When I first moved to the island of Oahu in Hawaii
last year, the first water activity I tried was snorkeling. And I quickly became hooked. Swimming
alongside rare tropical fish that can be found only in this part of the world is an amazing experience. What’s more, the entire family can enjoy snorkeling on Oahu. It’s fun, it’s inexpensive, it’s safe, and it’s easy.
Snorkel gear can be purchased at specialty shops anywhere on the island, or at one of Waikiki’s dozens of ABC Stores. The cost of the gear ranges in price depending on the brand name you purchase, or there are shops where you can rent your gear. But if you go snorkeling more than once on your trip, the gear pays for itself, so you might want to shell out the cash to buy your own flippers and mask. If you do, write your name on the gear in waterproof ink, in case someone else picks your gear up by mistake.
The greatest hazard involved with snorkeling might just be the hot Hawaiian sun. So, I recommend wearing a strong waterproof sunblock with at least an SPF of 15. You’ll hardly notice the sun while your flapping your fins on the surface of the cool ocean waters, but trust me, it’s there. And you and everyone else will notice your lobster-colored skin, sizzling and burning while waiting for your dinner table sipping a Mai Tai later that evening. So, wear that sunblock and maybe try to avoid the sun between 11 and 2 p.m. when the sun’s rays are particularly strong.
I also recommend picking up a waterproof disposable camera, so that you can capture your snorkeling experience on film. The camera is inexpensive and you can take great shots underwater of truly amazing exotic fish.
For those of you who are apprehensive about the ocean, fear not. The best places to snorkel have calm, fairly shallow waters. The ocean in Hawaii is almost always tepid, like bathwater. You’ll want to pick a spot where the water is crystal clear, and that’s not all that difficult in the waters surrounding Oahu.
But I’ll lead the way anyway…
My favorite spot to snorkel is Shark’s Cove. Located up North Shore, Shark’s Cove is an outstanding place to snorkel during the summer months, from May through October. The water is crystal clear and there are lots of fish to see, even the occasional turtle. Don’t let the name frighten ya, there are no sharks at Shark’s Cove. The only caveat is that it’s such a great spot, it’s sometimes crowded. But its location up North Shore, an hour’s drive from Waikiki, often leaves it practically empty. Try Shark’s Cove at least once on your vacation. Just be careful navigating to the water on the rocks, which can be slippery when wet.
If you like seeing turtles (and really, who doesn’t?), make your way over to Turtle Beach. The snorkeling is fine, though the water can get cloudy, making it difficult to see. Unlike Shark’s Cove, Turtle Beach lives up to its name with the friendliest turtles I’ve come across on the island. Turtle Beach is located halfway between Haleiwa town (a great rustic beach town up North Shore) and Waimea Bay. The turtles are friendly and harmless, but remember that it’s illegal to touch, handle or feed them. You may also see a sign telling you it’s illegal to ride them. Don’t laugh – when you see a large beautiful sea turtle gliding effortlessly through the water, you might be tempted.
When the waters are calm, Waimea Bay is an extraordinary place to snorkel. Located near Shark’s Cove, the best spot to snorkel at Waimea Bay is the south end. That’s the end closest to Haleiwa. Lots of fish, crystal clear water and beautiful views all around make Waimea Bay a spot you’ll want to come back to again and again.
On the leeward side of the island is the legendary Hanauma Bay. Snorkeling at Hanauma Bay is one of the most popular activities on the island. Hanauma Bay is a nature preserve with tons of fish. The water can be a bit cloudy, but the fish are so tame and so used to people that they’ll actually swim around you, completely unafraid. But in addition to lots of fish, there are often lots of people. I don’t like crowds, but Hanauma Bay has got ’em, so you have to deal. Hanauma Bay is so popular that, unlike most spots on the island, it has hours of operation. The bay is open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., but closed on Tuesdays. I highly recommend that you save Hanauma Bay for Saturday, when the bay is open until 10 p.m. for night snorkeling. Crowds are nonexistent and it’s a completely unique experience snorkeling at nighttime with a flashlight.
One last spot I highly recommend for snorkeling is the Ko Olina Lagoons. These protected manmade lagoons are located on the Waianae coast. They have great snorkeling near the openings to the open ocean. Developed in the 1990s, the four semi-circular lagoons are beautiful and boast amazing views during sunset. Even if you forget your snorkel gear at the hotel, check out Ko Olina at least once.
A few more tips before you head out of your hotel with your snorkel gear in hand. If you want to make this adventure a learning experience for the kids (or yourself), pick up a book on Hawaiian fish. Make a game out of identifying the fish you come across while snorkeling. Snap photos of them. See who can spot the most types.
Please don’t feed the fish. We have a delicate eco-system here on the islands, and feeding the fish introduces an unnatural behavior to the reef. Feeding the fish causes the variety of fish to dwindle. Bolder species do well and quickly crowd out meeker species.
Please don’t grab onto or stand on the coral. Coral is a living entity, and damaging it can kill it. Admire it, photograph it, but please be careful not to step on it or drift into it.
Spit into your mask to defog it. Gross? Okay, pick up Sea Drops or some other type of anti-fog cream. Spread it lightly and rinse it in the water.
When snorkeling, don’t use your arms. You will spook the fish and not see much. Move about using a gentle fin motion. That’s what fins are for.
Okay, I think you’re ready. Enjoy your vacation!