Undoubtedly one of the most visited sites on Oahu, the nature preserve of Hanauma Bay provides one of the easiest accesses to a coral reef teeming with fish. Upwards of one million people visit the bay each year. While many of these visitors are tourists, locals still make it out to enjoy the waters, snorkeling, and the beach. Since we live nearby, it was easy enough for us to get up early to beat the crowds and enjoy a morning of snorkeling and sun.

We arrived on a Sunday morning at around 7:15AM. The main parking lot was roughly 70% full already! Visitors to the park are required to go through an 8-minute orientation video about the bay and proper conduct. This video is required once a year and after you’ve watched it you can write your name and info down so you don’t need to watch it again for the remainder of the calendar year. Although the parking lot was fairly full the beach itself was still very quiet.

After finding a spot on the left side of the bay (this has the biggest open sand area in the bay, making it easy for people to get in and out), we applied our sunscreen and made it over to the water. Since it was still fairly early the water was cold, but after a few minutes of splashing around your body acclimates just fine.

Snorkeling is by far the main activity here in the bay

While there are folks who come here to swim or to brave the reef break and surf farther out in the bay, the vast majority of visitors are here to snorkel. Hanauma Bay, a collapsed volcanic crater, creates a unique natural barrier to the open ocean. This makes the bay safer than most. Coral reef formations can be found no more than a few feet off the shore. These reefs are home to a myriad of different fish and ocean wildlife, some of which are unique to Hawaiian waters.

A rare sighting of a cornetfish while snorkeling

While you’ll run into many of the same species in Hanauma Bay again and again, there are a few that are a bit more elusive. The cornetfish is one that the orientation video mentions is a rare find, and we were lucky to come across one on the eastern side of the bay. Our GoPro camera has come in handy on several oceanic adventures, and today was no different, as it allowed me to snag a video and this still of the cornetfish.

Most of the time you’ll run into a pair or trio of fish, but there are occasional schools of fish as well

As you swim through the reefs you’ll encounter a small grouping of fish here-and-there, typically maybe a handful at a time at most. The fish, while accustomed to humans, still dart in and out of the reef. We also happened across a small school of fish over one of the more open sandy areas of the bay. It was curious to see them move and react as a group to approaching snorkelers.

Hanauma Bay is a great place for visitors and residents of Hawaii alike. My recommendation would be to go earlier in the morning to beat the crowds and the afternoon heat. There is almost no shade on the beach, so as the sun makes its way over the rim of the crater it can bring with it an intense heat. Be sure to bring sunscreen!