Except for kicking my fins occasionally to work against the waves, I feel suspended in space, peering through the water into a fantasy, sci-fi world. The inhabitants of this alternate universe right off the shores of Maui include canary-colored butterflyfish; long-spined sea urchins; brain coral; green turtles; iridescent, bucktoothed parrotfish grazing on coral; and the Hawaii state fish, humuhumunukunukuapua’a or just “humu-humu” for short. (The English name is Picasso triggerfish).
Hovering face down on the ocean surface, my breath rasps through my snorkel with Darth Vader–like exhalations. My pulse quickens with excitement when I spot a large Moorish idol. I gesture madly at the fish, hoping my husband—another stranger in this underwater galaxy—has spotted it too. All in a day’s fun in Maui, a great destination for snorkeling.
Nearly every day on our trip, Ken and I tried out a new beach with a reef not far away, and we were always greeted by wonderful undersea vistas.
General Snorkeling Advice
Beach Parking: Never leave valuables in your car at Maui beaches; thieves target beach lots, and especially rental cars. This was where our “rent-a-wreck” was perfect. Kihei Rent-a-Car offers new cars, but we picked the less-expensive option of driving an older model. Our Toyota had bleached paint, lots of scrapes, a stained interior, and the trunk was a bit rough around the edges, but it was sufficiently comfortable and the air-conditioning worked. And the biggest benefit was that we fretted less about getting broken into, and we didn’t worry at all about getting dings. Added bonus: Kihei Rent-a-Car is locally owned and the folks are really friendly. They also pick you up and drop you off at the airport for free.
Beach Closures: There were a few popular snorkel areas on the Maui coast that were closed to allow the ecosystem to recover from overuse. We were disappointed not to be able to snorkel in the Ahihi Kinau Natural Area Reserve—including the snorkeling coves near La Perouse Bay known as Kalaeloa (“Aquarium”) and Mokuha (“Fishbowl”)—but we respected these closures.
Too many snorkelers spoil the reefs and scare away fish. I fear that the volcanic crater of Molokini will be next on this list, as hundreds of snorkelers visit that location daily. Ask local dive/snorkel shops about places that currently ban snorkeling. See my tips for ocean-friendly snorkeling, including Don’t Wear Sunscreen. (How often do you get that advice?)
As you drive north on Hwy. 30 past Kapalua, you’ll reach the spot where you can pull over and look down upon the turquoise and azure waters of Honolua Bay, a marine preserve. We parked a little farther along in one of the three roadside parking areas, then walked through the lush tropical forest to reach this gem of a bay.
The beach is all black-lava boulders worn smooth by the ocean, and getting into the water—especially while wearing unwieldy fins—is a bit challenging. But with some effort, we were soon skimming over a large reef on the bay’s north side.
The delights included unicornfish, humu-humu, a variety of butterflyfish, a maray eel, and lots of colorful coral. A real thrill was encountering two turtles. We watched from a short distance as they dove, snacked on greenery in the rocks, and then surfaced for air.
While we were snorkeling, a catamaran sailed into the bay with snuba (a combination of snorkeling) and divers. At the mouth of the bay, surfers caught white frothy waves and rode them short distances.
Honolua Bay is often listed as the best snorkel site on the island, and I can see why. The water was clear, and because it’s a cove, snorkelers are protected from surge as long as they don’t go too far out.
Black Rock at Ka’anapali Beach
Guidebooks often tout Black Rock as a good place to snorkel, but I’ll never know. We couldn’t stomach Ka’anapali Beach, which was overly crowded. The three-mile-long stretch of golden sand on Maui’s is wall-to-wall high-rise resorts, restaurants, and shops. Not our cup of tea. And when we reached Black Rock—a rocky peninsula at the north end of the beach where ancient Maui residents believed that their spirits “jumped off” for the afterlife—we watched people lining up to do cannonballs into the water. This must have scared off fish, not to mention it seemed disrespectful of a sacred place. We just said “no.”
Near Palauea Beach, this Makena-area beach is a park, so there’s no development other than a three-story condo at the south end of this pretty beach. Conveniently, it does have a pretty large parking lot and a porta-potty.
We got a pretty early start with snorkeling here before the water got rough; even so, there was a lot of current, and if we hadn’t been vigilant, it would be easy to get slammed into a coral-covered rock.
We found several areas of healthy reef among the black lava rock. There were spots where the coral was magnificent, but the fish we saw weren’t as plentiful as at Honolua Bay. That said, we did enjoy the raccoon butterflyfish, the Chrismas wrasse, and filefish. The slate-pencil sea urchins were quite impressive, and we spent some time watching a pair of turtles. After we finished snorkeling, Ken and I sat for a while in the sand and admired this pretty beach.
We spent five nights at the Hale Hui Kai condos on Keawakapu Beach on the south side of Kihei, and we were amazed to find good snorkeling right outside our door! The goodies here included spotted eel, turtles, threadfin butterflyfish, “silly-string” shrimp, otherworldly sea urchins, and a pufferfish.
There did tend to be a lot of surge off this reef, and sadly I had to tell two sets of snorkelers not to stand on the coral because it kills it.
—Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor
Originally published March 11, 2014