Under the Sea: Snorkeling at Hanauma Bay, Hawaii

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Looking out over Hanauma Bay when the sun is shining and a warm sea breeze is blowing in off the Pacific, it really does look and feel like paradise.

Hanauma Bay, Oahu, Hawaii

Hanauma Bay, a horseshoe-shaped bay on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, is popular for various reasons — it's location; it's ridiculously blue waters; its wide, long beach; and, of course, the snorkeling.

The coral reef system that protects Hanauma Bay also offers up one of Hawaii's best spots for amateur snorkeling. The water is clear, cool, and teeming with sea life, from colorful tropical fish to green sea turtles — making snorkeling at Hanauma Bay top-notch.

I decided to check out the much-talked-about bay on my first trip to Hawaii, and I definitely didn't regret it.

Hanauma Bay, Oahu, Hawaii, snorkeling

Getting to Hanauma Bay

Getting to Hanauma Bay is pretty simple, even if you don't have a rental car. I simply hopped on the city “Beach Bus” (number 22) from Waikiki in Honolulu, and was there within an hour.

Hanauma Bay is a designated nature preserve, and so there are some rules and regulations for visiting, as well as an entrance fee. You must pay $7.50 to access the beach, and watch a 10-minute video about the bay and its reef system before actually heading down to the sand. The video explains how the bay was formed (a collapsed volcanic crater gives it its unique shape), and also warns you not to touch or feed the marine life.

Hanauma Bay, Oahu, Hawaii, snorkeling
Look, but don't touch!

After viewing the video, you can head down to the bay itself. It's about a 5 minute walk downhill, or you can take a trolley for $1. (Coming back up, the charge is $1.25 – they're smart, and realize that more people are likely to want to avoid the steep walk back up to the parking lot!)

I decided to walk (both ways), and quickly found myself surrounded by towering palm trees and marveling at the gorgeous beach and baby-blue water dotted with eager snorkelers of all ages. Even as the clouds rolled in, the scene was idyllic.

RELATED: 10 Beautiful Beaches on Oahu

Hanauma Bay, Oahu, Hawaii

I found a grassy spot near the beach to set up my towel and deposit my backpack and shoes. You can rent lockers for your valuables for $8/$10, but I simply asked a friendly couple who weren't planning to go in the water to keep an eye on my things.

Then, it was onto my snorkeling adventure.

Hawaii's state fish: the Humuhumunukunukuapua'a.

Snorkeling at Hanauma Bay

You can bring your own snorkeling gear to Hanauma Bay, or you can rent it for the day from a little hut near the restrooms. I decided to rent the equipment, which cost $12 for everything – mask, snorkel and fins (note: the price in 2017 is now up to $20 to rent all the gear).

After making sure all my gear was functional, I waddled into the gentle surf and scoped out my options.

Hanauma Bay, Oahu, Hawaii

The coral reef that splays out right beneath the water's surface is separated into two main sections – one at either side of the bay. I decided to get acclimated to the water and my snorkeling gear by swimming around in the middle first, where there was just sand under my feet.

The reef itself sits just a couple of feet beneath the water’s surface, making it ideal for getting up-close-and-personal with the fish that call it home. But, if you run into any trouble with your mask and snorkel (like getting them both filled with water), there’s nowhere to safely put your feet down once you’re out over the reef. They really discourage touching the coral at all, and certainly don’t want you standing on it.

Hanauma Bay, Oahu, Hawaii, snorkeling

After about 10 minutes of just swimming around, I made my way to the reef. At first, I didn’t see much, and started to get worried that the whole experience would be a letdown. But I was only on the perimeter of the reef, and soon discovered that there was plenty to see further in.

Hanauma Bay, Oahu, Hawaii, snorkeling

Before I knew it, fish of all shapes, sizes and colors were swimming all around me, seemingly not at all concerned that a very large intruder was in their midst. The fish in Hanauma Bay are so used to snorkelers that they very rarely dart away and hide.

Hanauma Bay, Oahu, Hawaii, snorkeling

I swam around for about half an hour, letting out little underwater squeals every time I saw a particularly large and/or colorful fish. I felt like Ariel in her little treasure trove, admiring all her whatsits and thing-a-ma-bobs.

Hanauma Bay, Oahu, Hawaii, snorkeling

The longer I stayed in the water, I came to the realization that I couldn't have chosen a better spot for a solo snorkeling experience. Hanauma Bay is ideal for a few reasons:

  • Clear, gorgeously blue water that allows you to see a good distance.
  • Relatively calm, shallow waters, with no strong currents near shore.
  • A reef that lies just below the water's surface, meaning no diving is necessary to get up close.
  • A variety of marine life, including plenty of colorful fish.
  • The opportunity to maybe get lucky enough to swim with sea turtles (though I, sadly, didn't get to see any).
  • Other snorkelers always nearby in case you get in trouble, but not too many to where you're bumping into each other.

Ideally, snorkeling should be an activity you do with a buddy, just like anything else that could potentially cause you harm. But, if you're going to wade out on your own, Hanauma Bay is probably one of the best places to do it.

Hanauma Bay, Oahu, Hawaii

While I wish I would have had a buddy under the sea with me that day, this still ranks up there as one of my favorite things that I did in Hawaii, and I highly recommend it!

IF YOU GO

When to go: If you plan on visiting Hanauma Bay, don't plan to go on a Tuesday. It's closed to the public on Tuesdays to give the marine life a break from plastic fins and underwater cameras.

Getting there: Hanauma Bay does offer a shuttle service from Waikiki. It costs $25 and includes round-trip transport from your hotel and snorkeling gear rental. If you have a car, you can drive yourself – it only costs $1 to park (but the lot does fill up early). Lastly, you can take the #22 Beach Bus, which costs $2.50 each way.

What to bring: Things you should bring include swim gear, snacks (but NO alcohol), and some that won't hurt the coral or fish.

Have you been snorkeling at Hanauma Bay? Or how about snorkeling at all? What were some of your favorite experiences like?

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"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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