Swimming with the Fishes: Snorkeling at Hanauma Bay Oahu

Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve is perhaps the most popular place for visitors wishing to snorkel in Oahu and was Hawaii’s first Marine Life Conservation District. Just like the North Shore, Hanauma Bay has eluded us for years. The parking lot has been closed twice during our past visits for overcrowding. We finally woke up early enough and made it to Hanauma Bay a few weeks ago and the third try was definitely a charm.

Overlooking Hanauma Bay

Unlike the many beach areas on the island, Hanauma was set aside to protect and preserve the bay’s marine life. The local government has made great efforts to repair damage that was done from years of neglect and allowing too many visitors per year here. Hanauma used to have up to 10,000 visitors per day during its peak. Only 3,000 people are allowed daily here now to minimize the environmental impact.

Hanauma Bay ridge

The picturesque bay is thought to be about 35,000 years old and was once a volcanic crater’s floor. Hanauma (pronounced ha-now-ma) means “curved bay” and its location protects it from strong currents and large ocean swells. It is located in southeast Oahu about 10 miles east from Waikiki and makes it easy for enough for visitors to travel to.

Hanauma bay hut

The parking lot is high up on a ridge overlooking Hanauma Bay. The views from the parking lot were incredible on a sunny Hawaiian morning with no dark cloud in sight despite some sprinkling we had seen in other parts of the island. The black areas on the water here are the reefs.

Hanauma Bay

After the ticket counter and a small gift shop, we entered the Marine Education Center which was a wonderful way to greet visitors at the entrance. It was a great preview of what was in store for the visitors at the bay. There were interactive kiosks and plenty of exhibits that showcase the marine ecosystem here with an urgency to preserve them.

Hanauma Bay education center

All visitors must watch about a 5-10 minute welcome video before proceeding down to the bay. It was very educational on how this bay came about and pre-cautions we must take to preserve this fragile ecosystem and treat it like a “living museum”. Look but don’t touch! Most of the people that were with us in the theater were Japanese tourists and maybe it would have been a good idea to have Japanese subtitles on the video. Don’t forget to sign the list if you plan to return here within a year which will exempt you from watching it again.

Hanauma Bay theater
From the upper bay facilities, it’s another 10 minute steep walk down to the bay along a ledge with some beautiful views. Trams were also available to ride. But, we recommend walking down to build up the anticipation especially for the kids. This was the crowd that was behind us as we walked down.

Hanauma bay ledge
The beach here is beautiful with white sand and plenty of green areas for picnics and shade. We got here early enough (before 9 AM) so it wasn’t as crowded yet. Hanauma Bay beach
The semi-circular shaped shore of the bay felt like a hidden oasis. The blue waters, white sand and swaying palm trees were screaming relaxation and paradise.

Hanauma Bay beach

My husband and kids snorkeled while I happily got some sunshine and people watched. I’m not much of a snorkeling enthusiast. But, I had some great views all around.

Hanauma Bay beach

By the way, please don’t ever feed pigeons. A lady a few yards from me kept tossing bread despite her husband’s protest and learned the hard way. They wouldn’t leave her alone afterwards. They surrounded her and annoyed so many of us near her.

Hanauma Bay pigeons

That was the extent of my entertainment while my family was getting ready. They were so excited to finally snorkel here especially my husband. This has been on his travel wish list for awhile now. He even set aside one carry-on bag for snorkeling equipment.

hanauma bay with kids
The clearer water was a short distance away from the shoreline and where corals start forming and the reefs are brimming with fish.

Hanauma Bay with kids

Here are a few of what they saw while snorkeling. Unfortunately, they didn’t get to see sea turtles here.

Hanauma Bay fish

The kids wanted to see the Hawaiian state fish Humuhumunukunukuapuaa (try saying that twice). Luckily, they actually saw them and what is also known as a reef triggerfish. It’s the colorful one below.

Hanauma Hawaii state fish

There were many schools of fish and a great variety too – all seem used to and oblivious to people. Hanauma Bay fish

My husband says that there were more varied fish here than the ones he’s snorkeled in Mexico and Catalina Island but lesser quantity. Unfortunately, I can’t give a better identification to all these fish. With more than 450 tropical fish here, it’s a living aquarium and according to my family, a memorable experience to swim with them.

Hanauma Bay snorkeling

I love this one of the fish in line.

Hanauma bay fish in line

Some areas were calm and shallow which was great for beginners and kids to snorkel. The water temperature was just about right too. My kids loved this area due to the variety of colorful fish they saw and the calm waters.  There’s a reason many who have been here emphasize coming early. As it gets later in the day and the crowd increases, visibility also gets murkier in the water.

Hanauma Bay snorkeling

It’s not all snorkeling here. My kids also had fun playing in the sand and water.

Hanauma Bay play with kids

After finally experiencing the beauty of Hanauma Bay, it’s not a surprise why this is such a big draw for locals and visitors. It was a wonderful place for swimming and snorkeling for all ages and abilities. It’s so wonderful that the government has implemented conservation efforts to protect and preserve this bay and its ecosystem. Let’s just hope the visitors do the same.

Hanauma Bay beach

Tips for Visiting Hanauma Bay

  • Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve is open daily from 6AM to 6PM. Closed on Tuesdays. It is open until 10 PM on the second Saturday of every month. Entrance Fees: $7.50 per person. Free for Hawaii residents, active military and their dependents (bring IDs as proof) and kids 13 years old and younger.
  • Parking space is limited since it is closed once it fills up. Arrive early to get a parking spot so you don’t get turned away. $1 parking per vehicle per day.
  • Trams are available. $2 all day; $1.25 going up and $1 going down each way.
  • Facilities down at the bay include restrooms, changing rooms and showers, snorkeling equipment rentals and locker rentals. Lockers can be rented for $7.
  • Try to bring your own equipment. Since my husband brought our snorkeling equipment we only  rented the kids’ life vests for $7. $12 for snorkel/fins rental and $18 for the whole set with vest. Credit cards and cash were accepted.

Hanauma bay hut

  • Lifeguards are available but don’t go past the buoys.
  • Bring your lunch, drinks and snacks. There were grass picnic areas near the parking lot and a concession stand to buy food and drinks.
  • Try checking the tides before coming here since the most ideal snorkeling conditions are during high tides. We got too excited and didn’t even check. But, I guess with low tide it can always be a good beach day.
  • Don’t forget your underwater camera or case for your GoPro or smartphone. My husband used our GoPro with an underwater casing for the snorkeling pictures here.
  • Check on guided tours available from many tour companies and hotels in Honolulu if you don’t have a rental car.

*Have you visited or snorkeled at Hanauma Bay? Any other favorite snorkeling spots? 

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Hanauma Bay snorkeling

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