Snorkeling in Hawaii: Tips from My Experience

When I need to go to a happy place, I think of this experience.

Today is World Ocean Day, so I thought I would take this opportunity to tell you about snorkeling in Hawaii. It is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done in my life, in or out of the ocean. But before I tell you about my adventures, here are some tips that we learned about snorkeling, in no particular order.

  1. Bring your own equipment. Yes, you can most likely rent equipment in Hawaii, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll get a proper fit, and you won’t be sure what shape it’s in, or if it has been properly sanitized, or what outrageous amount of money you will be charged. Before our trip, we got some really nice, full-face snorkels. They cost about 90 bucks, but they had no leakage to speak of, and were quite comfortable. The same usually cannot be said of 30 dollar snorkels. We managed to find fins that were adjustable, and were right in that part of the rigid/flexible spectrum that made us feel content and confident as we swam. We also got some beach shoes with sturdy soles, because we knew we’d be walking over sharp rocks before and after the snorkeling.
  2. If possible, practice in a pool if you’ve never snorkeled before. Since we’re both relatively inexperienced, we had been preparing for our snorkeling adventures in Hawaii for months by using our equipment in our local YMCA pool. It’s a good thing, too, because using fins is really hard on your thighs, so I was grateful to have exercised those muscles prior to the trip. Swimming in an ocean full of waves while trying to avoid getting scraped up by coral is another level of endurance entirely. Being in shape for it is oh, so worth it!
  3. Use reef safe sunscreen. Regular suntan lotion washes off of you, leaves an oily, heat-producing sheen on the water’s surface, and causes toxic chemicals to permeate the reef. We assumed such lotions would be easy to find in Hawaii. In fact, we were shocked that any other types of sunscreen would be for sale in this state. But it turns out that reef safe lotion is hard to come by. My advice to you is to read this article, and order lotion in advance from its recommended products list, because the term “reef safe” isn’t regulated. Any lotion can use it. Read the ingredients. There are a lot of lotions that must be avoided if we want to maintain a living reef system worldwide. Yes, they may be more expensive, but it’s well worth it if it means you can enjoy your snorkel without worrying that you are helping to destroy the very thing you are marveling at.
  4. Use sunscreen, full stop. While snorkeling, your back is facing the sun, and since you’re in the water you don’t feel hot. I can’t tell you how many people I saw in Hawaii that were looking miserably lobster-red because they were hoping to get a nice tan while checking out the marine life. Being covered in blisters or sick as a dog from sun poisoning is a great way to ruin the rest of your vacation. (Been there. Done that, decades ago. I definitely don’t recommend it.)
  5. Never snorkel alone. You never know what might happen in a wild environment, so it’s prudent to have a snorkel buddy, and in fact, choose a beach where there are lifeguards. Some people who have ignored this tip are no longer around to tell the tale. At one point, I got so mesmerized while following a colorful school of fish that after they took off, I popped my head out of the water and saw… no one. It was one of those moments in life when I felt completely and utterly alone. I wasn’t in trouble, and I made it safely back to shore, but it really did wake me up to the potential risks.
  6. Don’t stand on coral. Much of it looks like rock, but it’s not, and any damage you do to it could take years to repair. You are entering a habitat. You wouldn’t walk into someone’s home and stand on their glass tabletop, would you? If you absolutely, positively have to stand, find a sandy spot. But even then, you might disturb something that is hiding under the sand, so proceed with caution.
  7. Even if there are trash cans on the beach, port out your garbage. Those cans can never be emptied often enough, and will overflow. No littering. Please. The world is not your dumpster. And garbage can be deadly to wildlife.
  8. If you’re going to use an underwater camera, practice with it in advance. I had high hopes of having a lot of gorgeous video to show you, dear reader, but we hadn’t thought to practice with the controls on our new Go Pro, and while we thought we were taking plenty of footage, in fact, we only got a minute or two. So now I just have to remember what it was like as I snorkel in my local pool, and I regret that no words can adequately convey to you the beauty I saw while snorkeling in Hawaii. I will post the “best of” our video below. But it’s kind of meh.(Fortunately we figured the go pro out prior to swimming with the manta rays. Read about that adventure here.)
  9. Keep your hands to yourself. Don’t try to feed the marine life. Don’t touch or harass any living creature. For their safety and yours, maintain a reasonable distance from wild animals who are just trying to go about their daily routine. Be pono. (Have respect.)
  10. Be aware of your surroundings. Snorkel in clear water, close to shore and within sight of a lifeguard. Yes, there are sharks. According to this hair-raising list of shark incidents that is maintained by the State of Hawaii, there have only been 6 human fatalities since 1995, which is practically nothing when you consider how many people go into the ocean in Hawaii on any given day, but if I counted correctly, there have been 127 other non-fatal incidents during that time-frame, and even a love nibble isn’t something that you want to experience from a shark. If you sort the list by activity type, you’ll find that the vast majority of snorkeling incidents were in deep, turgid waters. And by the way, there are other things that can hurt you, too, so use common sense, and enjoy the experience as safely as you can.
  11. Plan to snorkel toward the beginning of your trip. It is very important to be mindful of the weather, because it can change rapidly in Hawaii. If dark clouds are rushing toward you, or you hear thunder, or if the water looks like a washing machine, it’s not a good time to become one with nature. Even just windy days can cut down reef visibility quite a bit. We missed out on one of Hawaii’s most beautiful snorkeling sites, Pu-uhonua o Hanaunau (thank goodness it’s also called Two-Step) on the west coast of the big island, because the sky was turning black and we heard thunder. It will be one of the biggest travel regrets of my life that we had no time to reschedule. It is one of the best snorkel spots to encounter green turtles, dolphins and seals, and the thought that I missed that chance still brings tears to my eyes.

As I said, today is World Ocean Day, so let me tell you about my recent love affair with the Pacific Ocean, also known as our snorkeling adventures during a recent visit to Hawaii.

We had three amazing snorkeling experiences. The first two were on the island of Kauai. One was at Poipu Beach, on the south shore. A tour guide on another excursion told us that it was his favorite place to snorkel, so we had to check it out. The other was at Lydgate Park, on the east side of the island. On the big island, we went to Kahalu’u Beach on the Kona Coast.

Again, my apologies for not bringing back all the amazing footage I had hoped for. I’m sure you can google snorkeling at any one of these locations and find dozens of videos. It will be worth the effort.

But what was it like? I can only say that I have never been presented with so much dazzling color in my life. The fish, the sea urchins, the crabs, even the sea cucumbers were colorful. Under the water, it was very quiet. I felt like a peeping tom in a sacred place. And I also felt so very privileged. This was a gift. Mostly I floated along and watched the miracles unfold. At one point, I was surrounded by a school of Yellowfin Surgeonfish. It actually made me kind of emotional to be allowed among them. Here’s the footage.

Much of the coral close in was a surprising monochrome tan, but it was still full of vivid life. At one point I went into a hidden coral cove, and right in the center of it was a dome-shaped coral structure, about the size of a Volkswagen beetle, and it was a bright lime green on the sides and a rich lilac color on top. It made me gasp. I just floated there for about 10 minutes, burning this image on my retinas, while (unsuccessfully) recording it on my go pro. When I need to go to a happy place, I think of that moment, just me and this gigantic, gorgeous coral. It felt right. It felt good. I felt connected to the world in a way that I never have before.

Because we fell down on the job when it comes to capturing the images for this post, what you see below are pictures, pulled from the internet, of many of the types of fish I saw in Hawaii. I still can’t believe my luck. Get out there if you can, Dear Reader. There is still a bit of the planet left to enjoy. Don’t miss it.

If this little blog has broadened your horizons, check out my book!


Author: The View from a Drawbridge

I have been a bridgetender since 2001, and gives me plenty of time to think and observe the world.

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