Last week I shared my trip up the Koko Head “stairs” which affords a lovely view of Hanauma Bay. I thought this week we’d get back in the water.
Likely the most hyped snorkeling spot on the island of Oahu, I’ve learned a few things about this beautiful underwater park over the past 18 months. Undoubtedly this is one of the most breathtaking bays on any of the Hawai’ian islands. But there are conditions that make it better on some days than others. And what most people don’t realize, snorkeling here isn’t a passive activity. It has challenges and dangers.
This visit was one of the more stunning. The sun brilliant, the tide high and the water calm. We got there earlier in the day, about 8am. But, as the park opens at 6am, there were people leaving as we arrived! We knew to be early as the parking lot closes when all spaces are filled and will only reopen when visitors leave and make room. We have gone on days when the lot was closed. We drove past the entrance to a look-out point and parked. Wil ran down the hill and waited until they removed the “Lot Closed” sign and called me to bring the car. It’s a system that works, but not the most fun.
The entrance fee is only $7.50 and kids under 12 (as well as Hawai’i residents) are free so it’s a hugely popular location. Formed within a volcanic cone that collapsed to reveal the bay, the city of Honolulu eventually saw to protective measures for the fragile ecosystem. We watch an educational video once every 12 months and state officials give the fish a break and close the park every Tuesday. A history and overview of the park describes the steps taken to keep this place breathtaking and accessible. All a reminder that we are stewards of the beautiful world God has entrusted to us. Unfortunately, with 3000 visitors every day, damage is done. The reef close to shore showed the evidence of years of abuse. Fish don’t seem to mind and there is still all manner of marine life. But I was surprised by the lack of colour and vibrancy. To this day people walk all over the reef. I watch people put on their fins to protect their feet as they waddled out on the water crushing all of the delicate life underfoot. Hopefully measures will be put in place to protect the bay even more. It’s too beautiful to not care for it.
At low tide I was nose to nose with the reef and could peak into crevices where tiny fish dart away. It’s easy for me to be distracted by prismatic parrot fish or bright yellow tang. This was a reminder there is rich, albeit tiny, life in every pocket playing peek-a-boo. While I love to dive as deep as possible to explore the underwater arches and secret chasms, sometimes simply floating on top of the water allows for a unique perspective. This day yielded crystal waters and gentle swells. However, without the sunshine or with a strong incoming tide, conditions become less than ideal. I’ve been tossed around by rough waves with a visability not much over a couple of feet. I learned a slack tide just before high tide is the best bet. The water is higher, but a lull in the incoming tide allows the sediment to fall to the ocean floor.
Feeling courageous, Wil and I set off to the channel leading to deeper waters and bigger fish. It may be surprising but Hanauma Bay claims the most people to drowning than any other place on Oahu. Many visitors are drawn to the seemingly idylic waters. What they underestimate are the strong currents. Once out, swimming back through the channel took all my effort. I don’t envy the lifeguards’ job. I can’t imagine watching for distressed swimmers all floating face down in the water! People of all ages and skill levels venture out and don’t realize even the shallows can prove deadly. As far as I can swim out, I have to know when I hit “bingo fuel.” I need to be able to swim that same distance back, with half the energy! Part of the drowning statistics are likely based on the number of visitors: Over a million people every year. Many who can’t swim, aren’t physically fit enough or just don’t consider their abilities.
Thoroughly exhausted and waterlogged we heaved ourselves onto the beach. The facilities here include fresh water showers so after a quick rinse we were ready to bask on the beach like monk seals.
As with most popular draws around the island, sharing a beach with 1000 people isn’t terribly appealing. Even early in the day I watched a steady streams of people toting children, chairs and umbrellas. With unlimited rides for $2.50, a tram trundles tourists up and down the hill. So it’s not the secluded getaway I tend to seek. And I do find avoiding other swimmers a bit frustrating. Maybe another reason we make a bee line to the deeper waters. All that said, it’s worth a go.
- Get there early and avail yourself of the tram. The walk isn’t that exciting and you get ahead of those who do trudge down the hill.
- Skip the large beach as you enter the park. Walk past the educational hut and all the lifeguard stations to the far end. The beach is smaller but there are several nice trees for shade and much fewer people.
- Once you enter the water be aware of where you are at all times. It’s easy to just swim away from other snorkelers. That said, never walk on the reef. Go to a sandy spot if you want to wade out a little before putting your face in the water.