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Hawaii: Snorkeling Anyone? A Guide to Your Safe and Fun Underwater Adventure

I go to the Hilo orchid show each year. There's hardly any more room for orchids in my house but I can’t help myself from getting more!

Bluespine Unicornfish (named for the small horn on its head) is often spotted by snorkelers in Hawaii.

Bluespine Unicornfish (named for the small horn on its head) is often spotted by snorkelers in Hawaii.

Taking a trip to Hawaii soon? Don’t forget to pack your snorkel gear! The Hawaiian Islands are famous for their lush, stunning tropical landscape. However, if you only spend time exploring the land, you will miss the other half of Hawaii: the equally spectacular underwater scenery, flora and fauna!

Hawaii has one of the most unique and diverse marine ecosystems on Earth. Snorkeling gives you an opportunity to see this magical underwater world! You’ll be surrounded by schools of colorful fish and coral of all sizes and shapes. Many of these amazing marine critters are considered endemic - they exist only in Hawaii and nowhere else on the planet!

Snorkeling is fun and easy. Unlike scuba diving, you don’t need to take a course or get certified to become a snorkeler. Of course, I could just be some schmuck—why should you trust my advice about snorkeling in Hawaii?

Why You Should Trust Me

I'm an avid snorkeler. My favorite reef fish is the Moorish Idol which has a light gold body marked with black bands, an orange snout, and long graceful filament on its dorsal fins.

I take all of my photos with an Olympus TG-630 digital underwater camera. All of these photos are my original work!

So, put on your mask and fins, slip into the water and enjoy! But first, let’s take a look at some safety tips and snorkeling etiquette.

Snorkeling Basics

Here are the major Dos and Don’ts that you should know, whether you’re an experienced or first-time snorkeler. Follow these “golden rules” of snorkeling, you will help protect yourself and the marine environment.

Five Don'ts

  1. Don’t stand on coral. Don’t touch them with your hands. Avoid accidentally kicking them with your fins while snorkeling. Corals are complex and extremely fragile marine invertebrates. It takes decades for them to grow and form a healthy reef.
  2. Don’t use sunscreen that contains oxybenzone. Scientists have confirmed that this chemical (commonly used in sunscreen lotions/sprays, soaps, and cosmetics) is highly toxic to coral reefs. It kills baby coral and contributes to coral bleaching and deformity. Also, slathering on too much sunscreen will leave a trail of oily film in the water wherever you snorkel. It’s like a mini oil spill disaster!
  3. Don’t touch or pick up anything. That cute little starfish or pretty seashell may have a harmful or even deadly defense mechanism that could hurt you!
  4. Don’t feed fish and other marine animals. Use your common sense: you’re in the ocean and these creatures are wild. They are NOT your aquarium pets!
  5. Don’t harass marine animals. In Hawaii, it’s illegal to chase, ride or grab sea turtles in water (or on land). They are protected by both State and Federal laws. Fines can be as high as $25,000 and may include a year in prison. The same goes with the rare and endangered Hawaiian monk seal. Consider yourself very lucky if you encounter a Hawaiian monk seal while snorkeling. It looks adorable but it also can bite! You should leave it alone, just swim away or get out of the water. It’s for your safety and the animal’s protection.
Top: Hawaiian monk seal at Waikiki Aquarium. Bottom: Green sea turtle, affectionately called "honu" by Hawaiian residents.

Top: Hawaiian monk seal at Waikiki Aquarium. Bottom: Green sea turtle, affectionately called "honu" by Hawaiian residents.

5 Dos

  1. Do swim slowly and quietly. You’re snorkeling, not Michael Phelps racing for another Olympic gold medal! Keep your arms close to your side. Let your body glide through the water. Avoid excessive kicking of your legs and fins. All that splashing and thrashing will scare the fish away. Not to mention you may attract…sharks!
  2. Do use 100% natural & biodegradable sunscreen. There are several reef-safe sunscreen products available on the market. Alternatively, consider wearing a UV-protection swim shirt or a short wet suit. The shirt or suit will block the sun's rays, and also keep you warm in the water so you can spend more time snorkeling.
  3. Do keep a safe distance from all marine life. Again, this is common sense. It’s not fun getting rushed to the ER with a gaping bite wound because you got too close to a moray eel for an underwater selfie!
  4. Do pick up plastic trash or fishing line floating in the water. Sea turtles eat plastic bags (mistaken for jellyfish - their favorite food!) and choke themselves to death. Take the initiative to become your own marine environmental steward and help keep the ocean clean and enjoyable for all.
  5. Do report bad guys. If you see other snorkelers breaking off pieces of coral for souvenirs, feeding fish, or harassing a sea turtle, please call them out and let them know these activities are dangerous and/or illegal in Hawaii. You have the right to do so. And report the incident to a lifeguard or a marine conservation officer on the beach.

More Snorkeling Tips

  • Snorkel with a friend. Keep an eye out for each other and it’s also more exciting to spot a humuhumunukunukuapua’a (Hawaii state fish) together!
  • Use swim noodles to help staying afloat while snorkeling, especially if you’re not a good swimmer or if you get tired easily.
  • Morning is the best time for snorkeling. You will see more fish because they are more active after a long night of hiding in coral and rocks.
  • Clear, calm, sunny day is best. Avoid snorkeling after a rain shower! Fresh rain water doesn’t mix well with salt water, resulting in a “wavering” cloudy effect which means poor visibility.
  • Watch out for strong currents or surf breaks. When in doubt, check with a lifeguard (or ask fellow snorkelers) for ocean conditions and a safe area for snorkeling.
  • Buy a guide book on Hawaii fish identification to help you recognize different species of fish you see. It’s fun and educational!
  • Buy a waterproof camera and learn how to take underwater photos or videos. Jacques Cousteau would be proud of you!

Some Well-Known Snorkeling Destinations in Hawaii

Hanauma Bay (Oahu) – undoubtedly the MOST famous place to snorkel in Hawaii. Designated as a Nature Preserve and Underwater Park, it gets an average of 3,000 visitors a day! There’s an entrance fee and you’re required to watch a short video about marine conservation and safety rules before entering the water. This park is perfect for both beginners and experienced snorkelers.

Sharks Cove (Oahu) – located on the North Shore, this rocky beach park is popular with locals and tourists. Lots of fish in the shallow reef (4-6 feet deep). Eel and octopus are frequently spotted. Interesting underwater rock formations and small caves can be found in the deeper areas. Don’t swim outside the cove, the current may be strong and you get tossed around by big waves.

Molokini Crater (Maui) – snorkel tour boats are the only way to get to this fantastic snorkeling location: a submerged volcanic crater just off the southern coastline of Maui. Crystal clear water allows you to see down 10-50 feet depth. Also a very popular scuba diving spot. Whitetip reef sharks and manta rays are commonly sighted. During whale season (Nov-Feb), you may hear the singing of humpback whales reverberating through the water while you snorkel.

Hanauma Bay offers pristine marine ecosystem - a snorkeler's heaven!

Hanauma Bay offers pristine marine ecosystem - a snorkeler's heaven!

A school of Convict Tangs and Brown Surgeonfish in the shallow reef.

A school of Convict Tangs and Brown Surgeonfish in the shallow reef.

Whitemouth Moray Eel often pokes its head out of the coral and peers curiously at snorkelers!

Whitemouth Moray Eel often pokes its head out of the coral and peers curiously at snorkelers!

Honolua Bay (Maui) – large sheltered bay (part of Honolua-Mokule’ia Marine Life Conservation District) offers calm water for snorkeling. However, access can be a little tricky because you have to walk (wear your reef shoes!) on slippery rocks along the shoreline to enter the water. Lots of sea turtles, sea cucumbers, and cheerful schools of yellow tangs!

Captain Cook Monument (Big Island) – you can take a long hike (3.5-mile each way) or a quick snorkel boat trip to get to this legendary snorkeling/scuba diving location. Gorgeous coral reef teeming with sea life! Excellent visibility. Don’t venture too far from the shoreline, you might freak out with the reef’s sheer vertical drop off into the blue abyss! A resident pod of Spinner dolphins often spotted playing in the cove.

Kapoho Tide Pools (Big Island) – officially known as Wai’opae Tidepools Marine Life Conservation District, this protective reef area features a series of interconnecting tidal pools and lagoons. Some of the pools are quite shallow, others are deeper, ideal for snorkeling. Incredible variety of coral and huge schools of fish (convict tangs and raccoon butterflyfish). During high tide, you can swim from one pool to another. At low tide, you will have to get out of the water, walk to the next pool, and hop back in. Be careful with your bare hands and feet, there are numerous spiny sea urchins lurking in the lava rock! (Note: Kapoho tide pools have been completely destroyed on June 5, 2018 by a massive lava flow from the ongoing Kilauea volcano eruption.)

Poipu Beach Park (Kauai) – this park can get super crowded because of the two picturesque crescent-shaped beaches that are always packed with beachgoers. Get there early! Plenty of sea turtles and fish in the shallow reef just off the beaches. Occasionally a Hawaiian monk seal will appear out of nowhere and haul itself onto the sand to rest. Do not disturb the animal, stay at least 150 feet away from it! Remember, it’s a felony (and a very large fine!) if you get caught harassing or causing harm to a Hawaiian monk seal.

Questions & Answers

Question: Do you have any recommendations on identification books?

Answer: I recommend "Hawaii's Fishes: A Guide for Snorkelers and Divers" by John Hoover. I've used this guidebook for many years. It's available online as well as at any bookstore or snorkel/dive shop in Hawaii.

© 2017 Viet Doan


bun cha Ha Noi from My quiet corner on December 11, 2017:

Those photos are top quality (great focus/light). Absolutely awesome! Keep posting. Love the Dos and Don'ts, especially the Michael Phelps' joke :-) Hope to be back to the Big island one day for some snorkeling.

Viet Doan (author) from Big Island, Hawaii on November 13, 2017:

Aloha Mary! Glad you enjoy the article. I do hope you will get to snorkel in Hawaii one day. Yes, that fish name is quite long! It's a gorgeous fish but also one of the most difficult to take picture of because it swims really fast! I still don't have a good photo of it.

Mary Wickison from USA on November 13, 2017:

I would love to do this one day. You've given some excellent advice about what to do and not do.

That Hawaiian fish sure has a mouthful of a name.

As always your images are fantastic.

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