The writer’s 8-year-old nephews were happy to splash in the shallow water and look for fish while the rest of their crew snorkeled. // © 2017 Samantha Davis-Friedman
Feature image (above): Oahu’s Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve is a family favorite for marine activities. // © 2017 Samantha Davis-Friedman
Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve is consistently ranked among the top family activities on the island of Oahu — and with good reason.
Located on the southeast coast of Oahu and just 10 miles from Waikiki, Hanauma Bay is a former volcanic crater that became a protected marine life conservation area in 1967. With a white sandy beach and crystal-clear water, the bay is the perfect spot to see more than 400 species of Hawaiian fish, including the humuhumunukunukuapuaa — which is not only a tongue twister, but also Hawaii’s state fish.
While snorkeling is popular all over the Hawaiian Islands, snorkeling excursions often require taking a boat to one of the many offshore reefs, and tours can take at least a few hours, if not the entire day. But for families who might not be up for that level of ocean adventure, or who may have children who aren’t sufficiently ready for open-ocean swimming, Hanauma Bay is the perfect option.
Here, families can snorkel right from the beach, and even nonswimmers can see marine life by simply looking down at their feet while standing close to shore. Parents won’t have to worry about kids being afraid in deep water, and everyone can relax, see colorful fish and maybe even spot a sea turtle or two.
Hawaiian Ocean Promotions (HOP) Hanauma Bay snorkeling packages are a great choice for clients staying in Waikiki because the tours include transportation to and from many Waikiki hotels, eliminating the hassle of driving and parking in the often-crowded Hanauma Bay lot. Families not staying in Waikiki can easily meet their tour group at the HOP office, located just a few minutes from the bay.
HOP offers three different tour options, but no matter which families choose, they only need to bring beach towels, apply sunscreen and be ready to have a great time. Rates and packages can be found on the operator’s website; all tours include snorkels, masks, fins and optional life vests. The Deluxe Package adds a beach umbrella, beach chairs and a cooler, but these items are also available for anyone to rent for a nominal fee. For snorkelers who wear prescription eyeglasses, corrected-vision snorkel masks with a wide range of prescription grades are also available for rent.
The basic snorkeling and Deluxe Package tours are unescorted, but lifeguards are on duty, and there is a hut on the beach that is manned by volunteers who are happy to help with gear or to answer questions.
For first-time snorkelers who might not be comfortable going it alone, HOP offers guided tours where experts provide step-by-step instruction, then accompany the group on their snorkeling adventure. Afternoon guided tours also include lunch.
“Hanauma Bay is a great location for families to experience snorkeling, especially for beginners,” said Jonah Kunikane, vice president of HOP. “The reef is very close to shore, and kids are able to see fish in the shallow area, so everyone in the family can enjoy this experience.”
Since my family had snorkeled before, we opted for the basic tour, and we found the entire process to be smooth. We were picked up from our Waikiki hotel at 8:30 a.m. and taken to the HOP office to be fitted for masks and fins. Even with our group of seven, getting us all fitted and on our way only took about 15 minutes. We rented beach chairs, but we were advised against renting a boogie board with a “window” for my 8-year-old nephews, because we were told they wouldn’t be able to see the fish well. (We appreciated their honesty, especially when we weren’t stuck carrying the board later on.)
After the fitting, a HOP taxi took us right to the Hanauma Bay visitor center. For the return to Waikiki, there are three available pickup times: 11:45 a.m., 1:15 p.m. and 2:45 p.m. We opted for the 1:15 p.m. pickup, which gave us plenty of time in the water and got us back to our hotel at 2 p.m.
Note: The entrance fee to Hanauma Bay is only included in the price of the guided tour, so all other guests will need to pay $7.50 for each person age 13 or over. In addition, the beach is accessed by a paved path down a hill, but a trolley is also available for $1.25 per person each way for anyone who prefers not to walk (deluxe and guided packages include a trolley pass). Additionally, only limited snacks are available for purchase at the bay, so families may want to bring lunch if they plan to stay the afternoon.
All in all, it was a successful snorkeling tour for our family. The inexperienced snorkelers felt perfectly safe in the shallow areas of the bay; the more seasoned snorkelers were able to venture into deeper water beyond the wave break; and my young nephews were happy to see fish at the shoreline, where they could easily stand. HOP made everything easy so that we could spend less time stressing and more time relaxing and having fun.