When visitors come to Hawaii, they usually have the ocean on their mind, and the best way to get up close and personal with the sea (ke kai) is by snorkeling. All you need is a mask, snorkel, and the ability to float around like a piece of driftwood to engage in this easy activity. Although many visitors travel all over O’ahu to search for the perfect spot, many are unaware that a much closer snorkeling gem is only steps away from their Waikiki hotel rooms.
Hawaii has over 400 species of fish that live in near shore coral reef habitats. Coral (which is a living animal) provides shelter and food for fish and other ocean creatures. Due to overfishing and pollution, a large amount of O’ahu’s coral reefs have been degraded. Marine Life Conservation Districts (MLCD) provide fishies and other aquatic life with a protected area to grow and breed by prohibiting fishing and any taking of marine life (including dead coral, shells, and seaweeds). Because of these protections, coral reefs in these areas again flourished. To date, there are eleven MLCD’s statewide.
Established in 1988, the Waikiki MLCD is a 76-acre preserve spanning from the groin at the end of Kapahulu Avenue to the western wall of the Natatorium. It is easily accessible on the Diamond Head side of Waikiki Beach via a walkway behind the Waikiki Aquarium. There you will find a quiet golden sand beach tucked into a calm cove with some of the most plentiful and tame marine life I have ever encountered.
On a sunny January afternoon, my boyfriend and I decided to take our stand-up paddleboard and snorkels for a cruise around the Waikiki MLCD. At first I was skeptical of what – if any – type of marine life we would see, however once I dove in I was greeted by schools of fish, healthy coral, and rare native limu (seaweeds). What was even more surprising was that the amount of marine life increased the closer to shore I got! Underneath the waters surface, a stones throw away from shore, I saw turtles, butterfly fish, the sticklike nunu peke (coronet fish), a sea slug and tons of brilliantly colored Hawaiian reef fish. It was truly a magical experience.
If you happen to venture out to Waikiki’s MLCD (I really hope you do!), or any reef habitat for that matter, It is important to remember some snorkeling etiquette to insure the preservation of these special places. Here are some tips:
1. Never Stand on the Reef: Besides getting a nasty cut, or accidentally stepping into an eel or sea urchins hidey-hole (ouch!), remember that coral reefs are fragile, living creatures. Consider them the condos of the sea, providing homes for one-third of the world’s fish species.
2. Always Have a Snorkel Buddy: Always having a snorkel buddy, no matter how close to shore you are. It’s important to have a friend watch your back in case of an emergency and besides; the best experiences are always shared!
3. Never Harass Turtles, Fish, or other Marine Life: It is important to remember not to touch fish or other marine life, no matter how tame they may seem. Also, touching a green sea turtle (an endangered species) can cost you a whopping $10,000 in fines, not to mention a nasty bite!
4. Always Be Aware of Your Surroundings: Although Hawaii’s tide changes aren’t as extreme as other parts of the world, it is crucial to be aware of your surroundings when snorkeling. Currents can easily pull you out in certain areas, or you may drift further down the coast then anticipated. Always designate a marker or boundary to keep you aware of where you are. It is also important to be aware of the surf. It can get big certain times of the year on different sides of the island, causing a hazard to inexperienced snorkelers. Lastly, remember to NEVER swim in murky water, near the end of river mouths, and at sunrise or sunset. Although shark attacks and sightings are rare in Hawaii, it’s always better to be safe than sorry. In Hawaii we have a saying: When in doubt, don’t go out!
5. Don’t feed the Fish: Hawaiian reef fish have a complex and evolved diet. Some feed on limu (seaweed), others are carnivorous and some even eat the reef itself. Feeding fish human food disrupts this natural cycle, as well as giving them bad tummy aches!
6. Take only Pictures, Leave with Only Memories: Coral reef communities are a fragile and interconnected web of wildlife. Removing any type of organism disrupts this balance, and can even cost you a hefty fine. Most ABC stores sell underwater disposable cameras and many digital cameras nowadays have underwater capacity. So snap away at your hearts delight and create marine memories that will last as long as the ocean is wide.