We Tried It: Hanauma Bay State Park
Want to take your kids snorkeling? Here are our family's 11 tips for making the most of a day at this famous bay.
Editor’s Note: This was written earlier and updated to reflect the hours and rates set when Hanauma Bay reopened on Dec. 2, 2020. As of late April, 2021, Hanauma Bay launched an online reservation system. Click here to reserve your time slot.
Who: Mom, Dad, two boys, 7 and 4
What: Snorkeling at Hanauma Bay
When: A weekday morning during summer break, 7:55 to 11:30 a.m.
I loved snorkeling at Hanauma Bay as a child. I’m sure most people who grew up on O‘ahu remember feeding the fish bread and frozen peas, and seeing large schools swim so close you could pet them. It was great fun for us but damaging to the coral and marine life. I think it’s wonderful that the bay now limits visitors, educates them on how to preserve the reef and bans fish feeding. But, I wondered if my boys would see as many fish or have as much fun snorkeling there as I did. At 4 and 7 years old, they’ve become little fish themselves so we gave it a try over summer break.
Hanauma Bay is usually open from 6:45 a.m. to 4 p.m., but the parking lot only holds 300 cars and shuts when full. Despite great plans to get there at 7 a.m., we arrived just before 8 a.m. Fortunately, we got there just in time. We paid our $1 parking fee and snapped up one of the last five parking spaces.
Entry to the bay is free for kamaʻāina and military but you still need to go through the ticket booth and watch a nine-minute educational film. We waited about 20 minutes to get in and the boys had fun playing on landscaped fake rocks and talking to tourists in the line. After the reopening in 2020, however, the capacity of the theater is 30 people, so you may have to wait a little longer for your turn.
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After the film, we had a very quick look at a few educational displays before the boys charged down the hill toward the beach. Most people congregated near the bottom of the path, so we walked farther to find a less crowded spot. It was nowhere near as crowded as I remember it being as a child.
My youngest son chose to wear goggles while the rest of us used full snorkel gear. My 7-year-old had practiced with a mask and snorkel in a pool and got the hang of it quickly. He even learned to blow water out of his snorkel. Oddly, he had a harder time getting used to wearing fins. I think this was because the water starts out very shallow, which makes it hard to walk or swim without kicking up sand.
Both boys were so eager to see fish that they swam in opposite directions. My husband and I each picked one to follow at a time, then switched each time we met back up. We all saw butterfly fish, tang, unicorn fish, goatfish, mullet and Hawaiian flagtail as well as a few trumpet fish, Moorish idol, boxfish and humuhumunukunukuapuaʻa. We especially loved seeing huge parrot fish biting off chunks of coral and brightly colored christmas wrasse and green-finned bird wrasse. The boys liked going into deeper spots, diving down and trying to spot creatures inside the coral. We saw a few sea cucumbers but no eels or sea turtles.
The hardest part for me was trying to follow the boys over the shallow sections of coral reef without touching it. The boys are small and light enough to skim the surface of the water. I got hung up on spiky rock a few times.
We stayed in the water for about an hour. Both boys were shivering after a half hour but were having too much fun to get out. Back on shore, we went to the thatched-roof education center to research the fish we’d seen. Volunteers let the boys hold the skulls, bones and shells of marine creatures.
Editor’s update: The education center along with the snorkel and locker rentals remains closed as of March 2021.
We had one more brief snorkel session and let the boys play in the sand. Then, we decided it was time to head back up the hill and grab lunch in Hawaiʻi Kai. We hopped on the trolley, took a few photos of the bay from the top and went on our way.
All-in-all, the parking, entry and film process was a lot quicker and easier than I thought it would be. Did we see as many fish as I had as a child? No. But, the water is much clearer now and we saw more species of fish. The beach is cleaner and less crowded and you can easily learn the names of the fish you just saw at the education center. So, our family was happy and I’m sure the marine life is happier now too.
Our 11 Tips
1. Arrive early. Depending on the day and season, the parking lot fills up between 7 and 9 a.m. It will reopen when there are more spaces available. But, we saw at least 20 open spaces when we left at 11:30 a.m. and the “Lot Full” sign was still up.
2. Don’t go on a Monday or Tuesday. Hanauma Bay is now closed every Monday and Tuesday as well as on Christmas and New Year’s Day.
3. Be ready to snorkel or swim. Wear swimwear, coral reef-safe sunscreen, sun shirts, comfortable slippers or sandals and bring masks, snorkels and fins or goggles. You can get cold snorkeling, so bring wet suit tops if you have them. You may want a waterproof bag or box for your keys, phone and credit cards if you don’t want to purchase a locker or leave valuables on the beach. An underwater camera or waterproof phone case will let you snap photos of the colorful marine life.
4. Bring water and snacks. You’re allowed to bring a cooler but glass and alcohol are prohibited. There is a snack bar at the top of the hill. It’s fairly pricey at $4.25 to $6.25 for bottled water, $9.25 for chicken strips and fries and $12 for a large fruit salad. If you do make the climb up the hill to eat and want to return to the beach, be sure to get your hand stamped so you don’t have to line up and watch the movie again.
5. Bring a kama’āina or military ID for free entry. Otherwise, admission is $12 for each person 13 years and older and parking is $3.
6. Stand at the front of the theater if you have small children. It is standing-room-only with railings to separate the rows. We propped our 7-year-old up on the railing behind us so he could see and a very tall man we’d met in line held our overly friendly 4-year-old son in his arms while we watched the film about the history of Hanauma Bay, conservation efforts and why you shouldn’t touch coral, litter, feed the fish etc.
7. Bring cash for the trolley. You will walk down a steep, paved path from the visitorʻs center to the beach. It costs a dollar per person to take the trolley down. We saved our money for the $1.25 ride back up from the water.
8. Sign up to avoid seeing the video later. After watching the educational film, you can write your name on a list at the information booth and you may enter the park without watching it on your next visit. This is good for a one-year period.
9. Have a buddy system. It’s easy to swim out too far or get turned around when you’re following a particular fish, so be sure you know who has eyes on each child.
10. Don’t worry if you don’t know how to snorkel or have very young children. You can use goggles and see just as much. Toddlers can also play in the sand or in the shallow water and there are lifeguards on duty from 7 a.m.
11. Visit the education center. You can learn about the sea creatures you just saw and other marine life. Our oldest really enjoyed this and asked lots of questions. Editor’s note: The education center is currently closed.
Hanauma Bay is located at 7455 Kalaniana‘ole Highway. It is currently open Wednesday through Sunday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., closed Christmas and New Year’s Day. Parking is $3, entry is $12 per person 13 years and older, free for kamaʻāina and military. hanaumabaystatepark.com