Snorkeling Hanauma Bay – Outside the Reef

Turtle on sea floor with hard corals.
Turtle in Hanauma Bay
Parrotfish biting algae on rock
Beautiful Parrotfish

By Cary Bennett – (Roswell, GA)
We decided that snorkeling Hanauma Bay on Oahu would fit the bill because we needed to go somewhere today that was close by so that we could make an early day of it because Gary has to get up in the morning and head to the University to teach.

Moorish Idol and hard corals in Hanauma Bay.
My First Moorish Idol

Once we got parked then waited to watch the video that they require you to watch, we finally were able to head down to the bay.

Oh, let me back up a bit… Hanauma Bay is really stunning from up above! Such beautiful blue and aqua water! Be sure to have your camera handy when you get there. After securing our day pack in a locker, we found a spot on the grass beneath a palm tree and pulled on our wetsuits and headed to the water. (Yes, wetsuits. I am unapologetic about the fact that I was born and raised in Coral Gables, Florida, and if the water isn’t at least bathtub warm… it’s cold!)

We headed out from shore and decided to swim out from the center of the bay and head to our right, as the water was calmer with far fewer people. There was low visibility because it was full of sand in the water column closer in, but, as we swam farther and got outside the reef beyond the buoys, the water cleared and became truly beautiful!

We saw a great variety of beautiful fish and even swam with two turtles! We pretty thoroughly covered all of the areas that we wanted to see, and spent a solid two hours of swimming in doing so. We swam for an hour, came back up to the beach, had a protein bar, then went back in and swam for another hour on the left side of the bay.

A word of caution is due here: If you are a beginner or not confident in the water, stay well inside the buoys and shallower areas! There are a lot of currents as you make your way across the reef to the outside and you need to exercise caution!

Overall, I would rate this as a really good experience and definitely a “must-do” when on Oahu. Thursday, we are hopeful that conditions will allow us to snorkel Makaha Beach.

Comments Moved From Previous System

Galen & Nicole – Oct 8, 2012 – Did You Get Outside the Reef?

Nice Cary. So did you guys snorkel outside the inner protective reef area, in the deeper parts of the bay? You probably would have had to snorkel through a channel in the reef (hence the currents)? If so, did you find any live coral out there?

Cary Bennett – Oct 8, 2012 – Snorkeling Outside Hanauma Bay Reef

Hi, yes, we did snorkel outside the main inner reef area and it was superior in terms of visibility and amount of fish. And, yes, we saw quite a bit of live coral, including some really beautiful pink corals, blue corals, and other types. I think the coral there seems to be in recovery.

I wish they would require everyone to use only reef safe sunscreen and include packets of it like they do at Discovery Cove. All other sunscreens are banned. It would allow the bay to recover so much more quickly, especially given the human stress this place endures.

As to the currents I spoke of, yes, there is a great deal of current moving through the channel in the middle, but, also around some of the reef edges, particularly depending on the time of day and the tidal movement. Parts of the reef become very shallow on the left end and the waves moving over and through this area can be dangerous for anyone who is not experienced and a confident swimmer.

It was a bit harrowing at the end coming back across the reef as we finished for the day. We found that we had to pick our way through small natural channels in the reef to be able to make our way back because the tide had gone out. At times we would have to stop and pick a route through where there was adequate water to swim. We ended up working our way back across to the right end and there was only maybe two feet or less water over top of the reef. We quit kicking and used our arms in a breast stroke and I followed single file behind Gary.

I DO NOT recommend anyone else try this who is not experienced and confident. We learned a great deal while in Aruba, and had we not had those experiences, this would have been a very harrowing experience.

Anonymous – Oct 9, 2012 – First Check With the Lifeguard

I would recommend you first check with a lifeguard for the conditions of the day. When we were there and were going to go out, the lifeguard was adamant that it was not the day to pass the barriers. They had done enough rescues that day. Some days you may get by with it if you are a confident swimmer, other days – it is NOT worth the risk, as you are risking the lifeguards as well. Hanauma has had as many as 10-12 drownings per year, so lifeguard concern is not to be taken lightly.

I have a hunch some of these drownings in waist deep water are people who have picked up cone shells. There ought to be signage up all over with pictures of cone shells labeled “DO NOT TOUCH THIS” because I have seen an increase in the number of textile cones in Hawaii. One reef teacher in Kona said when they pull a dead diver out of the ocean, the first thing the coroner checks is if they’ve got a cone shell tucked into their suit.

I agree about the sunscreen, they could raise the admission price and provide coral safe sunscreen as well as raise public awareness about it.

Hanauma is a priceless treasure needing preservation.

Galen & Nicole – Oct 9, 2012 – Don’t Touch for Your Safety

Here is a link with pictures to the poisonous Cone shells.

The rule of thumb when snorkeling is don’t touch anything, to keep sea life healthy and you. The cone shell is a good example of why that rule is important.

TJ – Oct 11, 2012 – Question About Swimming Over Shallow Reefs

I love Hanauma Bay, especially the west end just inside the outer reef. Both times I was there they recommended NOT swimming past the reef. It’s a shame, because it’s a great place to explore.

I have a question for Cary. You said in shallow reefs you quit kicking and used the breast stroke to navigate. I found shallow reefs to be a problem getting out at Hanauma and quite nearly belly flopped on some sea urchins doing the same in Sharks Cove on the north shore.

You also mentioned what you had learned in Aruba. Any other tips for navigating shallow reefs? I agree that it’s harrowing and want to be better prepared next time.

Cary Bennett – Oct 11, 2012 – Navigating Shallow Reef Tops

I guess that the best thing I can suggest is to just go slowly and look for small “canyons” or passageways between the corals and use them to navigate. Take your time and stop to look around frequently to see if you can spot a way where there is a bit more water over the top of the reef. The thing that distressed me was that I did NOT want to do any damage to the reef, so, that was why I quit kicking altogether and used my arms only.

The largest advice is always be cautious (which I am sure that you are) and also check on the tide conditions before attempting to navigate areas that you know are going to be shallow if you will be going across during low tide. We would never have gone outside the inner reef area if the conditions had been bad. The winds were out of the east that day, and Hanauma is very sheltered from those winds. Again, no one should go outside the buoys at Hanauma unless they are confident swimmers with a good bit of experience snorkeling.

Galen & Nicole – Oct 11, 2012 – Shallow Snorkeling

We want to add a couple of things to the question about snorkeling over shallow reef tops. Be aware that sometimes, if there are currents, as the reef gets shallower, the currents can get much faster. Also keep in mind when swimming over shallow areas that while there may appear to be enough depth, a wave or ocean surge can come along and drop you on top of it. Really you should only swim over very shallow areas if it is super calm and protected, or if you have no choice.

Cary Bennett – Oct 13, 2012 – Shallow Reef Crossing

It was very calm that day, or we never would have gone out beyond the buoys. We purposely stayed away from the left end, where the waves break over the top of the reef, to make our way back across the reef. We started our return close to the middle, and, in the end, we wound up coming ashore on the right end of the beach (not planned, just found more water as we picked our way through the reef.)

John Floyd – Sep 20, 2014 – Outside the Reef Is Far Superior

Aloha all, the snorkeling outside the sheltering fringing reef of Hanauma Bay is typically far superior. Although the inside looks more enticing from above, there is little living coral. Larger fish are more rarely seen there, although one often does see uhu (parrotfish) and occasionally large omilu (Bluefin Trevally) and sometimes even White-tip Reef Sharks resting in underwater caves. They are a relatively harmless variety of shark – but don’t bother them.

As many warn, do not attempt to go out either of the channels unless you consider yourself a strong swimmer and an experienced snorkeler, and don’t go out by yourself. Before going to Hanauma Bay, it is best to check the surf reports, tide tables and to make sure it is not 7-10 days after a full moon, which is when the box jellyfish come in. An eastern or even southeastern swell will usually result in rough conditions there.

It’s easiest to come back in through the channel after the ebb of the low tide and before the high tide peaks. If you go out at a fairly high tide, you’re not restricted to the channels and should be able to swim over the fringing reef if there is no surf.

Sea life seems most concentrated along the outer edge of the fringing reef. The best relatively shallow (5-15 feet deep) coral is found toward the far right of the cable channel, so named because of the cable that runs toward it from out in the bay. Don’t be dismayed by an unusually murky area with lots of floating debris prior to getting to the targeted area. It gets much clearer after you pass it.

Schools of fish, turtles, eels, octopus, rays and/or sharks are frequently seen if one knows where to look. Check out a detailed aerial map of the bay and you can make out where the reef areas are. Typically, I just swim from one side of the bay to the other taking in as many reef areas as I can and looking from side to side while swimming over the sandy strips in hopes of spotting rays or flounder. One can swim hours there and not run out of areas to check out.

Happy exploring!

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