O’ahu’s Hanauma bay is a nature preserve that is the best option for nervous swimmers or families with young children who still want the experience of snorkeling in shallower waters.
Not only is this bay shallow and calm, but it is also safe and absolutely stunning.
If you really want to try snorkeling but are a bit nervous about plunging into the depths of the sea, I couldn’t recommend this destination more.
The bay is home to some of the best sea life and coral so you won’t have to compromise between deep waters and breathtaking views.
The water is usually very calm and there are always lifeguards on duty so there’s no need to worry, you’ll be in very safe hands.
So what are we waiting for? Let’s delve into everything there is to know about snorkeling in O’ahu.
Overview Of Hanauma Bay
The nature preserve is very famous and well known, and it’s not hard to see why. It is the only beach on the whole island that is a fully dedicated snorkeling beach.
It is regulated and run completely by the Department of Parks and Recreation.
If you are a non-resident, you’ll be expected to pay a $25 entry fee, plus 3 dollars for parking.
But, given that this helps to pay for the lifeguards on duty, the clean facilities such as bathrooms, an environmental reef-safety program, and gives you access to O’hau’s best bay, it’s a pretty good deal.
Hanauma Bay History
It was 1967 when the bay got its official status as an underwater park and marine life conservation area, but at this point, it was still suffering severely from over visitation and neglect.
The combination left the bay a little worse for wear.
Luckily, in 1990 there was a real push from the City and County of Honolulu to restore the bay back to its original beauty.
They aimed to make the bay suitable for public access, as well as restore the reefs, and educate the people.
Feeding the fish, once a very popular pastime among visitors, was prohibited in order to save the reefs, and educational programs about reef ecosystems and marine life were introduced.
These can still be found in the Visitor Center today.
When You First Get There
It is now mandatory to watch a short (9 minute) safety video about proper reef safety, snorkeling techniques, and how not to damage the coral, before you may enter the bay.
On the top of the upper cliffs, you’ll find the visitor center which is certainly worth a look around.
You can either choose to take a stroll (more of a short but steep vigorous climb) to the center or for around a dollar a way, you can take a tram that runs constantly throughout the day.
If you love beaches then Hanauma Bay is going to be a little slice of paradise for you. It is a gorgeous stretch of brilliantly white sand that’s sure to burn your toes a little with the lovely weather.
If you love to top up your tan, you’ll be glad to hear that there isn’t really much shade on this beach either.
However, if you’re quite fond of the safety of the shade, you’ll want to ensure that you’re bringing umbrellas.
Of course, it goes without saying, everyone staying at the beach for any length of time should bring sun protection like sunscreen, hats, and sunglasses.
This bay is popular for plenty of reasons, but snorkeling is its main attraction.
And this is because it’s one of the only places where you don’t need to be a confident swimmer in order to see beautiful fish and coral.
You’ll usually catch a glimpse of quite a few fish just by wading into the water.
The coral just offshore is dense and is perfect for small children, who won’t have to go in deep to see the plentiful marine life.
Perhaps fish are so easy to spot due to the fact that fishing is prohibited in the bay.
The fish population is really high and super diverse. So there’s a good chance you’ll spot quite a few different varieties of fish while you’re snorkeling.
Once you’ve finished snorkeling, you’ll find shower amenities available to wash off all that salt water.
It’s up to you whether you want to take the shuttle back to the visitor center or if you’d prefer the walk, but more often than not you’ll find yourself pretty tired after all that swimming, so I’d opt for the shuttle.
It’s really up to you whether you choose to rent some gear while you are here or if you’d prefer to bring your own.
As is the case with many items you’ll purchase in tourist destinations, renting the snorkeling gear will cost you a fair bit more than it would in other parts of the island.
The queues for the gear can also get fairly long since it’s the one activity everyone wants to do.
As I say, you can do either. It’s available if you need it, but I would recommend bringing your own as it will be cheaper and save you time.
Where To Snorkel
Unsurprisingly, the very best areas to snorkel can get very overpopulated. The interior shallow reef is going to be really busy from about 9am and it doesn’t tend to die down till long after 2pm.
So if you’re wanting to bag a prime snorkeling spot, you’ll need to set an early alarm to get there first.
Otherwise, you’ll want to go more towards the evening, when the beach starts to quieten down a little.
Whether you’re new to snorkeling or have been enjoying this hobby for years, the most converted spots will be the three lagoons (Key Hole, Triangle, or Back Door) or the Sandman’s Patch.
If you’re prepared to venture further outside of the main reef, those more experienced snorkelers can delve into the deeper waters where you’re more likely to find larger fish and if you’re lucky, maybe even Hawaii’s green sea turtles.
Hanauma Bay is an extremely safe destination for snorkeling. You’ll be sure to see lifeguards regardless of what time of year you travel.
It’s not very often that you won’t be able to snorkel here, but you will be forbidden to snorkel in certain areas of the beach if the water conditions are particularly rough.
If you are unsure of which areas you can and cannot snorkel in, speak to a staff member or lifeguard.
There is a channel near the telephone cables, where the rip currents can sometimes be a little overpowering, specifically when the tide is low.
When the lifeguard is needed, it’s usually in this section of the bay that snorkelers are rescued from. So if you do decide to go towards this area, ensure that you are being extra careful and mindful.
Protecting The Coral
The coral that you can observe while snorkeling at this bay is an unbelievable beauty to see.
But it is important to remember that coral is a living organism, and something that needs to be preserved and protected in order to survive.
It’s important to keep the coral safe so that people can continue to come and see it.
It may not seem like much, but the sheer volume of people that come to snorkel and see the coral can really have an impact on the reef.
This is why it’s important to follow these steps:
- Don’t Step On Coral – Sometimes it can be easy to get caught up in the fun, and become a lot less aware of your surroundings. You need to keep an eye on what’s on the ground. Don’t step or stand on the coral as you can harm or even kill it.
- Don’t Feed The Fish – Feeding fish might seem like a good idea to make sure you catch a glimpse of them, but it can have devastating effects on the ecosystem. Visitors are no longer permitted to feed the fish, and anyone who is seen doing so will be evacuated from the bay, and may also be fined.
- Use Reef-Safe Sunscreen – A lot of the ingredients in regular sunscreen are harmful for the reef. You need to ensure that the sunscreen you use does not contain octinoxate or oxybenzone.
Planning Your Visit
While your trip to Hanauma Bay should be relatively simple, it will require some planning.
Below are all the things you’ll need to decide on before beginning your trip.
Decide What Time And Day You’re Arriving
Don’t plan a trip to this bay for a monday or a tuesday or you’ll end up disappointed.
The bay closes these two days to allow the reef and ecosystem some recovery time where there is no human interference.
While this might seem slightly annoying, it does wonders to help protect the bay, so it’s a small price to pay.
For the rest of the week the bay opens at 6.45 am and closes at 3.30pm. Last entry is at 1.30pm. To avoid the crowds, you’ll be best to come either before 9am or after 12.30pm.
Make A Reservation
If you want to ensure a snorkel space for you and your guests, you’ll need to reserve tickets to the bay. You can book no earlier than 7am two days before your arrival date.
You can do this on the Parks and Recreation website here.
A maximum of 1000 reservations can be made per day, and tickets tend to see out fast.
So you’ll want to be online and ready for 7am on the dot. Usually by no later than 7.10am all the spots can be sold out!
Hanauma Bay is approximately 17km (11 miles) from Waikiki. There are a few different ways that you can travel to the beach such as:
- Bus – There used to be a direct bus but this has since been suspended. Now, if you want to take the bus you’ll have to take the Line 1 bus which drops you a little under a mile out from the bay’s entrance. A single ticket will cost about $2.75 or you could get a day pass for just $5.50
- Car – If you plan on driving, you’ll want to get there either before 9am or after 1pm if you’re hoping to find a car parking space. The parking is very limited, and also quite expensive.
- Taxi – You can get taxis from Waikiki to the bay, but they are likely to set you back about $80 for a return trip.
There are several facilities at the bay and these include:
- Parking lot (limited spaces)
- Food Stand
- Picnic Tables
- Snorkeling equipment rentals
- Locker rentals
- Gift Shop
- Disabled Facilities
Things To Do Around Hanauma Bay
While snorkeling at the bay is an incredibly fun activity, most tourists have usually exhausted the bay within half a day.
If you have children who may not have the attention span to sit on the beach for hours, you may want to see what other adventures are close to the bay.
Luckily, there are many other great attractions close to the bay that you can also visit including
- Hiking – there are lovely hiking trails around the bay, some more difficult than others, that will provide you with stunning views.
- Other Beaches – If you feel like you just need a little change of scenery, you can always head to the other nearby beaches which are equally as exquisite.
- Hungry? – Ready for a bite to eat after all that snorkeling? Head down to Hawai’i Kai where you’ll find plenty of restaurants and cafes serving delicious food.
Hanauma Bay is an immensely popular tourist destination, and if you are vacationing anywhere close to it, you should definitely add it to your itinerary.
The bay is devastatingly beautiful and is a great place for those interested in snorkeling at any level.
Whether you are a beginner or a pro, you are guaranteed a fantastic experience, and will be able to behold many varieties of fish and coral.
The only drawback to this bay being so popular, is that getting your hands on a reservation for a spot for the beach will be no easy feat.
You’ll need to ensure that you’re ready and waiting on the website the second the tickets for your day go live, or it’s unlikely you’ll manage to bag yourself a ticket.
It’s also important to try and get there when the bay isn’t as popular or you’ll be battling the crowds.
But it is certainly worth the effort it takes to try and get a ticket, and once you do, you better prepare yourself for an incredible memory you’ll never forget!