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by Donald B. MacGowan

Majestic Pololu Valley on the Hamakua Coast of Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Majestic Pololu Valley on the Hamakua Coast of Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Whether you visit the Big Island for a few days, a couple weeks or a few months, you want to make the most of your time in Paradise. With such a wide variety of natural and commercial attractions, it is natural for the visitor to get a little overwhelmed in the “Option Overload” and not be able to make a balanced and informed decision on what they want to do and how best to spend their time.
At Pololu Valley, Hamakua Coast, Big Island, Hawaii: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

At Pololu Valley, Hamakua Coast, Big Island, Hawaii: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Even choosing the beach you want to spend time on…which beach? How do you find the right beach for your particular needs? Are you going just to relax and sunbathe? Or is the trip to snorkel, boogie board or to explore? Do you want a beach that’s alive with fun people or one hidden, secluded and empty? Do you want a beach near your resort or one that’s at the end of a day of delicious wandering?
The Cliffs at Pololu: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

The Cliffs at Pololu: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Tour Guide Hawaii is excited and proud to announce the release of their new GPS/WiFi enabled App for iPhone and iPod that helps you navigate your trip to Hawaii with hours of informative, location-aware video and information. Although our video guide will lead you to dozens of unusual, untamed and unspoiled spots, let’s look at one, hidden but gorgeous, beach hike you would otherwise not find if you did not have Tour Guide Hawaii’s new App.
Bad News for Antsy Travelers at Pololu Valley; Tour Guide's New, GPS/WiFi Enabled, Video Travel App for iPhone and iPod Finds Everything For You in Hawaii--Even the Public Restrooms!: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Bad News for Antsy Travelers at Pololu Valley; Tour Guide's New, GPS/WiFi Enabled, Video Travel App for iPhone and iPod Finds Everything For You in Hawaii--Even the Public Restrooms!: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Hiking into Pololu Valley

Violent, lush, wild; the north end of Hawai’i Island is as varied and exciting as it is unexpected. At the end of the highway are the Pololu Valley Overlook and the trail leading down to Pololu Beach. This is one of the most untamed, beautiful spots in the tropical Pacific and should not be missed. The trail down to the beach drops 400 feet in 20 minutes of hiking—be warned, the hike up is difficult for those not in good physical shape and the hike down should not be attempted if you have doubts about being able to hike back up.

Approaching Storm at Pololu Valley; Due to Frequent Rain Squalls Off the Pacific Ocean, Rain Gear is Highly Recommended For This Hike: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Approaching Storm at Pololu Valley; Due to Frequent Rain Squalls Off the Pacific Ocean, Rain Gear is Highly Recommended For This Hike: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

The Trail to Pololu Beach is dusty when dry, muddy when wet and a running creek in the rain.  Try to minimize trail erosion by staying on the trail, walking on rocks where possible and not cutting switchbacks: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

The Trail to Pololu Beach is dusty when dry, muddy when wet and a running creek in the rain. Try to minimize trail erosion by staying on the trail, walking on rocks where possible and not cutting switchbacks: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Pololu Valley Itself is Private Land so Stay Close To the Beach: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Pololu Valley Itself is Private Land so Stay Close To the Beach: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

The valley itself is private land, so stay close to the beach. The best place to cross the stream is usually about 80-120 feet inland and during either slack or high tide; spend a few minutes to find the stone ford for an easier crossing.

The Beach at Pololu Valley.  The Channel Here Between Hawaii and Maui Has The Third Highest Discharge of Water in the World, Behind the Bay of Fundy and the Straights of Magellan.  Because of the Unbelievable Ocean Currents This Generates, and Strong Rip Tides, We Do Not Recommend Swimming or Surfing at Pololu: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

The Beach at Pololu Valley. The Channel Here Between Hawaii and Maui Has The Third Highest Discharge of Water in the World, Behind the Bay of Fundy and the Straights of Magellan. Because of the Unbelievable Ocean Currents This Generates, and Strong Rip Tides, We Do Not Recommend Swimming or Surfing at Pololu: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

The Slow Running Stream in Pololu Valley is Rarely High Enough To Cut Through the Storm Berm; Therefore These Dry, Back Dunes Are The Best Place to Cross the Beach: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

The Slow Running Stream in Pololu Valley is Rarely High Enough To Cut Through the Storm Berm; Therefore These Dry, Back Dunes Are The Best Place to Cross the Beach: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

The beach is not usually swimmable due to the violent surf and ocean currents, but makes a wonderful place to picnic and contemplate the awesome power and violence of nature.

Although It's Tempting to Explore, the Lush Meadows of the Interior of Pololu Valley Are Annoyingly Boggy AND Privately Owned: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Although It's Tempting to Explore, the Lush Meadows of the Interior of Pololu Valley Are Annoyingly Boggy AND Privately Owned: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

For the adventurous, the hike down to Pololu Valley may not be enough—for them may we suggest further hiking in this lightly-traveled area. Pololu is the starting point for over 40 miles of interconnecting tails, as well as the Kohala Ditch. Trails in this area are steep, unmaintained, crumbling and frequently quite slick, so caution is advised, particularly on hillslopes and in the rain, when trails may turn into streambeds and hillsides into waterfalls.

The hike over intervening ridges east into Honokane Nui Valley and Honokane Iki Valley provides spectacular views of this untamed, but private land. Climbing 600 muddy feet over the ridge, the trail then drops breathtakingly down to the valley floor. Before the stream, the trail divides at a bamboo grove—if you are proceeding on to Honokane Iki, follow the fork to the right through the bamboo, otherwise go left on to the wonderful, lonely, private, boulder beach.

Looking Back West Across Pololu Beach From the Start of the Honokane Nui Valley Trail: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Looking Back West Across Pololu Beach From the Start of the Honokane Nui Valley Trail: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Along the Honokane Nui Trail, Climbing East Out Of Pololu Valley: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Along the Honokane Nui Trail, Climbing East Out Of Pololu Valley: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Going on farther east into Honokane Iki Valley from Honokane Nui is very rewarding and easier than the hop from Pololu to Honokane Nui, climbing just 400 muddy feet over the ridge. There are numerous ruins from previous eras of population, ancient to recent, to explore in both these valleys. It is possible to wander the intersecting, disappearing, maddening trails all the way into Waipi’o Valley, 14 canyons and about 15 bushwhacking, stream-fording, slope-slipping, rain-slogging, breathtaking, aggravating, wonderful miles away. This is definitely a trip for more than a single day and permission must be gained to cross the private land.

The Beach at Pololu Valley From the Ridge Between Pololu and Honokane Iki Valleys: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

The Beach at Pololu Valley From the Ridge Between Pololu and Honokane Iki Valleys: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Under no circumstances should the hiker be seduced by the thought of an easy return back into Pololu Valley by skirting the headlands along the ocean. This is longer and much more difficult than it appears and has proven fatal to the unwary.

During the Wet Season The Stream in Pololu Valley Turns Into a Seasonal Lake: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

During the Wet Season The Stream in Pololu Valley Turns Into a Seasonal Lake: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Bart Hunt at Pololu--Numerous Squall and Storms Coming Off the Ocean Make the Weather at Pololu Very Exciting: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Bart Hunt at Pololu--Numerous Squall and Storms Coming Off the Ocean Make the Weather at Pololu Very Exciting: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Bring good insect repellent and wear hiking boots, with tabis in your pack for stream fording and beach walking. Stream water in the valleys is infected with leptospirosis bacteria, so bring plenty of water (at least two liters per person) in your pack. A camera is a must and due to frequent squalls off the ocean, rain gear is highly recommended.

Bart Hunt at Pololu Valley--The Trail Back Up Out of The Valley Seems Much Longer and Steeper than On the Way Down; Be Sure To Leave Plenty Of Time and Energy To Climb Back Up: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Bart Hunt at Pololu Valley--The Trail Back Up Out of The Valley Seems Much Longer and Steeper than On the Way Down; Be Sure To Leave Plenty Of Time and Energy To Climb Back Up: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

To see the new iPhone/iPod Touch App, please visit http://www.tourguidehawaii.com/iphone.html. The best of Tour Guide Hawaii’s free content about traveling to, and exploring, the Big island, can be found here. For more information on traveling to Hawaii in general and on touring the Big Island in particular, please also visit www.tourguidehawaii.com and www.tourguidehawaii.blogspot.com.

A Sweeping View of Magnificent Pololu Valley: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

A Sweeping View of Magnificent Pololu Valley: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Copyright 2009 by Donald B. MacGowan. All rights reserved.

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by Donnie MacGowan

Donnie MacGowan Snorkeling at Kahalu'u Beach on the Big Island of Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Donnie MacGowan Snorkeling at Kahalu'u Beach on the Big Island of Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Whether you visit the Big Island for a few days, a couple weeks or a few months, you want to make the most of your time in Paradise.  With such a wide variety of natural and commercial attractions, it is natural for the visitor to get a little overwhelmed in the “Option Overload” and not be able to make a balanced and informed decision on what they want to do and how best to spend their time.

Bart Hunt Filming Fish at Kahalu'u Beach: Photo By Donnie MacGowan

Bart Hunt Filming Fish at Kahalu'u Beach: Photo By Donnie MacGowan

Even choosing activities you want to participate in…do you want to snorkel, hike, go on a whale watching tour?  We always recommend people do three basic things when they come to Hawaii: get in the air, go to a luau and get in the water.  By getting in the air you get a glimpse of how magnificent our island home is, it is the best way to watch the volcano erupt and it allows you to sort of “scout” the island to see where you might want to spend more time.  By going to a luau you get an introduction to Hawaiian culture and cuisine–you get a taste of what it means to live in Hawaii.  And by getting in the water you experience the magic wonder of our reefs and colorful fish, the calm and renewal from floating in our warm, turquoise waters and the thrill of exploring something new, different and a little wild.  We highly recommend you go snorkeling on your visit…but where do you go?  Do you want a snorkel beach for beginners, or a place that;s challenging to experience? Are you going simply to get in the water and see the fish or do you want a beach that’s also alive with fun people?  Are you looking for an experience that away from crowds, secluded and empty or one that’s exciting, but perhaps a little more tame?  Do you want to snorkel near your resort or one that’s at the end of a day of delicious wandering?

Liz Maus Snorkeling at Hounaunau Bay, Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Liz Maus Snorkeling at Hounaunau Bay, Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Ranked in order, with the best on top, are our picks of the best snorkeling spots on the Island of Hawaii.  We’ve tried to strike a balance in ranking these places since each is a gem in its own right, we’ve had to leave off many that are equally fine for their own reasons and of course, recommending some means that their popularity will increase and hence, they will become more crowded.  This list at least provides an excellent starting point for deciding where you want to spend you beach time.  When you arrive we ask that you treat these special places, and the people who live near them, with care, respect and aloha.

Two-Step Beach at Hounaunau Bay Has Some of the Finest Snorkeling in the World: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Two-Step Beach at Hounaunau Bay Has Some of the Finest Snorkeling in the World: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Two-Step Beach at Hounaunau Bay: Class Triple-A waters, stuffed with a wide variety of brilliant tropical fish, set in a calm and protected bay, and frequently visited by dolphins, this snorkeling area near the grounds of one of the most important Hawai’ian archeological sites is perhaps the most popular and one of the three top places to snorkel on the island.  It earns the top spot because of it’s easy accessibility.

Kealakekua Bay and Captain Cook Monument from Napo'opo'o: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Kealakekua Bay and Captain Cook Monument from Napo'opo'o: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Kealakekua Bay: Whether you hike or boat to Captain Cook Monument, or enter the bay to snorkel at the end of the road in Napo’opo’o, there is no place on earth that has better snorkeling or more fish than Kealakekua Bay.  Frequented by both dolphin and whale, protected, Class Triple A waters and a setting unmatched in beauty anywhere, this the premiere place for kayak-to-snorkel adventures on the island.  Arguably, this bay and the Hawaiian settlements that surround it, experienced the most momentous and important historical events yet to unfold in the human history of the state of Hawaii.

Kahalu'u Beach, Kona Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Kahalu'u Beach, Kona Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Kahalu’u Beach: Referred to by many visitors as “Snorkel Beach” Kahalu’u is centrally located along Ali’i Drive in Kailua Kona.  The welcoming waters are protected by a seawall and are amazingly warm, shallow and crystalline turquoise.  The safety and ease of conditions here, many resident turtles and abundant colorful fish and the great facilities make this a perfect place to learn to snorkel, or for the tried and true veteran to “get wet and meet the fish”.

Hookena Beach in South Kona Is a Fabulous Beach Plunked Down in the Middle of Real Old Hawaii: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Hookena Beach in South Kona Is a Fabulous Beach Plunked Down in the Middle of Real Old Hawaii: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Ho’okena Beach: Ho’okena Beach is a  fabulously beautiful beach park well off the beaten path, plunked down in the honest-to-gosh old Hawaiian village of Ho’okena. This beach has an amazing array of underwater topography populated by perhaps the greatest variety of reef fish n the island;  recently rebuilt, this park has fine facilities including a refreshment stand as well as snorkel and kayak rentals.  Ho’okena is a true snorkeler’s mecca.

Long, Lonely and Wholly Wonderful Makalawena Beach in Kekahai State Park: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Long, Lonely and Wholly Wonderful Makalawena Beach in Kekahai State Park: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Makalawena Beach: Perhaps the loveliest wilderness beach in Polynesia, Makalawena is the perfect sand crescent, beach backed by palms and iron wood trees with morning-glory-draped sand dunes.  A easy mile hike in from Kekaha Kai State Park keeps this beach uncrowded. Snorkeling here is better than perfect.  Simply drive to Kekaha Kai State Park and walk the well-marked trail north to the beach.

Bradford MacGowan Photographs a school of Humuhumuele'ele at Kahalu'u Beach: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Bradford MacGowan Photographs a school of Humuhumuele'ele at Kahalu'u Beach: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Before we leave the topic of Best Snorkeling Beaches on the Island of Hawaii, we’d like to impress upon you the need to be proactive in keeping these places special and how to make your experience the best it can be. The open ocean is not your resort pool and deserves immense respect from you–the ocean is the strongest natural force on earth. Never snorkel alone, never turn you back on the ocean. Drink lots and lots of water; no, drink even more. Never snorkel after having consumed alcohol. Ask the lifeguard about conditions, chat with people coming out of the water about what they liked best and what conditions are like.

Bradford MacGowan Snorkeling at Pu'u Honua O Hounaunau: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Bradford MacGowan Snorkeling at Pu'u Honua O Hounaunau: Photo by Donald MacGowan

.Gary Burton and his daughter snorkel at Hounaunau Bay: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Gary Burton and his daughter snorkel at Hounaunau Bay: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Please wear a hat and t-shirt to protect yourself from sunburn while in the water–never apply sunscreen just before entering the water,wait until you are done snorkeling and have rinsed off–sun-cream kills the coral and poisons the water.  When in the water, do not stand directly upon the coral to rest, do not touch the coral or the fish; never feed the fish or other marine animals.  Do not touch, approach, chase or harass the sea turtles, dolphins or whales–it’s not only dangerous, it’s illegal and will earn you a hefty fine.  Always obey posted warnings and the lifeguard; do not swim in windy conditions (dangerous) or murky water (sharks); be aware of currents and rip tides.

Amanda Maus Snorkeling at Kahalu'u Beach: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Amanda Maus Snorkeling at Kahalu'u Beach: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Get out before you feel tired, get out before you feel sunburned, get out before you get thirsty; get out before the wind comes up or the sun goes down; get out before you feel ready–you are more tired than you think.  Rinse yourself and your gear off after snorkeling and remember to apply sun-cream liberally and often–you are getting more sun than you think. Always pack out everything you brought with you and dispose of your litter (and that stuff the ignorant slob over there left, as well) appropriately.  These beaches get an enormous amount of pressure, try to leave Paradise a little nicer than you found it.

Laurie Maus Using a Boogie Board as a Floatie: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Laurie Maus Using a Boogie Board as a Floatie: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

And for heaven’s sake, plunk-down ten bucks for a disposable underwater camera; in fact, buy two.  I promise you will kick yourself from now until you return to Hawaii if you don’t!  You will want to show the folks back home your snorkel adventures, which seem to always be the most memorable of any trip to Paradise. Trust me, any money you spend on disposable underwater cameras will be the best return on investment of any part of your Hawaii vacation.

Bart Hunt Snorkeling at Kahalu'u Bay: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Bart Hunt Snorkeling at Kahalu'u Bay: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

For more information of traveling to Hawaii in general or exploring the Big Island in particular, please also visit www.tourguidehawaii.com and www.tourguidehawaii.blogspot.com .  Information about the author can be found here.

Monk seal at Honl's Beach near Kailua Kona: PHoto by Donald B. MacGowan

Monk seal at Honl's Beach near Kailua Kona: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

All media copyright 2009 by Donald B. MacGowan.

By Donnie MacGowan

Coming to my island for a vacation? There are three things I always recommend the first-time visitor do. First, go on an air tour. Secondly–go to a luau. Finally, I advise people of every age to get in the water and go snorkeling. The “one-one-one, experiencing the world through the fishes’ eyes” magic of swimming in those bath-warm lagoons surrounded by clouds of tropical fish is an amazing, restful and restorative pursuit-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 discusses Snorkeling Technique and Part III covers Snorkeling Etiquette; Part IV of the series covers Snorkeling Safety and Part V discusses Big Island Snorkel Spots and Part VI discusses Wilderness Snorkeling on the Big Island.

Let’s Chat About Snorkeling, Part V: Hawaii’s Best Snorkeling Beaches

Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Liz Maus Snorkeling at Honaunau: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Hawaii’s varied landscape and dynamic shoreline provides for an amazing array of snorkeling experiences, from broad, sandy beaches with placid and inviting turquoise water to broken glass-sharp cliffs where the swimmer leaps into surgey dark water. Everywhere I’ve snorkeled on Hawaii, from lazily paddling in calm waters at Kahalu’u to rappelling into the wild surf and open ocean currents at Pau’ekolu, the snorkeling is wonderful, beautiful, exhilarating. But many of the best places to snorkel are difficult or scary for the beginning snorkeler, some could be lethal. Here’s a list of the crown jewel snorkeling spots that are easy for the beginner, tantalizingly fascinating for the experienced.

Westside Beaches:

Hapuna Beach (turn off Highway 19 at mile marker 69): Always rated in the Top 10 of American beaches, Hapuna Beach is long, wide and phenomenally sandy. The center of the beach is tailor-made for wave play and boogie boarding, the north and south coves are quieter, better for snorkeling or gentle floating. Although most of the shore is relatively free of currents, only experienced snorkelers who are strong swimmers will want to snorkel around the south end of Hapuna, past a sea arch and to the reef and cove of Beach 69—a long, but rewarding swim with some of the most incredible underwater vistas available to the snorkeler in the word.

Anaeho’omalu Beach (turn off Highway 19 at mile marker 76): The most photographed sunset view on the Island of Hawai’i, Anaeho’omalu Bay is the icon of what most visitors envision Hawai’i to be like before they get here. Although the water tends toward being cloudy, this is an excellent beach for beginning snorkelers.

Kekahakai State Park, Kua Bay (turn off Highway 19, between mile markers 88 and 89): Kua Bay has a lovely white sand beach and full facilities although there is no shade to speak of. Swimming and boogie boarding in the crystalline waters is primo, though strong currents and large waves call for respect, here; if the surf is up, don’t go in. Also, sometime in winter, the surf removes the sand to offshore, leaving a rocky shelf that is less fun to frolic on than the sandy beach.

Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Bart Hunt Snorkeling at Kahalu'u Bay: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Kahalu’u Beach (in Kailua Kona, along Ali’i Drive, between mile markers 4.5 and 5): This is the premiere snorkeling beach of the Island of Hawai’i; protected from the open sea by a jetty, the reef is also protected against commercial aquarium fishing. Thus, the snorkeling is in calm, shallow water. Also, there is an abundance of fish of an enormous variety…perhaps the best display on the island. Numerous freshwater springs and shallow water bathers make the near-shore snorkeling unpleasantly cloudy, but about 50 feet offshore the water turns crystal clear and the display of coral is nothing short of amazing. There is a fair current north out of the bay and along the coast. Incredible archeological sites abound in this area and make a fine after-snorkel exploration on foot; ask for details at the concierge desk at the adjacent Keauhou Beach Resort.

Two-Step Beach (adjacent to Pu’u Honua O Honaunau National Historic Park on Highway 160): Some of the finest, protected snorkeling on the Island is located at Two-Step Beach. A wonderland of turtles, coral and fish, with frequent morning visits by dolphins, this snorkeling experience shouldn’t be missed. No swimming is allowed within the Park out of respect for its sacredness; however, Two-Step Beach offers a convenient place to enter Honaunau bay. One can enter the bay either by the boat ramp, or by stepping off the short cliff into the water from near the center edge of the lava beach, where two ledges serve as steps down into the ocean. Getting in is a simple matter of stepping down these steps, “1-2-OCEAN!”–to get out, reverse the process.

Ho’okena Beach (turn off Highway 11 near mile marker 102): Brilliant snorkeling, decent boogie boarding, passable shell collecting and wonderful camping—it’s a wonder the large and warm stretch of sand at Ho’okena Beach is not more popular with visitors. Frequented by dolphin, stuffed full of pelagic and reef fish and turtles and boasting crystal clear, warm and calm waters, Ho’okena is a must-visit beach for avid snorkelers.

Southside Beaches:

Punalu’u Beach (turn off Highway 11 between mile markers 55 and 56): A truly remarkable place of great peace, beauty and spiritual healing, Punalu’u’s black sand-lined coves and beaches are world-renowned. With dozens of endangered Hawai’ian Green Sea Turtles and superabundant abundant fish, this is a truly snorkeling experience–made unique because of the black sand bottom of the bay. Due to chilly waters, off-shore winds, strong currents and a fearsome rip, swimmers and snorkelers should use caution when swimming at Punalu’u, but it’s hard to resist getting in and swimming with all those turtles. There are abundant Hawaiian cultural sites in the park that are worth visiting.

Photo by Bradford T. MacGowan

Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle Basks in the Sun at Punalu'u Beach: Photo by Bradford T. MacGowan

Kehena Beach (on Highway 137 near mile marker 19): A quick scramble down the bank on a dirt path quickly brings you to the Kehena Black Sand Beach. Once on the beach the first thing that may strike you is that many of the locals who frequent this park have forgotten to put on proper beach attire…or any other attire whatsoever, for that matter. In the shade of palms and ironwood this wonderful beach is generally sunny even when the rest of Puna is rainy. Swimming here is great near-shore, but ocean currents are strong and dangerous not far from shore. The locals are friendly but frisky, so don’t leave valuables in your car.

Pohoiki Bay at Isaac Hale Beach Park (on Highway 137 between mile markers 11 and 12): A lovely black sand beach with an expert surf break, Isaac Hale Beach Park is one of the very few real beaches and boat ramps in Puna District; as such this park sees a lot of traffic. It is also the site of the best surfing and some of the wildest snorkeling and scuba diving in Puna.

A short path along the shoreline leads from the parking lot, past a house with abundant “No Trespassing” signs, just a few minutes stroll then turns about 20 yards into the jungle to a secluded, perfectly lovely, natural hot spring that is wonderful for soaking. Locals usually don’t bother with swimwear here; you shouldn’t feel required to, either.

Kapoho Tidepools (turn off Highway 137 and head east on Kapoho-Kai Road, left on Kaheka and right on Waiopae): Stuffed with abundant sea life, this sprawling basin of lava tidal pools is a remarkable treasure for snorkelers of all abilities from the starkly frightened to the seasoned veteran. Moorish idols, yellow tangs, various wrasses and eels, sea urchins and sea cucumbers abound and there are even some nice corals in the deeper pools. The largest pool is called “Wai Opae”, which means “fresh water shrimp”.

Keeping to the left of the main channel keeps one away from most of the ocean currents, which can be surprisingly strong, even in small channels, where ponds empty into the ocean. No real facilities exist here beyond the parking lot, so come prepared.

Eastside Beaches:

Richardson Beach Park (Take Kalaniana’ole Street 3.6 miles east from the intersection of Highways 19 and 11 in Hilo): The almost universal experience of visitors to Hawai’i is that, although it is certainly beautiful and unique, no matter what pre-conceptions a traveler may bring about Hawai’i, their experience is a bit different to what they expected. Richardson Beach Park, with its towering palms, fresh water pools, delightful surf, secluded and calm tidepools and general ambience of tropical paradise, is almost certainly very close to what most visitors expect from Hawai’i—hence it popularity. The snorkeling here along the small black sand beach is the best of the Hilo area.

Frequented by dolphins and sea turtles, the near-shore water is a little cold when getting in, due to fresh water springs, but soon warms-up a few dozen yards from shore. The currents and surf can occasionally be tricky here, so heads-up, pay attention to advice from the lifeguards.

Be sure to watch for Part VI which talks about snorkeling the wilderness beaches of the Island of Hawaii.

A short video discussing many of these topics can be found here.

For more information about visiting and touring Hawaii in general, and exploring the fabulous snorkeling on the Big Island in particular, visit http://www.tourguidehawaii.com and www.tourguidehawaii.blogspot.com. For information about the author, go here.

All media copoyright 2009 by Donald B. MacGowan

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.

Photo by Donald MacGowan

Gary Burton and his duaghter snorkel at Hounaunau Bay: Photo by Donald MacGowan

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.

Photo by Donald MacGowan

Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle at Papakolea Beach: Photo by Donald MacGowan

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.

Photograph by Donnie MacGowan

A cloud of raccoon butterfly fish at Kahalu'u Beach: Photograph by Donnie MacGowan

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


By Donnie MacGowan

Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Mask, Fins and Snorkel: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Coming to my island for a vacation? There are three things I always recommend the first-time visitor do. First, get in the air–seeing my island from the air is the only way to appreciate its vastness and diversity of landscapes-and it’s the best way to see the erupting volcano.

Secondly-go to a luau–for people with limited time, you will not be able to discover much about the magic of the local lifestyle, and although canned and packaged for visitor consumption, a luau is a good place to get an introduction to it.

Finally, I advise people of every age to get in the water and go snorkeling. The “one-one-one, experiencing the world through the fishes’ eyes” magic of swimming in those bath-warm lagoons surrounded by clouds of tropical fish is an amazing, restful and restorative pursuit-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. There are some things to bear in mind about snorkeling, however, so let’s take a moment to talk about gear (covered here, in Part I), technique (covered in our next post, Part II), reef etiquette and the animals which inhabit the coral reefs (which will be in Part III), safety (Part IV) and snorkeling wilderness beaches (Part VI).

First some advice about snorkeling gear:

Bringing vs. Renting vs. Buying: Bringing your personal snorkeling gear from home insures that you are familiar with the gear and you know that it fits…but it’s a hassle in your luggage. In this day and age of paying for extra baggage, it may be better to simply rent. Renting gear once you get to your destination is cheaper than buying it there and you don’t have to make room in your luggage to lug it home. If you do decide to buy, remember stores like COSTCO and WalMart sell great gear at low prices–you do not need to drop a fortune on snorkeling gear at a dive shop or specialty shop to get perfectly serviceable, safe and comfortable gear at affordable prices.

Fit: The mask should fit snugly over the face; you should be able to hold it onto your face with suction simply by taking in a quick breath through your nose. The strap should be snug enough to hold the mask in place against face but it should not be tight–if it is too tight, it’ll make wrinkles in the seal, letting water in. Simple water pressure against the outside of the mask seals it. If you wear glasses, either use contacts while snorkeling or get a mask that has vision-corrected mask lenses (which is more expensive, but almost universally available); it’s almost never possible to seal a mask around your glasses. The strap should pass up around the “ball” of your head, not over the ears…make sure the strap is easily adjustable and spend sometime getting the fit right–it’ll make you lots more comfortable and safe in the water.

Fins should fit snugly like shoes, but you should able to pull them on and off without a struggle. If they are too loose, you’ll either lose them or get blisters; if they are too tight, you’ll get cramps AND blisters. With fins you need to make a choice. Shoe-style fins are easiest for the novice to use, but if you have to enter the water over rocks, your feet may get abused as you wade out barefoot–it is unsafe to cross the beach or rocks wearing your fins; wait until you are in the water. Strap-style fins allow you to wear reef-walker shoes with the fins, which makes rocky entries easier. If you choose this option, make sure the fins fit over your feet with the reef shoes on.

Snorkels come in a confusing array of styles and an astounding range of prices. Although some have space-age design features, a decent snorkel with a comfortable mouthpiece and a simple splash guard is all that’s required. I personally prefer models with a flexible tube with a drain/purge valve connecting the mouth piece to the snorkel.

Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Laurie Maus Using a Boogie Board as a Floatie: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Floaties: Many beginners, and even experienced ocean explorers in surgey or high surf conditions, appreciate having a floatation device. Standard life-jacket styles are not recommended because they are designed to keep your head above the water while the whole point of snorkeling is to keep your head under the water. There are specially designed snorkeling vests and belts which work quite well, but are waaay spendy. Boogie boards are a nice alternative; they have a wrist leash so you won’t get separated from it and provide a floating platform to rest on, making your forays out over the reef longer and more enjoyable. Safer, too. Another, much less expensive, alternative is the foam “noodle” available in the toy department of all WallMarts and stores like that. I like to attach a boogie-board wrist leash to mine to keep it from floating away when I dive down. A large noodle will support even a full grown man upright in the water when ridden “horsey-style”.

All the gear you drag with you needs to be carried in something and by far the best way is in a nylon mesh bag; rental gear will come in one and you can buy them inexpensively where you buy your mask and fins. Since you must rinse your gear off with fresh water immediately after you climb out of the ocean, this allows the gear to “breathe” as it dries, obviating the annoying growth of mildew.

For after your swim, a large, thirsty towel is also a nice beach accoutrement, but do not use it to lie on the sand with. Buy a cheap rice mat instead (again, at WalMart or such)–it won’t collect sand, it’s cooler on the skin, smells nice and it means your towel will be clean and sand-free when you use it to dry-off. Don’t forget to bring drinking water…lots and lots of drinking water. Immersion in salt water is dehydrating by itself and just swimming around you’ve worked harder–and sweated more–than you realize. Wear a t-shirt when in the water to protect from the sun–suncream kills the corals so don’t put it on and then get in the water. Rinse yourself and your gear with fresh water immediately after you get out of the ocean and remember to apply sunscreen at this point and to wear your sunglasses. Sun screen and sunglasses, necessary to combat the deceptively severe tropical sun, are so important that I’ve written a separate articles about sun burn and sunscreen in Hawaii and what sunglasses you should bring to Hawaii. Too many visitors drastically underestimate the strength and ferocity of our sun and wind-up with vacation-ruining sunburns.

Don’t overestimate your skin’s tolerance for beach sun. For instance, now might be a good time to go inside and cool off, you know?

Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Liz Maus Snorkeling at Hounaunau Bay, Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

For more information on traveling to Hawaii in general, and beach activities on the Big Island in particular, visit www.tourguidehawaii.com and www.tourguidehawaii.blogspot.com; for a video presentation covering much of this information, go here. For information on the author, go here.

Hiking Ke-awa-iki Beach, the Golden Ponds, Pueo Bay and Weliweli Point, Kohala Hawaii

by Donnie MacGowan

Donnie MacGowan amongst the Golden Ponds of Ke-awa-iki, Big Island Hawaii: Photo by Bart Hunt

Donnie MacGowan amongst the Golden Ponds of Ke-awa-iki, Big Island Hawaii: Photo by Bart Hunt

Want to find a beautiful beach not even many locals know about?  Don’t mind walking about 15 minutes over a lava road and a’a?  This tiny mostly black-sand and gravel beach has good snorkeling on the south (left as you face the water) side, where there is still a pocket of white sand.

This Black and White Sand Piebald Beach is Aboslutely Unique on the Island of Hawaii...Maybe in the World: Photo by Donald MacGowan

This Black and White Sand Piebald Beach is Aboslutely Unique on the Island of Hawaii...Maybe in the World: Photo by Donald MacGowan

This unique black and white sand beach was created after the 1859 eruption of Mauna Loa, when lava reached the north end of the beach, where the black sand is today.  Further south along the beach, the recent black sand has not had time to thoroughly mix with the pre-existing white sand.

If one continues south there are numerous tide pools to explore.

The North End of Ke-awa-iki Beach Turns to a Delightfully Weird Moonscape: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

The North End of Ke-awa-iki Beach Turns to a Delightfully Weird Moonscape: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Hiking north, one passes along the wild and open Kohala Coastline to Pueo Bay (Pueo mean “owl” in Hawaiian), where many freshwater springs make the snorkeling interesting but weird, due to large temperature and salinity gradients. There are numerous trails to make your way back to the car or Ke-awa-iki Beach.

Bart Hunt and the Curious Lone Palm Tree a Keawaiki Beach, Hualalai Volcano in the Background: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Bart Hunt and the Curious Lone Palm Tree a Keawaiki Beach, Hualalai Volcano in the Background: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

From Pueo Bay Looking North to Weliweli Point: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

From Pueo Bay Looking North to Weliweli Point: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

However, if one takes the trail running east behind Pueo Bay (intersection marked with coral), one comes to a pair of lovely golden pools, which can be seen for quite a distance, as they support a growth of hala trees.

Golden Ponds at Ke-awa-iki Spring Amazingly from the Seeming Lifeless A'a Lava Flow: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Golden Ponds at Ke-awa-iki Spring Amazingly from the Seeming Lifeless A'a Lava Flow: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

A golden algae growing on the lava lends these pools their distinctive color.

Golden Algae Growing in the Hidden Freshwater Ponds at Ke-awa-iki: Photo by donald B. MacGowan

Golden Algae Growing in the Hidden Freshwater Ponds at Ke-awa-iki: Photo by donald B. MacGowan

If you bring an underwater camera, you can take spectacular photos of this gorgeous biologic wonder.

Golden Algae Growing in the Hidden Freshwater Ponds at Ke-awa-iki: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Golden Algae Growing in the Hidden Freshwater Ponds at Ke-awa-iki: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

Feel free to frolic in the ponds before finishing the hike—just be sure not to damage the growth by walking on it too much.

Another interesting trail to thread are the many roads and trails leading to Weliweli Point from the Ponds or Pueo Bay, essentially just keep parallel to the coastline and they all converge at a private residence near the point–on clear days, unsurpassed views of Kohala Mountain and Haleakala on Maui can be seen here.

Weliweli to Haleakala on Maui: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Weliweli to Haleakala on Maui: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Return by taking the major dirt road back towards the highway, taking the millennia old King’s Trail south when that intersection is reached. Out in the a’a flow it’s hard to get lost, you can almost always see where you parked your car, and the trails all eventually lead there.

There is much to see here besides the beaches and the Golden Pons.

Bart Hunt at the Sacred Pond at Ke-awa-iki: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Bart Hunt at the Sacred Pond at Ke-awa-iki: Photo by Donald MacGowan

There are remains of ancient heiau (temples) and villages.

Bart Hunt Explores and Ancient Heiau (temple) at Ke-awa-iki: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Bart Hunt Explores and Ancient Heiau (temple) at Ke-awa-iki: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

And although no green sand beach is know to have formed, vesicular basalts in the area around Weliweli Point have abundant olivine (peridot) crystals.

Olivine Phenocrysts in Vesicular Basalt Near Ke-awa-iki: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Olivine Phenocrysts in Vesicular Basalt Near Ke-awa-iki: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Depending on how you thread the trails, it’s approximately 4 miles, round trip.

To Find the wonders of Ke-awa-iki: Drive just north of Mile 79, park where boulders block a gravel road. Take gravel road/trail towards the ocean, hike along the road, fence and trail 15 minutes to Ke-awa-iki Beach.  No facilities.

A video about Ke-awa-iki is available here.

For more information about traveling around Hawaii in general and touring the Big Island in particular, please visit www.tourguidehawaii.com and www.tourguidehawaii.blogspot.com.

All media copyright 2009 by Donald B. MacGowan; all rights reserved.

Liz Maus Snorkeling in West Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Liz Maus Snorkeling in West Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Internationally famous snorkel bums and renowned Fun Hogs Donnie MacGowan and Bart Hunt say a few choice words about getting into the electrifying, high stakes world of Extreme Snorkeling.

For more information on how to snorkel, snorkeling gear, safety, reef etiquette, Big Island snorkel spots and wilderness snorkeling in Hawaii, check out these informative and fun articles by eZines Expert Author Donald B. MacGowan here, here, here, here, here and here.

Featuring Donnie MacGowan and Bart Hunt; Videography by Bart Hunt and Donnie MacGowan, Original Musical Score written, performed and recorded by Donnie MacGowan; Produced by Donnie MacGowan.
For more information on traveling to Hawaii in general and touring the Big Island in particular, please visit www.tourguidehawaii.com and www.tourguidehawaii.blogspot.com.

Internationally famous snorkel bums and renowned Fun Hogs Donnie MacGowan and Bart Hunt say a few choice words about getting into the electrifying, high stakes world of Extreme Snorkeling.

Featuring Donnie MacGowan and Bart Hunt. Video written and produced by Donald B. MacGowan; videography by Bart Hunt and Donald MacGowan; Narrated by Bart Hunt, Original music written and performed by Donnie MacGowan. Everything else is YOUR fault.

For more information about traveling the Big Island in general and Island Activities in particular, visit www.tourguidehawaii.com and www.lovingthebigisland.wordpress.com.

Tour Guide Hawaii presents a short video on hiking to Kohala’s hidden black sand beach with superb snorkeling and the amazing Ke-awa-iki Golden Ponds. Produced by Donnie MacGowan, and starring Frank Burgess and Bart Hunt.

For further information, visit: www.tourguidehawaii.com or http://tourguidehawaii.blogspot.com

The FUN-damentals of Snorkeling!
Snorkeling is fun, easy and safe…it is also the best way to become intimately acquainted with the turtles, reefs and fish of Hawaii. A popular leisure and adventure sport, snorkeling is one of the Big Island’s primary tourist draws. Yet many come to the Island wanting to snorkel but with little real ideas about the techniques and tricks of the sport. Donnie MacGowan and Bart Hunt present a quick tutorial about snorkeling technique, some tricks and some practical advice.

Related videos can be seen

here, here, here and here.

For more information about visiting Hawaii in general or touring the Big Island in particular, go to www.tourguidehawaii.com and here.