Maui, rated one of the top 10 dive spots in North America has many great snorkling spots. It's common on any dive to see huge sea turtles, eagle rays, and small reef sharks, not to mention many varieties of angelfish, parrotfish, eels, and octopuses. Most of the species are unique to this area, which is unlike other popular dive destinations. In addition, the terrain itself is different from other dive spots. Here you'll find ancient and intricate lava flows full of nooks where marine life hide and breed. In the winter months divers are given a great thrill during humpback-whale season, when you can actually hear whales singing underwater.
Some of the finest diving spots in all of Hawaii lie along the Valley Isle's western and southwestern shores. Dives are best in the morning, when visibility can hold a steady 100 feet. If you're a certified diver, you can rent gear at any Maui dive shop simply by showing your PADI or NAUI card. Unless you're familiar with the area, however, it's probably best to hook up with a dive shop for an underwater tour. Tours include tanks and weights and start around $130. Wet suits and BCs (buoyancy compensators) are rented separately, for an additional $15 to $30. Shops also offer introductory dives ($100 to $160) for those who aren't certified. Before signing on with any of these outfitters, it's a good idea to ask a few pointed questions about your guide's experience, the weather outlook, and the condition of the equipment.
Most resorts offer introductory dive lessons in their pools, which allow you to acclimate to the awkward breathing apparatus before venturing out into the great blue. If you aren't starting from a resort pool, no worries. Most intro dives take off from calm, sandy beaches, such as Ulua or Kaanapali. If you're bitten by the deep-sea bug and want to continue diving, you should get certified. Only certified divers can rent equipment or go on more-adventurous dives, such as night dives, open-ocean dives, and cave dives.
There are several certification companies, including PADI, NAUI, and SSI. PADI, the largest, is the most comprehensive. A child must be at least 10 to be certified. Once you begin your certification process, stick with the same company. The dives you log will not apply to another company's certification. (Dives with a PADI instructor, for instance, will not count toward SSI certification.) Remember that you will not be able to fly or go to the airy summit of Haleakala within 24 hours of diving. Open-water certification will take three to four days and cost around $350. From that point on, the sky... or rather, the sea's the limit!
(, ) has beach entry. This West Maui marine preserve is alive with many varieties of coral and tame tropical fish, including large ulua (jack crevalle), kahala,barracuda, and manta rays. With depths of 20 to 50 feet, this is a popular summer dive spot, good for all levels. High surf often prohibits winter dives.
Only 3 mi offshore from Wailea on the South Shore, Molokini Crater is world renowned for its deep, crystal clear, fish-filled waters. A crescent-shaped islet formed by the eroding top of a volcano, the crater is a marine preserve ranging 10 to 80 feet in depth. The numerous tame fish and brilliant coral dwelling within the crater make it a popular introductory dive site. On calm days, the back side of Molokini (called Back Wall) can be a dramatic sight for advanced divers—giving them visibility of up to 150 feet. The enormous drop-off into the Alalakeiki Channel (to 350 feet) offers awesome seascapes, black coral, and chance sightings of larger pelagic fish and sharks.
On the South Shore, a popular dive spot is Makena Landing,
also called Five Graves or Five Caves. About 0.2 mi down Makena Road, you'll feast on underwater delights—caves, ledges, coral heads, and an outer reef home to a large green-sea-turtle colony (called Turtle Town). Entry is rocky lava, so be careful where you step. This area is for the more experienced diver. Rookies can enter farther down Makena Road at Makena Landing, and dive to the right.
South of Makena Landing, the best diving by far is at Ahihi Bay and La Pérouse Bay,
both South Maui marine preserves. Unfortunately, Ahihi Bay is part of the newly restricted Ahihi-Kinau Natural Area Reserve and is closed to all foot traffic until July 31, 2010. If you're visiting after this date, you can look forward to exploring an area the locals call Fishbowl, which is a small cove right beside the road, next to a hexagonal house. Here you'll find excellent underwater scenery, with many types of fish and coral. Be careful of the rocky bottom entry (wear reef shoes if you have them). Because no commercial dive boats are allowed in this area, it can only be reached off-shore. It can get crowded, especially in high season. If you want to steer clear of the crowds, look for a second entry ½ mi farther down the road—a gravel parking lot at the surf spot called Dumps. Entry into the bay here is trickier, as the coastline is all lava. La Pérouse Bay, formed from the last lava flow 20 years ago, brings you the best variety of fish—more than any other site. The lava rock provides a protective habitat, and all four types of Hawaii's angelfish can be found here. To dive the spot called Pinnacles, enter anywhere along the shore, just past the private entrance to the beach. Again, wear your reef shoes, as entry is sharp. To the right, you'll be in the marine reserve; to the left, you're outside. Look for the white, sandy bottom with massive coral heads. Pinnacles is for experienced divers only. Although La Pérouse Bay remains open to the public, there are now strict limits to its land access, so check with a guide regarding any trail closures.
Equipment, Lessons and Tours
Ed Robinson's Diving Adventures.
Ed wrote the book, literally, on Molokini. Because he knows so much, he includes a "Biology 101" talk with every dive. An expert marine photographer, he offers diving instruction and boat charters to South Maui, the back side of Molokini, and Lanai. Weekly night dives are available, and there's a 10% discount if you book three or more days. Check out the Web site for good info and links on scuba sites, weather, and sea conditions. Dives start at $135. , , . ..
With more than 25 years of diving experience, this West Maui shop offers tours of Maui, Molokini, and Lanai. Big charter boats (which can be crowded, with up to 24 divers per boat) leave daily for Molokini Crater, Back Wall, Lanai, Turtle Reef, and more. A Continental breakfast and deli lunch are included. Rates range from $109 to $209. For less-experienced divers, they offer a "Discover Scuba" lesson daily., , . . .
Maui Dive Shop.
With six locations island-wide, Maui Dive Shop offers scuba charters, diving instruction, and equipment rental. Excursions, offering awe-inspiring beach and boat dives, go to Molokini Back Wall (most advanced dive), Shipwreck Beach on Lanai, and more. Night dives and customized trips are available, as are full SSI and PADI certificate programs. , , . ..
Mike Severns Diving. This company takes small groups of up to 12 certified divers to both popular and off-the-beaten-path dive sites. Boat trips leave from Kihei Boat Ramp, and go wherever conditions are best: the Marine Life Conservation District, Molokini's Back Wall, St. Anthony shipwreck, Makena, La Pérouse, or the Kanaio Coast. You're free to have a guide during your dive, or go into the depths alone. The cost starts at $145 for a two-tank dive. , , . ..
Shaka provides personalized dives including a great four-hour intro dive ($89), a refresher course ($89), scuba certification ($395), and shore dives ($59) to Ulua, Turtle Town, Bubble Cave, and more. Typical dives last about an hour, with 30 to 100 feet visibility. Dives can be booked on short notice, with afternoon tours available (hard to find on Maui). Shaka also offers night dives and torpedo scooter dives. The twilight two-tank dive is nice for day divers who want to ease into night-diving. A fun bit of trivia: owner Shaka Doug holds the world record for thickest diving logbook and most bubble rings, 34, blown in one breath. , , . ..
Everyone visiting Maui should duck underwater to meet a sea turtle, moray eel, or humuhumunukunukuapuaa—the state fish. Visibility is best in the morning, before the wind picks up.
There are two ways to approach snorkeling—by land or by sea. Daily around 7 am, a parade of boats heads out to Lanai or Molokini Crater, that ancient cone of volcanic cinder off the coast of Wailea. Boat trips offer some advantages—deeper water, seasonal whale-watching, crew assistance, lunch, and gear. But you don't need a boat; much of Maui's best snorkeling is found just steps from the road. Nearly the entire leeward coastline from Kapalua south to Ahihi-Kinau offers prime opportunities to ogle fish and turtles. If you're patient and sharp-eyed, you may glimpse eels, octopuses, lobsters, eagle rays, and even a rare shark or monk seal.
Snorkel sites here are listed from north to south, starting at the northwest corner of the island.
On the west side of the island, just north of Kapalua, Honolua Bay
(, ) Marine Life Conservation District has a superb reef for snorkeling. When conditions are calm, it's one of the island's best spots with tons of fish and colorful corals to observe. Make sure to bring a fish key with you, as you're sure to see many species of triggerfish, filefish, and wrasses. The coral formations on the right side of the bay are particularly dramatic and feature pink, aqua, and orange varieties. Take care entering the water; there's no beach and the rocks and concrete ramp can be slippery.
The northeast corner of this windward-facing bay periodically gets hammered by big waves in winter, and high-profile surf contests are held here. Avoid the bay then, and after a heavy rain (you'll know because Honolua stream will be running across the access path).
Just minutes south of Honolua, dependable Kapalua Bay
(, ) beckons. As beautiful above the water as it is below, Kapalua is exceptionally calm, even when other spots get testy. Needle and butterfly fish dart just past the sandy beach, which is why it's sometimes crowded. Sand can be particularly hot here; watch your toes!
(, ), at the northernmost tip of Kaanapali Beach on West Maui, is tops for snorkelers of any skill level. The entry couldn't be easier—dump your towel on the sand in front of the Sheraton Maui resort and in you go. Beginners can stick close to shore and still see lots of action. Advanced snorkelers can swim beyond the sand to the tip of Black Rock, or Kekaa Point, to see larger fish and eagle rays. One of the underwater residents, a turtle named "Volkswagen" for its hefty size, can be found here. He sits very still; you must look closely. Equipment can be rented on-site. Parking, in a small lot adjoining the hotel, is the only hassle.
Along Honoapiilani Highway (Route 30) there are several favorite snorkel sites including the area just out from the cemetery at Hanakaoo Beach Park (, ). At depths of 5 and 10 feet, you can see a variety of corals, especially as you head south toward Waihikuli Wayside Park. Farther down the highway, the shallow coral reef at Olowalu (, ) is good for a quick underwater tour, though the best spot is a ways out, at depths of 25 feet or more. Closer to shore, the visibility can be hit or miss, but if you're willing to venture out about 50 yards, you'll have easy access to an expansive coral reef with abundant fish life—no boat required. Swim offshore toward the pole sticking out of the reef. Except for during a south swell, this area is calm and good for families with small children; turtles are plentiful. Boats sometimes stop nearby (they refer to this site as "Coral Gardens") on their return trip from Molokini.
Excellent snorkeling is found down the coastline between Kihei and Makena on the South Shore. The best spots are along the rocky fringes of Wailea's beaches, Mokapu, Ulua, Wailea, and Polo, off Wailea Alanui Drive. Find one of the public parking lots sandwiched between Wailea's luxury resorts, and enjoy these beaches' sandy entries, calm waters with relatively good visibility, and variety of fish species. Of the four beaches, Ulua has the best reef. You can glimpse a box-shaped puffer fish here, and listen to snapping shrimp and parrot fish nibbling on coral.
Between Maui and neighboring Kahoolawe, 3 mi offshore from Wailea, is the world-famous Molokini Crater. Its crescent-shaped rim provides a sanctuary for birds and marine life and draws masses of snorkel and dive tours year-round. Most snorkeling tour operators offer a Molokini trip. The journey to this sunken crater takes more than 90 minutes from Lahaina, an hour from Maalaea, and half an hour from the South Shore.
At the very southernmost tip of paved road in South Maui liesAhihi-Kinau (, ) Natural Area Reserve, also referred to as La Pérouse Bay. Despite its barren, lava-scorched landscape, the area recently gained such popularity with adventurers and activity purveyors that it had to be closed to commercial traffic and is temporarily closed to all foot traffic (until July 31, 2010). If you're visiting Maui after this date, be sure to visit. A ranger is stationed at the parking lot to assist visitors. It's difficult terrain and sometimes crowded, but if you make use of the rangers' suggestions (stay on marked paths, wear sturdy shoes to hike in and out), you can experience some of the reserve's outstanding treasures, such as the sheltered cove known as the "Fish Bowl." Be sure to bring water: this is a hot and unforgiving wilderness.
Tips on Safe Snorkeling
Snorkel with a buddy and stay together.
Choose a location where lifeguards are present.
Ask the lifeguard about conditions, especially currents, before getting in the water.
Plan your entry and exit points prior to getting in the water.
Swim into the current on entering and then ride the current back to your exit point.
Pop your head above the water periodically to ensure you aren't drifting too far out, or too close to rocks.
Think of the ocean as someone else's home—don't take anything that doesn't belong to you, or leave any trash behind.
Don't touch any ocean creatures; they may reveal hidden stingers.
Avoid bumping against coral. Touching it can kill the delicate creatures that reside within the hard shell.
Wear a rash guard; it will keep you from being fried by the sun.
When in doubt, don't go without a snorkeling professional; try a guided tour.
Most hotels and vacation rentals offer free use of snorkel gear. Beachside stands fronting the major resort areas rent equipment by the hour or day. Don't shy away from asking for instructions; a snug fit makes all the difference in the world. A mask fits if it sticks to your face when you inhale deeply through your nose. Fins should cover your entire foot (unlike diving fins, which strap around your heel). If you're squeamish about using someone else's gear (or need a prescription lens), pick up your own at any discount shop. Costco and Long's Drugs have better prices than ABC stores; dive shops have superior equipment.
Maui Dive Shop.
You can rent pro gear (including optical masks, boogie boards, and wet suits) from six locations island-wide. Pump these guys for weather info before heading out—they'll know better than last night's news forecaster, and they'll give you the real deal on conditions. , ,. . .
The same boats that offer whale-watching, sailing, and diving also offer snorkeling excursions. Trips usually include visits to two locales, lunch, gear, instruction, and possible whale or dolphin sightings. Some captains troll for fish along the way, and, if they're lucky, will occasionally catch big game fish such as a marlin or mahimahi.
Molokini Crater, a crescent about 3 mi offshore from Wailea, is the most popular snorkel cruise destination. You can spend half a day floating above the fish-filled crater for about $80. Some say it's not as good as it's made out to be, and that it's too crowded, but others consider it to be one of the best spots in Hawaii. Visibility is generally outstanding and fish are incredibly tame. Your second stop will be somewhere along the leeward coast, either "Turtle Town" near Makena or "Coral Gardens" toward Lahaina. Be aware that on blustery mornings, there's a good chance the waters will be too rough to moor in Molokini and you'll end up snorkeling some place off the shore, which you could have driven to for free. For the safety of everyone on the boat, it's the captain's prerogative to choose the best spot for the day.
If you've tried snorkeling and are tentatively thinking about scuba, you may want to try snuba, a cross between the two. With snuba, you dive down 20 feet below the surface, only you're attached to an air hose from the boat. Many of the boats now offer snuba as well as snorkeling; expect to pay between $45 and $65 in addition to the regular cost of a snorkel cruise.
Snorkel cruises vary slightly—some serve mai tais and steaks whereas others offer beer and cold cuts. You might prefer a large ferryboat to a smaller sailboat, or vice versa. Whatever trip you choose, be sure you know where to go to board your vessel; getting lost in the harbor at 6 am is a lousy start to a good day. Bring sunscreen, an underwater camera (they're double the price on board), a towel, and a cover-up for the windy return trip. Even tropical waters get chilly after hours of swimming, so consider wearing a rash guard. Wet suits can usually be rented for a fee. Hats without straps will blow away, and valuables should be left at home.
Maui Classic Charters.
This company offers two top-rate snorkel trips at a good value. Hop aboard the Four Winds II, a 55-foot, glass-bottom catamaran, for one of the most dependable snorkel trips around. You'll spend more time than the other charter boats do at Molokini and enjoy turtle-watching on the way home. The trip includes optional snuba ($49 extra), Continental breakfast, and a deluxe barbecue lunch, beer, wine, and soda. For a faster ride, try the Maui Magic, Maalaea's fastest power cat. This boat takes fewer people (45 max) than some of the larger vessels, offers snuba, and plays Hawaiian music on the ride. This one's good for kids. Trips range from $98 to $109; book online at least seven days in advance for a $10 discount. , .. .
With this company, you get to snorkel and sail—they have some of the fastest vessels in the state. As long as conditions are good, you'll hit prime snorkel spots in Molokini, Lanai, and occasionally, Coral Gardens. The Molokini trip offers a simple breakfast of fruits and bagels, deli lunch by the crater, juice, soda and beer. The Lanai trip includes a Continental breakfast, a picnic lunch on the beach, snacks, open bar, a snorkel lesson, and plenty of time in the water. The friendly crew takes good care of you, making sure you get the most value and enjoyment from your trip. , . . .
Teralani Sailing Charters.
Snorkel choices vary between a regular trip that serves a deli lunch or a premier snorkel that's one hour longer with two snorkel sites and a barbecue-style lunch. Freshwater showers are available, and so is an open bar after the second snorkel stop. A friendly crew provides all your gear, flotation device, and a snorkeling crash course if necessary. Although there is no official naturalist aboard this comfortable vessel, crew members don't shy from imparting helpful tidbits about the snorkel sites and its marine life. Boarding is right off Dig Me Beach in front of Leilani's at Whalers Village. Parking is convenient and validated. , , . . .
The longest-running operation on Maui is the Coon family's Trilogy Excursions. In terms of comprehensive offerings, this company's got it: six beautiful multihulled sailing vessels (though they usually only sail for a brief portion of the trip) at three departure sites. All excursions are manned by energetic crews who will keep you well fed and entertained with stories of the Islands and plenty of corny jokes. A full-day catamaran cruise to Lanai includes Continental breakfast and barbecue lunch on board, a guided van tour of the island, a "Snorkeling 101" class, and time to snorkel in the waters of Lanai's Hulopoe Marine Preserve (Trilogy has exclusive commercial access). There is a barbecue dinner on Lanai and an optional dolphin safari. The company also offers a Molokini and Honolua Bay snorkel cruise that is top-notch. Many people consider a Trilogy excursion the highlight of their trip. ,. . .