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.

Hanauma Bay, Oahu, Hawaii, snorkeling
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 reef-safe sunscreen 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?

"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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36 Comments on “Under the Sea: Snorkeling at Hanauma Bay, Hawaii

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  1. I love your photo of the sprawling coral reef! It’s all so beautiful it’s almost unreal.

      Thanks, Emily! I agree — I had to keep reminding myself that it was real as I was taking photos. In this case, I think the photos really are almost as amazing as the place itself.

    Wow, what a cool experience. The photos are great, and I agree with Emily, the one from above of the sprawling coral is amazing. Hawaii looks absolutely magical, and you did a great job writing about it and photographing it.

      That’s one of my favorite photos, too. Then again, it would be hard to take a bad one overlooking Hanauma on a sunny day…

      Thanks for the compliments! I’ve got plenty more Hawaii content where this came from planned in the next couple of weeks.

    I LOVED!!! Hanauma! It was my first time ever going snorkling and I have been addicted ever since. We even got my mom in the water and she loved it too. Perfect for even the weakest of ocean swimmers.

    I am glad to see the area is still doing well. I remember in the late 90’s, people were worried that it was getting too over touristy and the wildlife wasn’t going to survive, but it still looks at beautiful as ever!

      It definitely is perfect for all swimmers, yet still offers up plenty to see for people who are pros at snorkeling.

      They’ve done a lot in the past few decades to make sure that Hanauma doesn’t get overrun. They close the beach on Tuesdays, and I think the entrance fee and mandatory video really helps keep the crowds at bay. As you can see from my photos, the beach really wasn’t packed, which I was pleasantly surprised about. It was a great day!

    The only type of beach that i care about is one that you can snorkel around — like this one. I’ve never actually snorkelled on this particular beach but the aerial pic is amazing!! Too bad you didn’t get to see any sea turtles but I hope the fishies sorta made up for it.

      This one is definitely great for snorkeling! And yes, the fish made up for the lack of sea turtles. 🙂 Plus, I got to see a big turtle at Laniakea Beach on the North Shore, so it was all good!

    I too love the photo’s! I thought Coral Bay in WA was beautiful, but that takes it to another level. It’s super hard to film underwater isn’t it! Keep it up 🙂

    Aaron

      Yeah, it took me a while to get used to using my camera underwater. It was tough to see the small screen through my mask, and I also had to pay attention to where I was swimming! I think the video turned out pretty good, though, overall.

    I loved this post! This is one of my favorite places in Honolulu. Such a gorgeous area with awesome snorkeling.

      Thank you, Andi! I think this ranks up there as one of my favorite things I did in Honolulu, too. It was just so great!

    What a glorious place to escape to! 🙂 Just love the views of the water from above – all the colors are amazing. 🙂

      A glorious escape, indeed! I couldn’t get over the color of the water at Hanauma Bay. It was unreal. Kind of like someone dumped a ton of Kool-Aid packets into the water before I got there.

    Aw this totally reminds me of when I went there back in the day when I was in Hawaii! My sister lived in Honolulu for about 5 years and when she moved back to Washington my mom offered to send me and my brother on a trip with her to visit her boyfriend. Even at a young age (13) I was able to really appreciate the sites.

    I remember taking a photo from above and marveling at how it could be a postcard. As could any one of your fabulous photos! Beautiful!

      So glad that I could bring back some good memories for you, Annie. And it’s great that you were able to appreciate Hawaii even at a younger age. That’s great!

      As for the postcard-perfect photos… I think anyone can do that at Hanauma Bay! It’s just so picturesque.

    I really enjoyed snorkeling at Hanauma Bay! I think we saw a lot of the same fish as you – my pictures are almost identical, haha! It’s really great to have such good snorkeling within just a few feet from the beach. You’re right, there were plenty of people, but it didn’t feel crowded at all when we were there.

      I think the reason Hanauma is so popular is because you can literally see the reef from your towel on the beach, and you don’t even have to swim very far to see the fish. And definite plus!

    My love of snorkeling, which now extends to scuba diving, started in Hawaii! It’s so great to see your photos and remember my first time snorkeling and how much fun I had. Thanks so much for sharing!

      Glad I could bring back some great memories for you, Connie! Hawaii would be such a great place to discover snorkeling/scuba diving.

    Underwater is such a cool place! Magical…

      Agreed! It really is an entirely different world. I can understand completely how people get hooked on scuba diving.

    I was looking for beautiful beaches on Oahu and found your pictures. Would you please give me pemission to use these pictures on the “Daily Inspiration” messages I e-mail to a laarge group of people? I do this for Unity Church of Hawaii. and have done this for several years.
    waiting for you answer
    PaulJ7827@aol.com

    omg, just went this morning NO JOKE I PROMISE!!!!!! so much fun, thanks for the vid!!! wish i could have had an underwater camera too!!!! I totally enjoyed it!!!! thanks for posting this, you did good writing this. my fav was the parrot fish, COOLEST FISH E V E R!!!!! wish i could have seen a turtle. did you take the pics too??? thanks so much!!!!

      Having an underwater camera was definitely great at this spot! The Parrot Fish were indeed VERY cool. I loved that you could actually hear them munching on coral when you were underwater!

      And I wasn’t actually lucky enough to see the turtles there that day, but I heard that other people did!

    awesome pictures! I had such a blast snorkeling at Hanauma bay, that was my very first time snorkeling and it was an experience like no other! Haven’t been back to Hawaii in ten years but now I do all my snorkeling in Costa Rica! If you ever have a chance, come down here and snorkel 🙂

      What a great first snorkeling experience! I really enjoyed it there, too.

    Cute video and awesome images.
    I want to go in Hawaii this spring in April.
    Please tell me how is water there now? Can I swim?
    Snorkeling can be done in April or I need to wait the summer?

      The temperature in Hawaii is pretty much the same year-round, so you can go snorkeling whenever you want! I was there in February and the water was lovely.

    Hi Amanda-
    Loved your info on Hanauma Bay, it was very informative and the pictures were awesome. I last visited Hanauma Bay in the 90s and am happy its still available to the public. I will be visiting Oahu Sept 3 – 7 and will be bringing my teenage kids with me, they are so excited and your blog made them even more so. We are renting a car and want to really experience as mush as we can. We plan on going to Hanauma first and then work our way round that part of the Island. Can you recommend sights on that route, have heard a lot about Laniakea Beach, is that close by? Also want to bring them to Waimea falls for the hike, and Manoa Falls. Can you make some suggestions that would help us get the most out of out trip. It would be soooo appreciated! Thank you so much!

    We were a little nervous about snorkeling, never being in the ocean before. So we went out with Wild Side Specialty Tours as we saw in reviews that they did a thorough snorkel fitting and briefing, and only took out 6 guests max. Our first time int he water with them we were surrounded by dolphins, that was a very good distraction! We loved Haunama Bay as well and are planning to go back to both places this summer. Thank you for this reminder!

    http://sailhawaii.com/snorkel_tour.html

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