Hanauma Bay Snorkeling

Oahu’s prime snorkel spot

Hanauma Bay is known as Oahu’s premier spot for snorkeling because of its crystal clear water and spectacular marine life. Local residents and tourists alike come here to enjoy swimming with the fish and to see a living coral reef. The bay is home to more than 450 species of tropical fish, including the Hawai‘i state fish, the humuhumunukunukuapuaa, and the Hawaiian green sea turtle. Between 20 to 30 percent of these fish exist only in the Hawaiian Islands.

Hanauma BayMany visitors say that being underwater in Hanauma Bay is like swimming in an aquarium. This underwater world is full of colorful fish, which live in and around the coral reef. When the sun is shining, the reef looks beautiful and in some spots it is shining in all different kinds of colors, like yellow, pink, purple, brown and black.

While being underwater, one can even hear the fish eat. They swim up to the reef and bite off the algae that grow on it. The fish here aren’t afraid of humans and don’t swim away when they see people. Some are so curious they swim right up to ones mask.

Not a beach park but a nature preserve

The bay is a nature preserve that became the first Marine Life Conservation District in the state in 1967. But over the last several decades, Hanauma Bay has experienced overuse by humans. During peak periods, there were as many as 10,000 visitors in the bay daily or about 3 million visitors annually. This has led to rules and regulations in order to protect the fragile marine ecosystem.

In 1990, the City and County of Honolulu laid out a plan that would reduce the number of visitors, stop the neglect, restore the bay to a healthy state and safeguard the fragile marine life in the future. The plan included a fish feeding ban, an educational video to be watched by every visitor, a smoking ban and the prohibition of fishing and alcoholic beverages.

Since 1999, visitors haven’t been allowed to feed the fish. There are several reasons for this ban. One of the reasons is that the fish got away from what they eat naturally. Also, feeding the fish contributed to water pollution and changed fish behavior, as some fish started biting people because they associated the snorkelers with food.

Before entering the beach, visitors can learn more about Hanauma Bay and its history, the coral reef and the marine animal population in the Marine Education Center, which opened in 2002. All visitors are required to watch a 9-minute educational video. In that video, people learn about the formation of the bay, ways to protect the reef, some of the bay’s fish and safety tips.

As a result of these regulations, the number of visitors dropped from 10,000 to 3,000 visitors daily or about 1 million per year. The main reason for this decrease is that the number of visitors allowed to enter was greatly limited.

The bay’s history

Hanauma Bay has a long history. The word “Hanauma” is an ancient Hawaiian word that can have several meanings. “Hana” refers to a bay or valley. “Uma” can either refer to a curve, handwrestling, or the stern of a canoe. Three possible translations for Hanauma Bay could therefore be: curved bay, handwrestling bay, or canoe stern bay. In the past, Hanauma Bay was known as a good fishing spot for alii, the Hawaiian royalty. In times of rough weather, the bay provided a safe haven for canoeists who were on their way from Honolulu to Molokai.

Hanauma Bay was created when strong ocean currents broke the seaward side of a volcanic crater and flooded the crater floor. Within the following thousands of years, the ocean’s erosive force collapsed the seaward crater wall and a huge reef and white-sand beach formed at the head of the bay.

The reef in the bay is a fringing reef, which grows out from the beach and slopes off into deeper waters. Although it looks like stone, coral is a living animal that grows slowly over the years. The oldest coral in the bay is dated at 7,000 years old, and the youngest corals are growing out towards the ocean near the mouth of the bay. The bay’s coral reef extends about 300 meters offshore and prevents big waves from reaching the beach.

Night diving in the bay

A thrilling experience for the more experienced snorkeler or diver is to snorkel or dive in the dark. This is possible every Saturday, as the park is open until 10 p.m. If visitors don’t already have a waterproof flashlight, they can rent a big one for $10. During the night, different fish come out and it is even possible to see octopus. It’s a whole different experience to swim in pitch black water over the dark reef, equipped with only a flashlight.

For safety reasons, it is best to night dive with a buddy and to always stay close together as the waves and current can be strong, and it is easier to lose orientation. Also, if one does this for the first time, it is better to stay closer to the shore. The view is awesome, not only under water, but also the night sky above. And because there are usually other people diving in the dark with their flashlights, it looks like there are stars in the sky and in the ocean.

Other attractions in this nature preserve are the Toilet Bowl, a natural pool in a lava rock, and Witches Brew, a rocky point on the bay’s edge where incoming waves crash with the cliff.

What to be cautious of

Despite the fact that many people come to Hanauma Bay to enjoy themselves in the water and to have fun, drownings have happened in the past. According to the lifeguards, who work at the bay, a lot of people get in trouble because they are inexperienced ocean swimmers who underestimate the power of strong waves and currents. Many of them are first-time snorkelers, older people, or people who don’t wear fins or who haven’t made themselves familiar with their equipment. Not all of them drown immediately, but experience distress and struggle to get back to land. Over the year, the lifeguards help hundreds by paddling out on their surfboards. According to the lifeguards, the major threat for humans in the bay is not the reef or a marine animal, but the inexperienced swimmers themselves.

Another thing to be cautious of is the coral reef. It is very sharp and one should avoid kicking or touching it as this might cause lacerations or destroy the coral. If one gets cut, one should wash the wound with soap and fresh water as a first aid because there can still be pieces of coral and bacteria in the wound. It is also good to apply an antibiotic ointment.

First-time visitors sometimes wonder if there are sharks in Hanauma Bay and if they are a threat to humans. There are some sharks in the bay, even though it is a popular tourist attraction. However, the sharks in Hanauma Bay are reef sharks and are only about 4 feet long. They don’t feed on humans and there has never been any shark attack in the bay.

Park facilities

A lot of people who come to the bay also enjoy lying on the beach and having a picnic after they come back from their snorkel trips. Park facilities include restrooms, showers, picnic areas, snorkel rental, locker rental, tram service, lost and found, phones, a gift shop and a snack bar.

The admission fee for non-residents is $7.50 per person for 13 years or older. There is no fee for children under 13, local residents and military stationed in Hawaii with proper ID. The parking fee is $1 per car and the price to rent a snorkel set is $12. The tram to the beach is $2 (all-day ticket) or $1 for a single ticket down and $1.25 for a single ticket up. Or you can walk and save this money. The road is paved and it takes only a few minutes to get down to the beach. You can also rent a locker on the beach for $7.

The park is open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. during the summer (April – September) and from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the winter (October – March). Currently, the park is closed on Tuesdays.