jack’s Diving Locker, the two teams started to gather significant data on the manta ray population of the Big Island, ensuring that best practices were put in place to keep their tourism as sustainable as possible. 

From the outset, Keller has been instrumental in leading the manta identification project, a critical endeavour in the study of Kona’s manta ray population that has contributed heavily to marine research. This project has successfully cataloged over 300 individual manta rays and over 10,000 sightings – with new discoveries being added to its records regularly. 

In 2002, Keller collaborated with Jeff and Teri on a manta tracking expedition that shed light on the mantas’ movement patterns, habitat preferences and feeding behaviours. The research expanded in 2008 to include a more sophisticated laser measurement approach, which added to a growth study of the manta rays. In addition to this, he’s conducted periodic assessments of the manta rays’ economic impact on the region, highlighting their significant role in fostering sustainable tourism and benefiting the local economy. 

From the conservation side of things, efforts have been critical – from distributing tour participant guidelines to advocating for the protection of manta rays under international and local laws. Their efforts contributed to the IUCN listing of manta rays as a vulnerable species in 2005 and the initiation of legislation in Hawaiʻi that prohibits harming mantas in state waters. The nonprofit has also provided crucial economic data to various conservation initiatives, including the Manta Ray of Hope project in 2011, and played a pivotal role in the CITES awareness campaigns in 2013 that led to increased global protection for manta rays.

By 2012, the team started to facilitate meetings and draft standards for manta tour operators in Hawaiʻi, with heavy emphasis on a commitment to sustainable tourism. And today, this is still the focus for Manta Pacific Research Foundation and Jack’s Diving Locker. “Even back in the 80s there was a noticeable difference between diving the reefs of Oahu versus Big Island,” Jeff explained. “Kona was pristine back then, and today, we have an obligation to keep it that way.” 

Upon touchdown, the team included us in a community-led pier clean up, alongside the Ocean Defender Alliance team. From 8am – 12pm on a Saturday, 60 volunteers came out to participate in the clean, with most being local residents. We used one of Jeff’s boats to lift 12 fully intact tires out of the ocean, with another team shore diving in search for meso plastics. It was just another example of this community giving back in every way possible.

We could see the passion in Jeff’s eyes as he talked about the role diving and mantas have played in his life. “We owe a lot to these mantas, and to the ocean for that matter. We want to constantly be giving back because if it weren’t for this, we would not be here.” Teri, Jeff and Keller are acutely aware of their unique responsibility that comes with the popularity of the manta night diving tour that they put on the map. Especially now that 50 companies are eagerly awaiting permits to conduct similar dives in 2024. Presently, the educational component of their work is firing on all cylinders to ensure that human safety and ocean integrity remain top priorities—just as they have been for the last 40+ years. 

When asking Jeff what his advice was for people like us, who are just beginning their journeys in the world of ocean exploration, conservation and diving, his choice of words did not disappoint: “Choose to spend your time with people who have been doing this a lot longer, who align with your values and comfort level. While the thrill of perceived risk can be what brings you into this community, the true reward lies more so in taking action. Immerse yourself in the extraordinary sights the underwater world has to offer, and then spend the rest of your life protecting it.” 

 

Photographs by Adam Moore & Marla Tomorug

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