Snorkeling with the Masses at Hanauma Bay

“At Hanauma Bay,” the concierge at our Waikiki hotel told us, “you’ll see more people than fish.” She advised us to skip this popular Oahu snorkling destination and take a kayak or catamaran tour instead. But the tours were pricey and Hanauma Bay, a thirty minute drive southeast of downtown Honolulu, was only $7.50 each for my husband and me and free for our ten and eleven year old daughters. So, we decided to save some money and follow the masses. Besides, we figured there had to be a reason thousands of people visit this marine nature preserve every day; every day except Tuesday, that is, when the preserve is closed to give the fish a little peace and quiet.

Our concierge was right about the crowds, which had already descended upon Hanauma Bay and its parking lot by the time we showed up — thinking we were early — at 9am. We salvaged the morning with a hike up to nearby Makapu’u Point Lighthouse and a food truck lunch at Sandy Beach, and then managed to make it into the preserve on our second attempt around 1:30. By then, some of the early birds had left, freeing up space in the parking lot for another wave of visitors.

Yet as busy as it was on this Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Hanauma Bay receives far fewer visitors today than it did in the past. Prior to the late 1990’s, when the city of Honolulu took steps to address overcrowding, Hanauma regularly absorbed some 10,000 visitors per day. Now, no more than 2,000 people are permitted at a time and all visitors (3,000 on average each day) are required to watch a short film about the bay’s marine environment and proper snorkeling etiquette before they are allowed in the water. The Hanauma Bay Education Center also offers exhibits and additional information for those wishing to dive deeper into these and related topics.

Greenlighted for the beach, we exited the theater and headed down a paved road, the bay spread wide and blue below us. Tens of thousands of years ago, long before it teamed with fish, let alone tourists, Hanauma was born a crater in the center of a volcanic ash or “tuff” cone. Over time, ocean waves wore away and flooded over the seaward rim of the cone, creating the deeply curved bay that remains.

There was a kiosk on the beach with signs identifying the fish and knowledgeable volunteers  ready to answer all the questions I still had about Hanauma Bay and its marine life. But the girls were already making a beeline for the water, so I pulled on my mask and followed after them, letting them set the course over the shallow fringe reef, our bodies barely clearing the coral in some places.

Below us, fish fluttered about in an explosion of color and geometric design: elegantly plumed Moorish Idols, sunshine yellow Butterflyfish, Parrotfish in shades of iridescent green and blue, schools of black and white striped Convict Tangs and Hawaii’s state fish and my personal favorite, the solitary Reef Triggerfish — otherwise known as Humuhumunukunukuapuu’a — with its distinctive black, yellow and white color pattern and lips pursed for a kiss.

Near the outer edge of the inner reef, where the water was deeper, we came upon a sea turtle. Our ten-year old daughter spotted him first, letting out a muffled squeal through her snorkel. A Green Sea Turtle, or Honu, as they are known in Hawaiian, he was about three feet long, with a large oval shaped body and muscular flippers decorated in a greenish brown mosaic pattern. As we floated there watching him, he took small, slow bites of the algae growing among the coral, showing no signs of concern about either our presence or the waves that propelled him back and forth against the reef. With his heavily lidded eyes, long, flat beak, and slightly upturned mouth, he wore the expression of a reptilian grandfather, at once wise and benevolent.

We were not alone with these beautiful creatures, coming mask to mask with other snorkelers on more than one occasion. But by teaching over a million people each year about this world beneath the waves, Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve is helping to protect it. And despite what your concierge may tell you, at Hanauma Bay there are still far more fish than people. Masses of them.


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