Snorkeling in Hanauma Bay: Beaches And Marine Life

hanauma bay snorkeling

Hanauma Bay is located on the east side of Oahu, Hawaii. It is an old volcanic crater protected from the rough ocean. As a result, it is a popular place for people to snorkel with its 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 guides about snorkeling in Waikiki, Maui or Kauai.

About Hanauma Bay

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

There is a coral reef system that protects the bay. The reef is only a few feet under water, which makes it is easy to experience it’s 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.

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

How to Get to Hanauma Bay

Visitors travel by rental car, shuttle, taxi or bus to reach this snorkeling haven. People who want to go snorkeling say it’s easily accessible from almost anywhere on the island of Oahu. 

Because Hanauma Bay is a protected marine life conservation area, it is designated as a nature preserve. It is 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, and everyone is required to watch a 10-minute video about the bay and its 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

Snorkeling in the Bay

It is easy to see the coral reef from the beach. It is splayed in two directions, and the center is sandy. It is a good idea to enter the sandy area first to make sure snorkeling gear is functional as there aren’t many places to stop and stand once you are 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 dart away and hide as fish do in some other locations. The water is crystal clear with great visibility, and there are no strong currents to worry about near the shore.

There is an outer reef 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 is closer to the edge of the bay. You’ll find larger fish and larger schools out there. 

Because the reef is just under the surface, it is not necessary to dive to see everything. In other words, it is 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

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: 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 is illegal to touch or interfere with them. Green Sea Turtles are one of the most popular sites here.

Triggerfish: 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: 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, which you can find in Key Largo, Florida.

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

Moray Eels: 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 and can hurt your fingers or arms. Make sure that you don’t stick your hands into rocky crevices, as this is where the eels hide out.

Butterfly Fish: These fish travel in schools and feed on coral polyps that are within the reef and the sea anemones. They stay in shallow waters and swim in and out looking for food. They are not migratory and stay wherever they find a food source. Because of this, there are a lot of them in this area.

Parrotfish: These fish stay in the shallow waters as well, and they are very active. You can spot them in Key West Florida as well.

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

Box Jellyfish: 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, and it hurts. Luckily, the lifeguards can help if you are stung. So, if you see any, don’t swim towards them.

Sea Urchins: You may come across sea urchins. One thing to remember is that they have small little spikes all over their body. You may injure yourself if you step on them. Make sure that your feet are protected, and look before you put your feet down.

triggerfish hawaii
Hawaiian Triggerfish can grow up to 10 inches in length

The Living Coral at 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 the coral to flourish because it is protected from strong currents out in the ocean. The coral is hard, there is no soft coral here.

The types of hard coral present include love, rice blue, and cauliflower corals. 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. 

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 that live there, 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, and 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 is protected, and snorkelers should not touch it, remove it, or step on it.

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

Other Sights at Hanauma Bay

In addition to snorkeling and looking at the marine life in the underwater park, visitors can enjoy the beach. The beach has beautiful white sand, and there are Palm trees around it with grass underneath.

The bay is a crater from a volcano, and 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 is so much to do in this location, that it is easy to spend an entire day enjoying it.

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