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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Hawaii's Hanauma Bay State Underwater Park

Most times if you want to see swarming schools of tropical fish, and exotic marine life you’d better be prepared to burn up a couple of tanks of air and endure a long boat ride to an offshore reef or wreck. Or you can save yourself the cost of the boat ride and the SCUBA gear and simply walk down the beach at Hawaii’s Hanauma Bay. Crystal clear water, abundant marine life and a living coral reef mean Hanauma Bay is one of the premiere snorkeling destinations in the islands. A gently sloping beach fronts directly on the horseshoe shaped bay, formed in the remains of Koko Head Crater, an ancient cinder-cone volcano, now breached and filled with sea water. Within this half-mile-wide bay are one of the prettiest reefs and the most abundant fish life in Hawaii.

Courtesy USF&WS
Your first look at the bay will be on your trek down the crater’s rim from the parking lot. The reef and coral formations are strikingly visible in the turquoise waters. The walls of the bay rise sharply up from the calm water and the shores are rimmed with wide sandy beaches and glistening black lava rock formations. Attractions include the Toilet Bowl (prettier than it sounds), a natural pool in the inhospitable lava rock, and the Witches Brew, a rocky point on the bay’s edge where incoming ocean waves crash with spectacular foaming sprays over the break. It’s easy to see why Hanauma Bay was once considered the almost exclusive domain of Oahu’s elite.

Be forewarned, this is not an isolated and undiscovered secret known only to the hard-core snorkeling crowd. One of the primary attractions of Hanauma Bay is its accessibility. The park is an easy 30 minute drive from downtown Honolulu, which means that on a hot summer weekend, the water can be crowded with snorkelers. Hanauma is probably the most popular snorkeling spot on Oahu. But don’t despair, this is not all bad. The popularity of Hanauma Bay means that the bay’s vast and diverse marine animal population has become accustomed to humans. And because the bay is legally designated as a State Underwater Park and Conservation District, the marine life is protected, so fishing and spearing are prohibited.

The result? No sooner have you wet your toes in the warm Pacific waters than you are greeted by cruising schools of Blacktail Wrasse. Pull on your mask and snorkel and your underwater window is filled with Spectacled Parrotfish, Yellow Tangs, Hawaiian Sergeants, Moorish Idols, Pufferfish, Butterflyfish, and Bandit Angelfish. And in copious quantities. Take an underwater camera and your frame is filled with milling schools of tropical fish. Unlike many snorkeling destinations where the fish are skittish from infrequent human contact or spearfishing, Hanauma’s aquatic denizens are expert schmoozers. If you're used to catching only fleeting glimpses of scales and fins as startled critters beat a hasty retreat upon your arrival, you’ll be amazed at the welcome that awaits you here. You can get up close and personal with these guys. Fish, large and small, will swim right up to your mask and interact with you for an experience that is hard to match anywhere else on the islands. If you’re lucky--as we were the day we visited--you may see moray eels, spotted eagle rays, and the local favorite, green sea turtles. Many of the fish at Hanauma Bay are unique to the islands, so if you’re keeping score, this is the place to one-up your friends.

The bay is protected from the offshore winds and waves, so the sandy bottom is undisturbed, resulting in 40-plus-foot visibility. The bay floor is a combination of sand, living coral, and lava stone. The coral reef extends about 300 meters offshore and prevents any ocean surge from reaching the beach. A keyhole opening in the reef provides snorkelers access to the more open bay beyond the break. The keyhole is practically the only way through the reef for both humans and fish so it’s a great place to just hover in the water and watch the passing parade. Beyond the keyhole the waters are less protected from the ocean surge. The surge is generally light but is also variable and can catch the unaware and inexperienced snorkeler off guard. Being raked over sharp lava rock and coral is not a fun experience so use caution.

Which brings us to another point. Since this is a nature preserve, the emphasis is on protecting the environment and the marine animals. Feeding of the fish is discouraged--there are volunteers at the entrance areas who provide information on the detrimental effects of fish feeding. (But in one of the park’s incongruities, you can buy fish food at the beach concession stand.) Some of the larger fish have become quite aggressive and are expert at tearing fish food from divers’ hands. Care should also be taken in not walking on or touching the coral reef that covers much of the bay. Living coral is very fragile and careless touching can kill the reef.

Hanauma Bay State Underwater Park Park is open every day except Tuesdays from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. There is an entrance fee for non-residents; free if you have valid local identification. Masks, snorkels, and fins can be rented at a beachside concession stand. For information, including notices of occasional weather closures call (808) 396-4229. Use caution when walking on the rocky ledges where waves are breaking, particularly at the Witches Brew.

(This article originally appeared on Great Outdoor Recreation Pages (GORP.com))


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  2. Hanauma bay is awesome. So many beautiful fish. I Particularly like the parrotfish and humuhumunukunukuapua'a. The eels are interesting as well. There's a fee for parking and entry. Be sure to look your car and take valuables with you as the lot is known for theft. Here’s some photos from our visit to Hanauma Bay. https://lookintohawaii.com/hawaii/4187/hanauma-bay-nature-preserve-beach-park-beach-oahu-honolulu-hi

    Tom @ https://lookintohawaii.com