Snorkeling In Hanauma Bay: The Beach, Reefs And Marine Life

hanauma bay snorkeling

Hanauma Bay is located on the east side of the island Oahu, Hawaii. It’s an old volcanic crater protected from the rough ocean. As a result, it’s a popular place for people to snorkel in calm shallow waters, white sand, and over 400 species of fish. 

In 1967, Hanauma Bay became a protected marine life conservation area. Today, in an effort to protect the ecosystem, they only allow 3,000 visitors per day. Visitors need to arrive early as parking is limited. Some people gained access in the afternoon, but you need to be lucky and catch a quiet day for that.

If you ever make it to Hawaii, maybe you want to also read our guide about snorkeling in Waikiki. We also have one about Maui and of course beautiful Kauai.

1. About Hanauma Bay

Hanauma Bay is shaped like a horseshoe on the eastern side of the island Oahu. It’s actually an old collapsed volcanic crater. The beaches are made of white sand, the water is incredibly blue and it’s extremely popular among snorkelers.

There’s a coral reef that protects the bay. The reef is only a few feet under water, which makes it easy to observe the marine life. The water is clear and cool, fish are literally everywhere, as well as other sea life including sea turtles. Some people prefer to wear a snorkel rash guard as an extra layer of protection against some rocky surfaces. Make sure to always watch where you’re standing. Even though we’re not supposed to step on any coral, there could be some rocks on the ocean floor. Water shoes for snorkeling could be a luxury to take with you.

snorkeling in hanauma bay fish
Actual picture of snorkeling in Hanauma Bay

2. How To Get To Hanauma Bay

Visitors travel by rental car, shuttle, taxi or bus to reach this snorkeling haven. Previous visitors claim that the bay is easy to access, no matter where you stay on the island.

Because Hanauma Bay is a protected marine life conservation area, it’s designated as a nature preserve. It’s important to follow the rules, like not touching the marine life for example. Visitors take pictures and enjoy the scenery, but it’s strictly forbidden to remove anything. Make sure your kids are aware of this.

Upon arrival, there is a fee to enter. Everyone is required to watch a 10-minute video about the bay and the reef system. The video gives a little history about the bay and instructs visitors not to feed or touch any of the marine life. After the video, there is a five-minute walk to the beach. The scenery is incredible and it’s possible to rent a locker as well as snorkeling gear. Make sure to bring your own towel.

hanauma bay view
An impression of the beach

3. Snorkeling In The Bay

It’s easy to see the coral reef from the beach. The reef stretches in two directions, with a sandy center. We believe it’s a good idea to enter the sandy area first to make sure your snorkel gear is functional. There aren’t many places to stop and stand once you’re over the coral.

The main attraction is the incredibly diverse marine life that lives and feeds on the reef. They are accustomed to snorkelers, so they won’t swim away and hide as fish do in some other locations. The water is crystal clear with great visibility. Furthermore, there are no strong currents to worry about near the shore.

There’s an outer and an inner reef. The inner reef is very safe in shallow calm waters. This is great for beginners! The center between the reefs is sandy and allows snorkelers to learn how to snorkel without any pressure or danger. The outer reef is for more advanced snorkelers as it’s closer to the edge of the bay. You’ll find larger fish and larger schools out there. 

Because the reef is just below the surface, it’s not necessary to dive down to see the marine life. In other words, it’s possible for anyone to enjoy snorkeling in Hanauma Bay.

If you’re traveling with children, we advise you to also read our full guide for snorkeling with kids.

hanauma bay inner and outer reef
Reefs and sandy areas in the “horseshoe shaped” Hanauma Bay

4. Marine Life In Hanauma Bay

There is so much to see, and by noting some of the marine life that calls Hanauma Bay it’s home, visitors will know what to look for when they go snorkeling.

Green Sea Turtles (3-4 feet in length) 

These turtles stay in the water around the outer reefs, and they are accustomed to people. They may swim right up to a snorkeler, but it’s illegal to touch or interfere with them. Green Sea Turtles are one of the most popular species in the bay.

Triggerfish (10 inches in length)

These fish are always moving during the day, and they may be alone or in small groups. They like the shallow areas of the reef. We added a picture further down below.

Tang (8 inches in length)

Tang are territorial fish, and they travel in small schools. If you see them near a crevice, don’t bother them. There are about 80 different species of tang worldwide, like the blue tang for example.

Surgeonfish (22 inches in length)

These herbivores feed on algae near rocks that receive a lot of filtered sunlight. They travel alone or in small schools.

Moray Eels (2 feet in length)

Be on the lookout for these creatures. They are one of the few to attack people if they feel threatened. They have very sharp teeth which can hurt your fingers or arms. Make sure to never stick your hands into rocky crevices, as this is where most eels prefer to hide.

Butterfly Fish (6 inches in length)

These fish travel in schools and feed on coral polyps within the reef. They stay in shallow waters from where they swim in and out looking for food. They are not migratory and stay wherever they find a food source. Because of this, you’ll find a lot of them in this area.

Parrotfish (12 – 27 inches in length)

These fish stay in the shallow waters as well, and they are very active.

Goatfish (21 inches)

The goatfish can swim in large schools with other fish, or they may swim alone. 

Box Jellyfish (2 inches in length)

These jellyfish are common in all of the beaches in Oahu. Their number increases nine or ten days after a full moon. Exercise caution to stay away from them because they can sting you, which definitely hurts. Luckily, the lifeguards can help if you’re stung. So, if you see any, don’t swim towards them.

Sea Urchins (3.5 inches in length)

You may come across sea urchins. One thing to remember is that they have small little spikes all over their bodies. You may injure yourself if you step on one. Make sure that your feet are protected, and to pay attention before you put your feet down.

Tip: We show more pictures of the actual marine life in our summary video, which you can find at the bottom of this article.

marine life pictures

5. The Living Coral In Hanauma Bay

The main feature of Hanauma Bay is the living coral. This coral is what feeds the many different sea creatures that call this bay their home. The coral reefs are collections of living coral organisms. They are not rocks or inorganic formations.

The bay provides an ideal condition for coral to flourish because it’s protected from strong currents out in the ocean. The coral is hard, there is no soft coral here.

The types of hard coral include lobe, blue rice, and cauliflower coral. Each coral is made from polyps, which are tiny organisms that look like jellyfish that have been turned upside down. They actually secrete a skeleton to support themselves, which is what people see when looking at the coral reefs.

hanauma bay coral types

The amazing thing is that the coral reef works very similar to how a rainforest works above the ground. Just as trees in the rainforest are vital to the survival of organisms, the health of the coral is vital to the marine life that lives within it. 

One amazing fact is that coral polyps create these reefs by secreting a skeleton. These polyps are very small. It can take up to 100 years for a coral reef to grow a mere three feet. Because the coral reef is vital to the survival of marine life, it’s protected. Snorkelers should not touch, remove, or step on it.

hanauma bay corals and parrotfish
Hanauma Bay corals and a blue Parrotfish

6. Other Sights At Hanauma Bay

In addition to snorkeling and looking at the marine life, visitors can enjoy the beach. The beach has beautiful white sand. You’ll also find Palm trees with grass underneath.

The bay is a volcanic crater. Visitors can look up and actually see the Koko crater to the north. In fact, the core of the volcanic mountain is popular for hiking. It has botanical gardens and a hiking trail

One of the interesting things about this area is it’s biological diversity. The rich volcanic soil combined with the warm tropical climate and the incredible reef system draws many different forms of life to this area.

In addition, Hanauma Bay has a nature park, grove trees, plants native to the area, and picnic spots. After snorkeling, visitors can grill some lunch and play a game of volleyball on the grass court.

There’s a lot to do in this location, which makes it easy to stay for an entire day.

hanauma bay marine life information

7. Hanauma Bay Climate


Hanauma Bay is quite warm all year round. The hottest months last from July until October. That’s when the maximum temperature reaches around 84°F. In January, February and March the maximum temperature reaches approximately 77°F. Daylight hours reach their peaks in May, June and July.

Sea Temperature

The sea temperature is very enjoyable throughout the entire year. It fluctuates between 75°F (in March) and 81°F (in October). The summer months are slightly warmer than the winter months.


Rainy days occur throughout the year. However, if you take a look at the amount of rain, we can conclude that April until September shows the lowest amount of rain. Now, even though you can sometimes still snorkel in the rain, it’s always best to choose a sunny day when visibility is much better.

More detailed information about the climate can be found here.

hanauma bay sunny day

8. Final Thoughts

Hanauma Bay is a lovely and exciting snorkel location for both beginners and professionals. The marine life is very diverse and thanks to the shallow water you’ll be able to observe everything up close. You’ll find sea turtles, trigger fish, parrot fish and many more. There are 3 types of hard coral.

If you ever make it to this wonderful paradise, we guess you won’t regret it. Furthermore, if you always wanted to try some underwater photography, this should be a great pick. You’ll be able to take some awesome close-up footage when snorkeling with a GoPro for example.

If you can, try to arrive on time because the amount of visitors is limited. Enjoy the beach, the green scenery and the magic underwater world. A true snorkelers dream if you ask us.

Our Summary Video

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