Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve: Best Snorkeling on Oahu, Hawaii
Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve
Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve is one of Oahu's favorite snorkeling spots. With shallow, protected waters, an informative video, and on-the-spot snorkel equipment rentals and instruction, it is perfect for beginning snorkelers. Barely more than 10 miles outside downtown Honolulu, it is easy to locate and has on-site parking, but is also accessible by using The Bus, Oahu's public transportation.
If you've visited Hanauma Bay in the past, it's time to visit again. After a decade of intense preservation and restoration efforts, this fragile ecosystem is blossoming. A new, award-winning Marine Education Center, opened in 2002, informs visitors about the bay's natural history and what they can do to protect and promote its well-being. This is not a recreational 'beach park,' so leave the beach balls at home. Instead, it is a nature preserve and educational center where you can experience rare marine life in its natural habitat.
Entering Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve
Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve has its own parking lot, but this lot tends to fill up quickly. Signs clearly mark the park's entrance, and, during busy times, officials at the top of the hill monitor the parking and deny vehicular access if the lot is full. If the parking lot is full, just drive around to find a parking spot along the road and continue to the park on foot. On-site parking is $1 per car and does not include re-entry.
Once you reach the bottom of the hill, if you're on foot, or find a parking space, if you are lucky, proceed to the ticket counter. Admission is $7.50 for the day, which does include re-entry. Children 12 and under, residents of Hawaii, and active duty military stationed in Hawaii do not have to pay an admission fee.
Whether you have to pay admission or not, the first time you visit Hanauma each year you must watch a short educational video. This video is part of the park's preservation efforts. It educates you about how the bay was formed, the types of fish found in the bay, and how to protect the reef (by not touching it!). When you purchase your admission, you receive a ticket for a specific movie time. The film is less than 15 minutes long, and you generally only have to wait until the next quarter-hour to watch it. If you even suspect you might return to Hanauma Bay within a year, sign a list stating you watched the film. When you return, the folks at the ticket counter can look you up and you can skip the movie. You can also re-enter during the same day without re-watching the movie if you get your hand stamped on your way out.
Snorkeling Hanauma Bay
To get from the movie theater to the beach, you must go further down the mountainside. You can either walk or take a shuttle. The shuttle costs $1 to go down, $1.50 to go up, or you can purchase an all-day pass for $3. I chose to walk both directions, but if you're carrying a lot of gear, it could be tricky.
Once you get to the bottom, take a minute to look at the informative panel with pictures and names of fish you're likely to encounter. The colorful signboard is located at the education booth/hut that you basically trip over on your way to the beach. At this booth, you can learn about the bay's wildlife. It is home to many different species, including some endangered species and others that live only in Hawaii. Angelfish, boxfish, parrot fish, grouper, goatfish, darftish, moray eels, moorish idols, green turtles, and many other types of marine life frequent the bay. Members of the education staff are well-informed and there to answer any questions about the area you may have. For a great preview of the fish you might see at Hanauma Bay, see this list of Hawaiian reef fish.
If you need to rent snorkel gear, go to the snorkel rental stand. The folks are more than happy to show you how to use the gear, so make sure to ask, if you're unfamiliar with its operation. Of course, you're welcome to bring your own snorkel equipment.
While snorkeling, make sure to avoid the marked dangerous areas. Red buoys on the far left and right of the bay mark dangerous channels you should avoid. Also, remember to avoid touching the reef. Coral is very sharp and will cut you. Also, touching the reef damages it - even areas that look like bare rock are home to algae that fish rely on for food. I saw several different people stand on, sit on, and generally touch the reef and I wanted to yell at them! The slightest touch from a human hand can kill a delicate coral, and even smooshing some algae has a negative impact on the ecosystem. Please don't be like these folks - remember to avoid touching the coral!
Also, do not attempt to feed the animals. Feeding animals can lead to dangerous overpopulation. By allowing the animals to only eat naturally-occurring food, the ecosystem can maintain a healthy balance. The fish poking at rocks may seem hungry to a human, but they are actually eating algae off the rock's surface. Don't harass the wildlife, either. In some cases, it is highly illegal. For example, I was lucky enough to see an endangered green sea turtle. If you have the same opportunity, remember you should not approach or disturb the animal. You don't have to run away if it comes toward you, but do not hassle it. I swam along behind the turtle to video it without disrupting its intended path.
Sea Turtle at Hanauma Bay
The educational video does a great job of explaining basic snorkeling safety, but if you haven't snorkeled before, there are a few things you need to take into account while planning your trip:
- Do not snorkel alone. Hanauma bay is generally safe, as long as you do not venture between the buoys that mark dangerous currents. However, you never know when you might cut yourself, catch a wave in your snorkel, or get caught by an unexpected current. Snorkel with a buddy, enter and exit the water with this person, and keep a visual on them at all times.
- Make sure to wear plenty of waterproof sunscreen. I get chilly in Pacific waters, even during the summer, so it can be easy to forget how direct the sun's rays are. Make sure to apply plenty of waterproof sunscreen at least 15 minutes before getting in the water.
- Do not ever touch the reef or harass the wildlife! I really cannot stress this enough.
Enjoy Hanauma Bay!
While it is a popular, and frequently crowded, spot, it is easy to enjoy Hanauma Bay. Restrooms, an outdoor shower, and water fountains are provided at the base of the hill, but there are no on the beach concessions. A small gift shop and concessions area is located at the top of the hill, but you can put your all-day admission to work and exit to have a picnic at the tables near the parking lot, or even leave the area altogether for a meal.
Hanauma Bay is perfect for beginning and intermediate snorkelers. If you are up for a more remote, and more challenging location, there are plenty of other spots on Oahu. I highly recommend checking out Shark Cove on the island's North Shore. But if you have the time - why not just snorkel everywhere?