This nature preserve is excellent for families with small kids who want to snorkel in a safe, beautiful environment. Calm, shallow, and regulated by the State, Hanauma Bay is home to some of O‘ahu’s best coral and sea life. Lifeguards are always on duty, and conditions are usually calm.
Table of Contents
- About Hanauma Bay (history, the beach, and beach access)
- Snorkeling (snorkeling gear, where to snorkel, safety)
- Take care of the reef!
- Practicalities (when to go, getting there, facilities)
- Tours to Hanauma Bay
- Nearby attractions
1: About Hanauma Bay
Why is Hanauma Bay so famous? Well, for one, it’s the only dedicated snorkeling beach on O‘ahu, run and regulated by the State of Hawai‘i. There’s an entry fee for nonresidents ($12) and a parking charge ($1 for residents / $3 for nonresidents), but along with that come dedicated lifeguards, clean bathroom facilities, environmental reef-safety programming, and access to the island’s most calm, protected bay.
Hanamau Bay became a protected marine life conservation area and underwater park in 1967 but it wasn’t until 1990 that real efforts to restore its neglected and over-visited reefs were made. When the State took over, its goal was to integrate public access, reef restoration, and education. It forbade feeding the fish (once a beloved activity among Hanauma’s visitors) and incorporated educational programming about local marine life and reef ecosystems, which today are on display at the Visitor Center.
The bay itself is part of the Koʻolau Volcano (one of two volcanoes that make up O‘ahu), and is the remnants of an old volcanic cone. Historically, the bay was an excellent area for fishing, and the Hawaiian royalty used Hanauma as a place of retreat.
What to expect when visiting: mandatory safety video and beach access
Visitors who arrive at Hanauma Bay will have to watch a mandatory 9-minute safety video that educates about reef safety, proper snorkeling technique, and how visitors can avoid damaging the corals. Then, it’s a short but steep 10-minute walk from the Visitor Center on the upper cliffs down to the beach. If you don’t want to walk, there’s a tram that offers rides for $1 going down, and $1.25 going up (tram runs continuously).
Hanauma Bay is lined by a beautiful white sand beach that in itself is worth the trip. Note that there are not that many shady on the beach, so be sure to pack extra sun protection such as hats, sunglasses, and umbrellas if you plan to hang out on the beach for a while.
There are many good reasons Hanauma Bay has become one of the most popular places to snorkel in all of Hawai‘i.
A major one is that you don’t have to be a good swimmer enjoy snorkeling there. The water is typically very calm, and you can see quite a few fish just by wading in. There is a dense concentration of coral just offshore, a perfect fit for small children, who will be able to see many fish in shallow, calm water.
Fishing is not allowed in Hanauma Bay, and its marine population is as diverse as it gets in Hawai‘i. Trigger fish (our state fish, which we call the humuhumunukunukuapua’a), yellow tang, angel fish, trumpet fish, parrot fish, and butterfly fish (including the fish with the honor of having the longest Hawaiian name: the lauwiliwilinukunukuʻoiʻoi) can all be found in the bay.
After snorkeling, there are showers to hose off the salt water and convenient restrooms. The walk back up the hill can be tiring after all the swimming, so instead, consider paying for the $1 shuttle ride back up to the visitors center.
Should you bring your own, or rent snorkel gear?
Snorkel gear is available for rent on the beach at Hanauma Bay, though it is significantly more expensive than renting it elsewhere (standard set for $20; premium for $40) and the line can be quite long. We always bring our own, so do consider buying your own gear (or rent it) in town, so you can skip the waiting line and save some money.
Where to snorkel?
The interior, shallow reef has some very good snorkeling spots (see map below) but can be very crowded during peek times (9 a.m. – 2 p.m.). We suggest going very early, or arriving in late afternoon, to best enjoy snorkeling this reef. Good places to check out for beginning and advanced snorkelers alike are Sandmans Patch and the 3 lagoons (Back Door, Key Hole and Triangle).
Outside the main reef, there are opportunities for advanced snorkelers to go out into deeper water, where bigger fish can be seen, as well as Hawaiian green sea turtles.
As always ocean conditions vary and so do the best places to snorkel. The staff can always help you out so when in doubt please ask them where the best place to snorkel is that day, and you’ll be sorted.
Hanauma Bay is a very safe place to go snorkeling and lifeguards are on duty year round, but during rough water conditions some areas should be avoided. These areas are Witches’ Brew, a small peninsula and cove on the right side of the bay, and Toilet Bowl (also called Queen’s Bath), a small pool around the bay’s left point.
Rip currents in the channel near the telephone cables (“The Slot” in the map above) can be strong, especially during low tide. A vast majority of all lifeguard rescues was performed here (source), so pay extra attention to the currents when snorkeling here.
The Moloka‘i Express, a current near the left side of the bay’s mouth, is also hazardous during these conditions.
3: How to protect the coral
It is important to remember that you are interacting with a living organism when snorkeling at Hanauma Bay. Though thousands of people visit each day, the human impact on the reef can be minimized by following a few simple steps:
- Use reef-safe sunscreen. Many sunscreens contain harmful chemicals that can kill the reef. Read up on the new Hawai‘i sunscreen law, and ensure your sunscreen does not contain oxybenzone or octinoxate. [Don’t be fooled by “reef safe” marketing. Check the label to ensure what’s inside].
- Don’t step on coral. You’ll be surprised by how many people you’ll see standing on top of coral. Please be aware of where you are in the water, and what’s underneath you. When you need to rest, stand on sand or bare rock only. Standing on the coral can harm or kill it.
- Don’t feed the fish. Feeding the fish used to be allowed in Hanauma, but is now forbidden. While feeding the fish may make for good snorkeling, it has a negative overall impact on the ecosystem. Anyone feeding the fish will be asked to leave, or fined.
Mahalo for helping taking care of the bay by keeping these things in mind while visiting!
Visiting Hanauma Bay is pretty easy. Here are the details about when best to go (days and time), how to get there, and what kind of facilities you can expect:
When to go
Hanauma Bay is open daily to visitors from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. except for Mondays and Tuesdays, when the bay is closed to allow the reef and ecosystem to rest, free of human interference.
We recommend to arrive either very early, before 9 a.m., or after 1 p.m., to avoid the heavy crowds.
Hanauma Bay is located just under 11 miles (17 km) from Waikīkī and there are many ways to get there. Your options include:
- Taking local bus 22 from Kalakaua Ave in Waikīkī straight to Hanauma Bay, which takes about 30-45 minutes without traffic. Cost is $2.75 one way, or you can buy a one-day pass for $5.50.
- If you have a car, you can drive yourself. Parking is not expensive but there are limited spaces (about 300). If you’re self-driving, it’s best to arrive before 9 a.m., or after 1 p.m., to avoid heavy-use times.
- Taxis from Waikīkī will cost you approximately $40 each way.
- Tours offered to Hanauma Bay offer shuttle transportation from hotels in Waikīkī and occasionally snorkel gear rental (check to make sure).
Facilities at Hanauma Bay
- Beach Showers
- Lifeguard on Duty
- Parking lot: Paid ($1 for residents, $3 for non-residents) but limited availability. Arrive before 9 am or after 1 pm to avoid crowds.
- Food Concession Stand
- Picnic Tables
- Mask, Snorkel & Fin Rentals
- Locker Rentals
- Gift Shop
- Handicap Facilities
5: Tours to visit Hanauma Bay
Important: for the time being no commercial activities are allowed to operate in or transport visitors into Hanauma Bay. This includes commercial vehicles, taxis, and commercial tour groups including, but not limited to, sightseeing, scuba, or snorkel groups. As we expect these rules to relax in 2021 we leave the following information about taking a tour to Hanauma Bay for our readers.
Hanauma Bay allows commercial snorkeling tours to operate, which means you can also pay for the convenience of an “all-in” visit.
Typically these tours include pickup from hotels in Waikīkī and the use of snorkeling gear, but not the park entrance fee. Though they are called a “tour,” and some snorkel instruction is included on dry land, there is no guided experience in the water – aka, snorkeling is on your own.
Have a look at e.g. this tour with three pickup times daily (7:45 a.m.; 8:45 a.m.; and 10:15 a.m.). Snorkel gear and transportation are included in the $25 cost, but the entry fee is not, and you still have to watch the 9-minute video.
6: Things to do close to Hanauma Bay
Visiting Hanauma Bay typically takes a bit less than half a day, so you have plenty of room in your schedule to add another fun thing (or two) to your day. There are many other attractions nearby Hanauma Bay that can be combined with a visit, for example:
- For hiking, check out the nearby Koko Head Crater trail (difficult) or Makapuʻu Lighthouse Trail (beginner).
- To check out a nearby beach, head to Sandy’s, adjacent to the Halona Blowhole.
- For lunch, head to Hawai‘i Kai, where there are a variety of restaurants and cafes, including the Kona Brewing Company.