Coming to my island for a vacation? There are three things I always recommend the first-time visitor do. First, get in the air. Secondly–go to a luau. Finally, I advise people of every age to get in the water and go snorkeling. You will find your mind going back to that experience over and over through the years much more so than many of your other travel experiences. Part I of this series discuses Snorkeling Gear; Part II of this series will discuss Snorkeling Technique and Part IV will cover Snorkeling Safety; Part V of the series will cover snorkel spots on the Big Island.
Now, let’s talk a moment about snorkeling etiquette and protecting the reef and the animals who live there.
Please do not feed the fish, it disrupts their natural feeding habits and you may be injured. Reef fish are territorial and do occasionally “nip”. You should not chase, harass or touch them (this includes octopi); the oils on your fingers will injure their skin and fish may carry diseases which they can pass to you on your hands. For photographing reef fish without feeding them, whether snorkeling or scuba diving, simply find their feeding spot (usually a boulder or dead coral head teeming with algae) and wait calmly and silently nearby. They will slowly begin to check you out and if you can remain still long enough, eventually surround you leading to excellent photos and a very memorable experience.
Snorkeling etiquette calls for protecting not only the reef animals, but also the fragile corals growing on the reef. Corals, actually colonies of very small animals, take hundreds of years to form the structures visible today; they feed, shelter and provide habitats for other reef animals. Coral reefs also protect the lagoons and shoreline from waves and sand erosion. Corals are at the very root of Hawai’ian history and culture; the Hawaiian creation chant places the origin of life in the sea, beginning with a coral polyp.
Simply touching corals to see what they feel like can cause the death of an entire colony. Oils from your skin can disturb the delicate mucous membranes which protect the animals from disease. Please don’t walk upon or stand on coral, as this can kill the living coral polyps which, as the builders of the entire reef structure, are the very foundation of the reef ecosystem. Sunscreen washing off your body can kill coral; wear a t-shirt and a swim cap for UV protection and put your sunscreen on AFTER you come out of the water.
Called Honu by Hawaii’s natives, the Hawaiian Green Sea turtle is beautiful, serene and seeming wise. Though their species have swum the oceans for over 200 million years, peacefully feeding on algae and invertebrates, this highly successful product of amphibian evolution is in grave danger. Loss of habitat, hunting and molestation by humans has conspired to push the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle to the very verge of extinction.
Protected now by state and federal law, the population of once millions of individuals has been decimated to just a few hundred thousand; although they are making a comeback, Hawaii’s honu are still very much endangered.
Do not approach basking turtles closely, never touch or pick them up. Harassing turtles carries a stiff fine and in any case, touching the turtle is a good way to get a raging salmonella infection. If honu are swimming near where you are, do not approach or chase them; always swim to the side of them, never above (as a predatory shark would) nor below them (so they won’t feel that their soft belly is at risk).
Anyone who observes their beauty and grace underwater easily understands why the Hawai’ians base their word for “peace”, “honua”, on their name for the green sea turtle, “honu”.
Although harder for the snorkeler to approach, but certainly no less in danger of molestation, are the marine mammals: dolphin, seals and whales. In general, it is illegal, dangerous and generally a bad idea to approach marine mammals within 100 yards; 300 yards for females with calves. Dolphins and seals, in particular, may choose to approach you-just remember, this ain’t “Flipper”-these are wild animals and they bite. Hard. If approached, remain calm (absolutely entranced, of course, but calm); do not approach any young animals and do not reach out to them as they may interpret this as aggression on your part and possibly bite. Male seals may exhibit dominant behavior and have been known to *ahem* mount swimmers. Avoid these unpleasantries by observing and enjoying these animals from a distance. About whales…uh, wait a minute…if there is anybody out there crazy enough to swim out into the open ocean and harass a 60,000 pound animal with a mouth twice the size of a king-size bed, nothing I say is going to stop them…just use some common sense, OK? Leave them alone—besides…it’s the law.
And now a word about sharks–two words, actually: “Don’t Worry”. There’s good news and bad news about sharks in Hawaii–first the bad news: if you are in water deeper than your knees, you are probably within 200 yards of a shark. The good news? You will never know it. The truth is that you are not likely to see or encounter a shark…period. Tens of millions of people swim Hawaii every year without seeing so much as a dorsal fin break the water. Don’t worry–you are not what they eat (so you won’t attract them) and generally, they are more afraid of you than you are of them. To dispel visitor’s apprehensions about sharks, the Hawaiian Tourism Bureau used to advertise that tourists were more likely to get hit on the head by a falling coconut than bitten by a shark…but they decided THAT was not a real cheery statistic to crow about, either. In reality, there are only about three shark bites a year in Hawaii—which is amazing considering there are hundreds of thousands of people in the water, all day, every day of the year.
Having said that, bear in mind that all sharks demand respect and there are several things you can do to make yourself generally safer in any shark encounter. Number one safety tip is: avoid them. Sharks are stealth hunters and in any conditions where they are obscured in the water, they will hunt. Therefore–do not go into the water until at least an hour after dawn, be out of the water by about 4 pm; do not enter the water if it is murky; avoid stream mouths; do not go in on dark, cloudy days. Obey beach closures; obey warnings from the Lifeguards. Little sharks don’t get to be big sharks unless they pay strict attention to avoiding whoever is bigger than they are–small sharks generally will glide silently away from you without you ever having known they were there.
Big sharks are different. They may approach you.
The most common conventional wisdom you hear is: if you are being stalked or approached, swim purposefully, not panicked, away from the shark at an angle. Do not swim at high speed straight from him, it will trigger his predator-prey response and he’ll chase you. Do not splash excessively; this sounds like a dying fish (i.e., dinner) to sharks. Remember that the larger sharks eat sea turtles…to a shark hunting below you, your outline paddling on a surfboard or boogie board, looks remarkably like a sea turtle. When you approach the water, seeing three or four sea turtles sunning themselves on the beach is normal; seeing twenty or thirty indicates that something very large and hungry is hunting the water nearby. The presence of dolphin nearby is no guarantee there are not also sharks nearby.
There are hundreds of bits of advice for surviving shark attacks from hundreds of shark experts and attack survivors from all over the world—I will not pass these on to you for two reasons. First and foremost, I am a not a shark expert; secondly, I have never needed any of them because I have followed these sensible rules for years and have never, not once, seen a shark while snorkeling. I’m out there 4 or five days a week, year round. You won’t see one either. Relax and enjoy your snorkeling…as I said…don’t worry.
Finally–many people ask “What’s the etiquette for, um–er–answering nature’s call?” Easy–for wet stuff, just swim a bit away from people and let go, maybe maintaining forward momentum so as not to create a “cloud”. No, this isn’t why the ocean is salty. For solid stuff, get your partner and both of you swim in and get out, visit the rest room. No exceptions for that.
Part I of this series discuses Snorkeling Gear; Part II of this series will discuss Snorkeling Technique and Part III will cover Snorkeling Etiquette; Part IV of the series covers Snorkeling Safety; Part V will cover Big Island Snorkel Spot and Part VI covers Wilderness Snorkeling.
A short video on this topic is available here.
For more information on traveling to Hawaii in general, and beach activities on the Big Island in particular, visit http://.tourguidehawaii.com and http://tourguidehawaii.blogspot.com. Information on the author is here.
All media copyright 2009 by Donald B. MacGowan