"Roughly 25 percent of the fish species here are found only in the Islands" -Ann Fielding, author and snorkel guide
Take away Ann Fielding's mask and fins, and she feels like a fish out of water. After moving to Hawaii in 1967 in search of warm water and a career path that would keep her in it, Fielding completed her degree in zoology at the University of Hawaii and became an educator at the Waikiki Aquarium before writing three popular books on Hawaii's undersea creatures. Today she runs small-group snorkel trips on Maui. Over the years, Fielding has taught thousands how to respect the sanctity of the reefs. Her passion to educate comes in part from her understanding that Hawaii is truly a unique marine environment.
"Roughly 25 percent of the fish species here are found only in the Islands," says Fielding. "We are the only tropical island group with this high rate of endemism. That means you can get color combinations and types of animals that are common here but very rare elsewhere." A few of her endemic favorites: the saddle wrasse, the bluestripe butterfly fish, and the whitesaddle goatfish.
Unlike those in much of the rest of the Pacific, Hawaii's coral reefs are right along the shoreline ― sometimes literally steps from the beach. "Wherever there are rocks in the water in Hawaii, there will most likely be some fish, sea urchins, and coral," Fielding says. "You don't need a boat. It's so much easier to jump in and enjoy."
- Snorkel early in the day, before Hawaii's trade winds ruffle the surface and stir up sand in the water, which reduces visibility.
- Be careful when snorkeling in waves above 2 feet in height.
- Watch out for currents whipping around points and reefs; when in doubt, talk to a lifeguard.
- The calmer and safer waters tend to be on the more sheltered leeward sides of islands.
Rentals are widely available at hotels and dive shops.
The big draw here is an outstanding horseshoe-shaped reef that harbors myriad sea life and is a rare respite from winter's rough water on Kauai's exposed North Shore. Even so, snorkeling at Tunnels, where there are no lifeguards, is safest between May and September. Sharks and turtles are often spotted here, and the fish are copious.
INFO: Hawaii State Parks (www.hawaii.gov/dlnr or 808/274-3446). Park on State 56, 4 miles west of Hanalei; Tunnels is a 0.25-mile walk down the beach to the east.
Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve
This natural aquarium is actually a volcanic crater that collapsed 35,000 years ago. Fringing reefs make for mellow snorkeling and reef fish concentrations that are higher than anywhere else in the state. Get there early, as the parking lot often fills up.
INFO: Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve (closed Tue; $5 nonresidents, residents free; $1 parking; 7455 Kalaniana―ole Hwy./State 72; www.hanaumabayhawaii.org or 808/396-4229). From Waikiki take I-H1 (which becomes State 72) east about 12 miles to signed entry.
Makena (Malu`aka) Beach Park
This strand in front of the Maui Prince Hotel offers good snorkeling on the southern side in the morning hours, with lots of live coral and turtles. South swells can create strong waves and bad conditions.
INFO: Maui County Department of Parks and Recreation (www.co.maui.hi.us or 808/879-4364). Park in the public lot just past the Maui Prince Hotel on Makena Alanui Dr. in Makena.
4. BIG ISLAND
Pu`uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park
In Hawaiian the name means "the sacred or sanctified hill at the place called Honaunau," and it remains a sacred place to natives. Honaunau Bay, just north of this national park, harbors an aquatic temple par excellence, teeming with healthy coral and fish.
INFO: Pu`uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park ($5 per vehicle; www.nps.gov/puho or 808/328-2288). From Kona take State 11 south to State 160 and follow it 3 1/2 miles to the beach.