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The Beauty of Snorkeling at Hanauma Bay Oahu Hawaii

Updated on April 12, 2015
Hanauma Bay is my favorite place in Oahu for snorkeling and spending a day at the beach.
Hanauma Bay is my favorite place in Oahu for snorkeling and spending a day at the beach. | Source

When I first moved to Hawaii, I had certain expectations of what it would be like. I pictured pleasant coves of tropical water, coral reefs, snorkeling, palm trees and a beach that I could, well...call “home”. Basically, I wanted that beach to be my go-to place when I needed to unwind and disappear from the real world and just enjoy everything that living in paradise could offer.

I found my place on my third week on the islands when I first visited Hanauma Bay.

Note: Since I originally published this article I have been back to Hanauma Bay many, many times. It still remains my favorite place on the Oahu to snorkel and it never gets old. The scenery, the people, and all of the marine life really make for a wonderful experience. I've found that many people feel that it is too touristy, but if you're a social animal then Hanauma Bay snorkeling is a great place.

That be me!  World Class Snorkeler!
That be me! World Class Snorkeler! | Source

History of Hanauma Bay

While ancient Hawaiians most likely fished in the bay, it is unlikely that any lived in the area due to the lack of fresh water. Still, during an excavation in the 1950’s there was a cave discovered that had the remnants of old fishing tools and campfires.

The Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve was established after many years of abuse of the reef and bay by both tourists and the Hawaiian people. While Hanauma Bay and its snorkeling and marine life have always been a highly visited tourist destination on Oahu, there was very little regulation for what could or could not take place for many years.

The reef was so disrespected that at one time that it was actually blasted apart with explosives to make more open area for Hawaiians and tourists to swim. Another example is when a telephone company was allowed to build and lay wire and cable in and around the bay.

Did You Know?

The Hawaiian word for Bay is “hana” and the word for curved is “uma”. There you have you’re Hanauama Bay. So, while curved bay bay doesn’t sound right, most people won’t know the translation and it sounds better for visitors and on maps!

Even today, if you visit enough, you’ll likely run into someone who has been visiting the bay for years and you'll hear tales of how families of tourists and natives would bring bags of frozen peas to feed the fish. This resulted in a near feeding frenzy of fish, eels and turtles that would actually cause the area of water to appear boiling caused by the fish flapping and trying to get some of the peas.


Important Safety Note:

Please be advised. While snorkeling at Hanauma Bay is one of the greatest experiences you may ever encounter, do not take the ocean lightly and/or overestimate your snorkeling/swimming/fitness capability. More people drown and die at Hanauma Bay than on any other beach in Hawaii. Much of this is due to the large volume of people who visit Hanauma and their inexperience snorkeling for long periods of time. BE SAFE!

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Hanauma Bay on the Map!

A markerHanauma Bay -
Hanauma Bay, Honolulu, HI 96825, USA
get directions

The Hanaum Bay Nature Preserve beach is open 6am to 6pm. The beach park is closed on Tuesdays

Some coral at Hanauma Bay.
Some coral at Hanauma Bay. | Source

Directions and Contact Information

Recorded Information Line

(808) 396-4229

Hours: 6:00 am to 6:00 pm (The park is closed on Tuesdays. No entry.)

Take H1 east from Waikiki till it ends & becomes Kalanianaole Highway for approximately 10 miles. Entrance to the preserve is on the right at the top of the hill just past the city of Hawaii Kai.

Of utmost importance, on most days, is that you get to Hanauma Bay early. If you arrive at the bay anytime after 9 or 9:30 am, then you run the risk of the parking lot being full. Believe me, if you're coming from any location west of Honolulu then it is a big bummer to get to Hanauma Bay and the parking lot being full.

On a brighter note, the parking attendants tend to open and close the full parking lot once 5 to 10 cars leave or arrive. In other words, you may drive to Hanauma Bay and discover the "Parking Lot Full" sign, but 10 minutes of driving around and then returning may result in a "Parking Lot Open" sign and then you can enter. Remember, parking at the Hanauma Bay parking lot is $1.

Hanauma Bay Today

After the establishment of the nature preserve, the conservation of the reef and the protection of the land and marine life in and around Hanauma Bay came into full effect.

The Bay is actually closed to guests on Tuesdays and the amount of access to the beach and snorkel area is limited on the rest of the days. Before entering, you will need to watch a 9 minute video that outlines the history of the bay (all the way back to the volcanic activity that formed it) to the establishment of the nature preserve. Much of the video is about safety and respect for the marine life and the coral. While some visitors still don’t listen those are few and far between.

There are pros and cons to having the "nature preserve" tag put on certain areas of Hawaii. The pros are that you get a clean, pristine beach with great snorkeling and a great experience as well as knowing that the marine life and coral are all well cared for and maintained. The con is that you are not supposed to collect pretty rocks and seashells, as well as there is no spear fishing allowed.

Snorkeling at Hanauma Bay

The snorkeling at Hanauma Bay is easy. These are probably the most tamed fish of all the islands. There are probably more fish in any one area in Hanauma Bay than I have seen yet.

You can rent your snorkel gearupon entering the beach area or bring your own. I would highly recommend bringing at least a disposable underwater cameraor an affordable non-disposable one with for your snorkeling. You’ll really regret it later if you don’t. All of my photos in this article were taken with the underwater camera below.

One of My Honu Experiences

On my trips to Hanauma Bay I have been able to take video or photos of green sea turtles, moray eels and more fish than I can even remember. The best part about the nature preserve, though, is that they want you to be educated about the marine life you’re seeing. At the information booth in the middle of the beach there are 4 large, full-color displays of the fish and other marine life that you may encounter at Hanauma Bay. These include spinner dolphins, humpback whales and monk seals. (I haven’t had the chance to see these yet but I plan on going to Hanauma plenty more times.)

This Green Sea Turtle swam by and waved.  I soon got the name "honu hawanawana" or turtle whisperer.
This Green Sea Turtle swam by and waved. I soon got the name "honu hawanawana" or turtle whisperer. | Source

Did You Know? Sea Turtles are one of only a few species that have been around long enough to see the dinosaurs grow to dominance on the earth, flourish and become extinct?

Green Sea Turtle

Hawaiian name: (Honu)

The sea turtle is so majestic and glides easily through the water. On both accounts that I have seen one (at Ko’Olina Lagoons) and Hanauma, I was amazed at how indifferent they were to people and myself being in the area; as though they were the most gracious host and we were all just sharing the ocean.

Green sea turtles are on the list of endangered species, though, so keep your distance and by no means bother the turtles. This is for the safety of the turtles and so that you don’t get arrested!

These are my favorite animals to see in the waters of Hawaii. If you do get a chance to see one you'll be amazed. I'm addicted to finding sea turtles anywhere I swim in Oahu now. I even gave myself the nickname: "Kenny Honu Hawanawana" or turtle whisperer.

Moray eels are not the prettiest things in the world.
Moray eels are not the prettiest things in the world. | Source

Moray Eels

Hawaiian name: (Puhi paka)

Some people will tell you that moray eels are gentle and mild. I disagree. Not only do they look ugly and mean but once I actually saw and photographed this specimen (a yellowmargin moray) slinking in and out of coral crevices at Hanauma Bay I did a little research and found that they are NOT the friendliest thing in the waters. Again, cool to see, great to photograph…keep a wide berth so that they don’t feel threatened and lash out.

Did You Know? The Humuhumu-nukunuku-apua’a I can grunt like a pig when taken out of the water or threatened? It’s a pretty cool fish!

The reeftrigger fish the is the state fish of Hawaii.
The reeftrigger fish the is the state fish of Hawaii. | Source

Reef Triggerfish

Hawaiian name: (Humuhumu-nukunuku-apua’a)

This is the state fish of Hawaii and is sometimes called the Picasso because of the beautiful and free-flowing colors. Reef Triggerfish can defend themselves against predators by darting into coral crevices, they then used their spined dorsal fins to lock and support each other to lock themselves in the crevice and prevent the predator from taking them.

Christmas Wrasse

Hawaiian name: (awela)

Aside from the Honu, the awela maybe my favorite fish to see at Hanauma Bay. This colorful specimen is rare to see on many snorkeling expeditions in Hawaii but you can see spot one pretty frequently if you spend any time in the water at Hanauma Bay. In the video attached you can see one pop into the screen at the 9 second mark. Watch the video the whole way through, though, I think you’ll enjoy it.

© 2014 Ken Muise

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