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by Donald B. MacGowan

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Sunscreen and Sunburn for Hawaii Visitors: Graphic from Photo by Donnie MacGowan

There are many wondrous, enigmatic and fascinating attractions on the Big Island of Hawaii, some better known than others, many out of the way and generally off the beaten track.  Tour Guide Hawaii has produced an encyclopedic collection of the most up-to-date information, presented as short GPS-cued videos, in an app downloadable to iPhone and iPod Touch that covers the entire Big Island, highlighting the popular and the uncrowded, the famous and the secluded, the adventurous and the relaxing.

More than Everything You Wanted To Know Sun Burn and Sunscreen

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Apply sunscreen half an hour before going out and re-apply every 30 minutes, Poipu Beach, Kauai Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Freed from the dark and cold of winter or rainy spring weather on the mainland, visitor’s to Hawaii often assume that, although warmer and more sunny, the tropical sun in Hawaii is fairly safe to move about in without much protection—after all, it feels so good, what could be more natural than sun light, right? Nothing could be farther from the truth and these tourists risk a nasty sunburn, ruining their vacation and creating future health problems, by not taking our sunshine seriously.

Your mainland skin, deprived of summer sun for many months, is actually very susceptible to burning, and to forming incipient skin cancers, Remember the song: “Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the mid-day sun!” and take steps to insure that you protect your skin, your health and your vacation.

New at iTunes: Hawaii Dream Vacation iPhone/iPod Touch App Puts the Magic of Hawaii in the Palm of Your Hand, available at iTunes or

When you first arrive in Hawaii, try limiting your exposure to 15 minutes the first day, increasing slowly each day to a maximum of one hour; Kua Bay, Kona Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Sun tan and sun burn are both caused by ultraviolet radiation (UV) in sunlight. Your body’s natural defense against UV radiation is to increase the amount of brown pigment (melanin) in the epidermis as exposure increases. Melanin absorbs and scatters the UV radiation, dissipating it as heat.

Ultraviolet radiation is divided up into three bands, UVA, UVB and UVC. UVC rays do not reach earth’s surface so are unimportant here. UVA radiation does not cause sunburn, but rather oxidizes existent melanin in the skin to a light brown “quick tan” that lasts only a few days. UVA exposure also triggers the release of more melanin into the skin; this can cause melanoma if exposure is intense or prolonged. It is important to note that many sunscreens do not block UVA radiation, at all.

New at iTunes: Hawaii Dream Vacation iPhone/iPod Touch App Puts the Magic of Hawaii in the Palm of Your Hand, available at iTunes or

Laurie Maus safely enjoys a day at Hapuna Beach, Kohala Hawaii, using proper sun protection and eyewear: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

UVB exposure acts unilaterally to increase the body’s output of melanin and yields a tan that takes upwards of 3 days to to develop, depending upon your skin. This is why some experts advise getting a “base tan” before going to Hawaii–to start the body’s natural process of producing melanin.  Evidence is equivocal on whether this actually helps you acquire a better tan, but it does nothing to prevent sunburn of exposed, unprotected skin.  You will burn right through your pre-tan and peel to white–ruining your vacation and your tan–if you do not protect your skin.  Additionally, UVB is thought to be the more dangerous radiation, as prolonged exposure causes squamous and basal cell carcinomas. It should be noted extended use of UVB blockers can also cause Vitamin D deficiency.

Prevention of Sunburn

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Hikers on the summit of Mauna Kea look over to Mauna Loa. Altitude, snow and sun, an obvious recipe for sunburn: Photo by Donald B MacGowan

The tropical sun is much more intense than temperate sunshine, even summer sun, and visitors often underestimate its devastating strength until too late–if you feel like you are starting to get pink, you have already waited too long to apply sunscreen. Additionally, the environment in Hawaii is conducive to exacerbating our already intense sunshine–reflection from water and sand (thus, the beach) greatly increase exposure to UV radiation, as does reflection from roadways, snow and increases in altitude. Since UV radiation pierces clouds, you can get a bad burn on even a cloudy day.  In addition, there are many common photo-sensitizing drugs (antihistamines, antibiotics, chemotherapy, cardiac drugs, etc—even many fragrances) that can cause one to be more susceptible to damage from the sun’s rays. If you are unsure if your prescription falls in this category, talk with your eye-doctor, your pharmacist or physician before traveling.

Arriving in Hawaii with a good tan is not prevention enough-you need good strategies for dealing with the savage tropical sun. You can stay indoors and severely limit your exposure; this gives safety and certainty but doesn’t sound like very much fun (unless you are on your honeymoon). A better strategy is to cover up with clothes, a sun hat, seek shade when possible and avoid exposure during peak sun times (between 10 am and 2 pm)…probably not much fun, either.

New at iTunes: Hawaii Dream Vacation iPhone/iPod Touch App Puts the Magic of Hawaii in the Palm of Your Hand, available at iTunes or

Brad MacGowan at Hapuna Beach, Kohala Hawaii. Pink body and reflected light, a recipe for sunburn: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

The best strategy is to obtain and use a quality sunscreen of at least SPF 50 and undertake a period of adjustment for your tender skin with lengthening times of exposure. Start with 15 minutes direct exposure (here we’re talking about sunbathing), adding about 10 minutes a day to a maximum of one hour. Coupled with judicious use of clothing and a sun hat, shade-seeking and limiting exposure until your skin is ready, should keep you from getting crisped and ruining your vacation.

How Sunscreens Work

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Sunhat, sunscreen, sunglasses and sunscreen clothing allow Jim Maus to safely wander amongst The Tropics, Puna Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

So let’s talk a little bit about sunscreens. Sunscreens act via three different mechanisms: organic compounds that absorb UV light (cf. oxybenzone); inorganic particulates that block and scatter all light including UV (cf. zinc oxide; these are the so-called “sun blocks”) and organic compounds that both absorb and block UV radiation (cf. Tinosorb M). Many commercial sunscreen preparations now contain a mixture of all three types of sunscreening agents

New at iTunes: Hawaii Dream Vacation iPhone/iPod Touch App Puts the Magic of Hawaii in the Palm of Your Hand, available at iTunes or

Sunlight reflected by roadways and off lava flows is another potentially dangerous source of ultraviolet radiation Saddle Road between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, Hawaii: Photo by Donnie

The ability of your sunscreen to protect you is rated by the SPF (for UVB) and PPD (for UVA). The Sun Protection Factor (SPF) is a laboratory measure of the effectiveness of your sunscreen to block UVB radiation and is a ratio of the amount of radiation required to cause sunburn on your skin WITH the sunscreen to the amount of UV radiation required to cause sunburn without the sunscreen. Thus, a rating of SPF 50 means that it takes 50 times as much exposure to cause sunburn when wearing the sunscreen, than it does without it.

New at iTunes: Hawaii Dream Vacation iPhone/iPod Touch App Puts the Magic of Hawaii in the Palm of Your Hand, available at iTunes or

Always be careful of sunlight reflected off water and sand; Wawaloli Beach, Kona Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Persistent Pigment Darkening (PPD), the sunscreen rating for UVA protection, is like SPF in that a PPA rating of 10 means you should be able to safely get ten times as much UVA exposure with the sunscreen than without.

The effectiveness of the sunscreen experienced by the tourist varies with such factors as skin type, amount applied and frequency of re-application (as well as how much sunscreen is absorbed by your skin), how much you sweat or rub off, and the kinds of activities one engages in (for instance, going snorkeling not only tends to wash the sunscreen off, but exposes you to increased radiation from water reflection).

Sunscreen application

New at iTunes: Hawaii Dream Vacation iPhone/iPod Touch App Puts the Magic of Hawaii in the Palm of Your Hand, available at iTunes or

Ultraviolet radiation pierces cloud cover, so even on cloudy days sun burn is a risk, especially here at the summit of Kilauea Volcano at 4200 feet; Hawaii Volcanoes National Park: Photo by Donald B. MacGowan

You should use 1-2 ounces of sunscreen (30-60 ml) ounces for your full body; most people get cheap, or are in a hurry, and do not use enough sunscreen. This is a mistake you are likely to make only once in Hawaii—the penalty is rather steep. You should apply the sunscreen 1/2 hour before initial exposure and then every 30 minutes thereafter. Your tube of sunscreen may claim to last all day, but it doesn’t. No, it REALLY doesn’t. No, no, no, I don’t care what the label claims, re-apply every 30 minutes.  Likewise, your sunscreen may claim to be waterproof, but at best it’s merely water resistant. Seriously.

You spent a lot of money and effort to get to Hawaii and sunburn is the number one way visitor’s have their vacations ruined—and it’s the the most easily prevented. Don’t scrimp on the sunscreen, don’t get lazy, do not figure you are “immune” or “tough”. You aren’t; the sun is bigger and meaner than anybody’s skin.

New at iTunes: Hawaii Dream Vacation iPhone/iPod Touch App Puts the Magic of Hawaii in the Palm of Your Hand, available at iTunes or

Laurie Maus laughs in the tropical sun as she snorkels at Kahalu'u Beach, Kona Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Don’t forget to protect the tip of your nose, tops of your ears, inside your nostrils (Yes!)  or underneath your chin. Don’t forget your lips; use a lip balm with a sunscreen rating of SPF 30 or higher.

Eyes can sunburn, too, be sure to wear adequate eye protection in the sun (a complete discussion of sunglasses and eye protection for Hawaii visitors can be found here).

Remember when using a new sunscreen, test it for allergies and and skin reactions—especially waterproof sunscreen—on a small patch of skin. I once was guiding a climb in the Tetons when a client applied a new brand of sunscreen only to discover she was allergic to it. It was a waterproof variety and we were high on a rock face without much water available and this poor woman was rapidly breaking out in an itchy rash. I have this uncomfortable image of her wildly scrubbing and scratching the stuff off with sand and snow, dangling about 1000 feet off the valley floor. Don’t repeat that mistake.

New at iTunes: Hawaii Dream Vacation iPhone/iPod Touch App Puts the Magic of Hawaii in the Palm of Your Hand, available at iTunes or

Hapuna Beach, Kohala Hawaii: Photo by Donald B MacGowan

Also, few people realize that your sunscreen kills coral and harms fish. Please do not apply it before going snorkeling, diving or swimming; use a t-shirt and ball cap to prevent sunburn, then apply your sunscreen immediately after getting out of the ocean and rinsing off with fresh water (a thorough discussion of this, and other snorkeling ethics topics, can be found here).

Treatment of Sunburn

Sunburn is quite common, with more than 30 percent of adults and 70 percent of children and adolescents reporting sunburn to their physician at least once during the course of a year; these figures are, of course, much higher for visitors to Hawaii.

New at iTunes: Hawaii Dream Vacation iPhone/iPod Touch App Puts the Magic of Hawaii in the Palm of Your Hand, available at iTunes or

Sun light reflected off the water is a prime cause of sunburn. Also be careful during water activities that your sunscreen doesn't wash off; Kailua Bay, Kona Hawaii: Photo by Donnie Mac

Unfortunately, sunburn is not immediately apparent. Redness develops between three and five hours after being out in the sun and peaks with 12-24 hours, fading within about 72 hours. Initially, skin will appear pink and may feel “itchy”. As severity increases, redness deepens and skin is noticeably hot to the touch. With severe sunburns, swelling, blisters and loss of tissue occurs. Severe sunburn is a true medical emergency and can be life-threatening; seek medical attention immediately.

New at iTunes: Hawaii Dream Vacation iPhone/iPod Touch App Puts the Magic of Hawaii in the Palm of Your Hand, available at iTunes or

Even a cloudy day at Hapuna Beach can lead to severe sun burn for the unwary, Kohala Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

There are numerous treatments for sunburn. First, get out of the sun, immediately, and stay out until the burn fades. The pain can be relieved with aspirin or Tylenol, although their effectiveness wanes after about 24 hours. Of the many commercially available sunburn remedies, none are clinically proven to do anything but provide a temporarily soothing palliative—although none have been demonstrated to do any harm. Here in Hawaii, we are particularly fond of using sap from the aloe plant (aloe, a Hawaiian word, is more properly pronounced “ah LOY” in Hawaii) which grows wild almost everywhere in the islands. Another local remedy that I find personally soothing is to brew a large kettle of green tea, cool it to a chill in the refrigerator and then sponge it over the affected parts of my body in the shower. Smells good, too.

New at iTunes: Hawaii Dream Vacation iPhone/iPod Touch App Puts the Magic of Hawaii in the Palm of Your Hand, available at iTunes or

Hikers approach the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii at sunset: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Remember, you worked long and hard to get your trip to Hawaii, it took a lot of effort to fly over here.  Now that you are here, you want to see it all. Just one hour unguarded in the fierce Hawaiian sun can cause you to spend that vacation in misery, indoors, in no mood for a holiday. Be smart, be prepared, don’t get cocky, lazy or cheap. Buy quality sunscreen, use it liberally and use it often.

New at iTunes: Hawaii Dream Vacation iPhone/iPod Touch App Puts the Magic of Hawaii in the Palm of Your Hand, available at iTunes or

Ho'okena Beach on a semi-cloudy day is still a hazard for sunburn, Kona Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

To see the new iPhone/iPod Touch App, please visit 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 and

New at iTunes: Hawaii Dream Vacation iPhone/iPod Touch App Puts the Magic of Hawaii in the Palm of Your Hand, available at iTunes or

Sun damage to skin is cumulative over your lifetime, so take good care of it: Poipu Beach, Kauai Hawaii: Photo by Donald B MacGowan

At Tour Guide our goal is to insure you have the most fun, most interesting and enjoyable vacation here in Hawaii–that you are provided with all the information you need to decide where to go and what to see, and that you are not burdened with out-dated or incorrect information.

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

New at iTunes: Hawaii Dream Vacation iPhone/iPod Touch App Puts the Magic of Hawaii in the Palm of Your Hand, available at iTunes or

Sun worshipers at Ho'okena Beach, Kona Hawaii: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

By Donald B. MacGowan

Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Donnie MacGowan Snorkeling at Kahalu'u Beach on the Big Island of Hawaii: 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. 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 will discuss Snorkeling Technique and Part III covers Snorkeling Etiquette; Part IV of the series covers Snorkeling Safety. Part V will cover Big Island Snorkel Spots and Part IV covers wilderness snorkeling.

Part II: Let’s talk about technique: how are we going to do this?

First off, let’s talk about timing—when is it best to snorkel?  Sharks are night hunters and will be cruising the shallows shortly after dawn and just before dusk—so, for safety sake, don’t get into the water before about 8 am or after about 4 pm.  Next is comfort…chilly mornings and afternoons, when the sun is low on the horizon, make for chilly snorkeling.  About 8:30 or 9 in the morning is as early as I like to get wet for recreation…surfing, of course, demands more of a sacrifice to comfort, but for snorkeling, there is no reason to push the early hours.  Next, the colors are more saturated and details more pronounced with the sun strikes the water at an angle.  By about noon or 1, when the sun is directly overhead, the scenery begins to wash-out.  Additionally, starting about 11:30 or so, the daily breezes kick-up, making small, near-shore waves which get the fine grained silt stirred into the water, producing a murky view which persists until night time.  All in all, from every perspectives, the most ideal time for snorkeling is between about 9 am and noon.  Bear this in mind especially if you are hiking or kayaking to your snorkel destination, or are paying for a “snorkel tour”.  You will find that, relaxing as it is, 2 or 3 hours of snorkeling is more than sufficient to tire you and get you a little hypothermic.  Be sure to go in and rest on the beach BEFORE you get tired, BEFORE you get cold.

Now, before getting into the water, where is your partner? Never snorkel alone; never get more than 20 feet from your partner. Memorize the color of your partner’s mask and snorkel…this is how you will recognize him from a distance in the water. Be sure you and your partner are clear on where your exit point will be relative to your entry point, what part of the bay you intend to explore and how long you plan to be out.

Photo By Donnie MacGowan

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

Also before getting wet, you should make sure your mask is clean and that you have applied some form of defogger to it, either the commercially available solution (DO NOT get this stuff in your eyes!) or by simply rubbing some spit over the insides of the lenses. To clean and fog proof the mask lens, some people like to rub a wee bit of tooth paste on the glass…personally, I do not like to introduce the soapiness to the reef environment.  Now, pull the mask on your head, leaving it perched up on your hair as you enter the water. You should enter the water on a sandy patch of beach that does not drop off too steeply and is not in an area attacked by large waves.

Do not put your fins on before you are in the water. After wading out until the water is between knee and waist deep, face the incoming waves, sit down (this will also help you adjust to the temperature of the water–sometimes a bit of a shock but soon you get used to it) and pull your fins on.  Remember: never turn your back on the ocean.

From this position, duck your head under and get your hair and face wet (to help the mask seal). Now stand up and pull the mask down, arranging hair, strap and snorkel mouthpiece to maximize the seal integrity and personal comfort. This may take some adjusting to get all the hair out from under the seal, to get the snorkel mouthpiece in the right position and get comfortable. Don’t worry if there is a little fog on the mask at this point.  Be sure the strap from the mask rises up over the ball of your head, not over your ears.

There is a natural tendency for the novice to want to make the mask strap as tight as possible–thinking they are sealing out the water.  Counter-intuitively, tightening the mask strap actually makes the seal pucker and causes leaks.  The strap should hold the mask securely enough on your face so it doesn’t slip, slide or wobble, but should not be the least bit tight—water pressure against the lens will activate the seal once your face is in the water.

When the mask is sealed and you feel ready, bend at the knees, stretch arms forward and lean forward slowly until you are floating. Kick rhythmically, steadily, but at a pace you can keep up for some time. See? IT’S FUN! Oh, wait–don’t forget to breath! Seriously, some people may feel a little claustrophobia at first with the mask and snorkel, and in chilly water it’s natural to have short, gaspy breathing by instinct. Relax, concentrate on taking slow, even breaths. Snorkeling is relaxing, to be sure, but you have to be relaxed to snorkel. Breathe. Smoothly, rhythmically. Breathe.

Many people find they breathe and move more efficiently with their hands clasped behind their backs. Use your hands in sweeping motions to turn, or back up or fend-off too-near snorkelers, then clasp them back behind you again for cruising. Again, breathe. Smoothly, rhythmically.

If at any point you feel uncomfortable, simply stop, tread water (or stand up in the shallows), and put your mask up on top of your head. Look around you. See? It’s easy! But never, ever remove your mask all the way while in the water–you could drop it or it could be taken by a wave and then you’d be having significantly less fun, really quickly. If there is fog in your mask, pull your mask away from your face just a fraction of an inch and just for a moment while under water to allow just a little bit of water in. Pull your head out of the water, allow the water in the mask to rinse away the fog, then tilt the mask away from your face just a moment again to drain the water out. Practice this in a place you feel comfortable. When you get good, you can do this without even stopping–this technique also allows you to clear your mask of leakage (and all masks leak a little) while on the go.

What’s that gurgling noise? Occasionally, especially if the surf is up or you are frequently diving beneath the surface, water gets trapped in the snorkel. You can purge the snorkel simply by exhaling strongly through it and blowing the water out the top, or more easily by lifting your head above water, spitting out the mouth piece and allowing it to dangle in the air and drain clear. Cake. Practice makes perfect.

Poke your head out of the water frequently to check that your partner is within 20 feet of you and to keep yourself oriented relative to your entry and exit places. Stay alert–it’s easy to loose track of time, get carried farther than you thought by a current you didn’t even notice, wander out of your comfort zone, lazily paddle away from your partner, accidentally stray into a dangerous zone. So stay focused, stay oriented, always know where you are, where your partner is.

Photo by Donald MacGowan

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

Gosh, what’s that down there on the bottom? Diving is what snorkeling is all about. Do not expect to go deeply; do not expect to stay down long; err on the side of safety, be conservative in your actions. The ocean is composed of stacked layers of water, frequently of surprisingly different temperatures and salinities, sometimes distressingly moving in different directions. It is entirely possible to be swimming in quiet water, dive a half dozen feet under the surface and find yourself caught by a current you didn’t even know existed…don’t fight it, but turn and kick to the surface immediately so you can evaluate this new wrinkle while catching your breath.

To dive efficiently, start off by floating flat, face down, on the water. Fill your lungs and empty them completely a few times to charge your blood with oxygen. One more big breath in, then let half out (a lung-full of air will make you floaty and keep you from diving very deeply); with your arms forward, pointing down at your target, bend at the waist, kick once for forward momentum, then lift your feet in the air, allowing the weight of your legs to push you under. Keep kicking as you submerge. Do not over estimate the depth you can dive or the time you can spend down. Learn your limits slowly and safely. Uncomfortable? Turn quickly and kick to the surface, breathe, rest, try it again.

Water pressure on the eardrums will make your ears ache in just a few feet of water; to alleviate the pain and adjust the pressure in your head, as you dive pinch your nose, close your mouth and “blow” to pop your ears. If pain, discomfort, dizziness or other distress continues, turn and kick to the top. Stay there for the duration of your swim.

Novices should NEVER enter caves or explore under overhangs.  No, I don’t care, don’t do it.  Be extremely careful when swimming near rock formations, pinnacles, spires or reefs…snagging your swimsuit on the rocks or coral while underwater can quickly evolve from a minor irritation to a life threatening emergency.

Where are all the fish? The water near shore may be murky from fresh-water springs, lots of people wading or surf action; swim out a little until the water gets crystal clear…that’s better. Although you will likely see large swarms of fish swimming about all over the bay, remember they live along the rocks and coral and not over sand, so that’s where the most interesting stuff is. Check out cliffs, ledges, pockets and boulders. Look closer. You can get a cheap, disposable underwater camera for less than ten bucks at WalMart–it may be the best $10 you spend on your whole trip. Get two. Don’t forget to take pictures of each other, too.

Before you get tired, before you feel your back getting sunburned, before you shoot the last picture, before the wind comes up or the surf builds, it’s time to get out. Don’t push it, the ocean plays for keeps and it never gets tired.  Remember your plan; where’s your sandy exit point?  Make sure your partner is with you. Swim together toward your exit point; keep swimming until you are in about the same depth of water where you put your fins on–it’s easiest to stand up from a floating position in about navel-deep water rather than deeper or more shallow.  Take off your fins, push your mask up on top of your head and walk in at your exit point. Make sure your partner is with you, again. Keep your eye on the ocean as you walk out onto the beach; never, ever turn your back on the ocean.

Wasn’t snorkeling amazing? Wait’ll you see those pictures!

After getting out, trust me, you are going to want to rinse yourself off–the ocean salt is really irritating to your skin as you dry off. You also need to thoroughly rinse your gear–the salt attacks and destroys the rubber and plastic. If there are not showers or any way to rinse off where you are snorkeling, you should bring a jug of water (about one gallon per person for body, hair and gear will do it) to do this. No, no, you really, really will want to rinse off after, I promise. After rinsing, apply sunscreen immediately.  No, right now!

Photo by Donald MacGowan

Humuele'ele at Honomalino Bay, Big Island, Hawaii: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Part III of this series will discuss snorkeling etiquette; Part IV will discuss snorkeling safety, Part IV will discuss the best places on the Big Island to go snorkeling and Part VI will discuss wilderness snorkeling.

To see a video covering many of these topics, go here.  For more information on traveling to Hawaii in general, and beach activities on the Big Island in particular, visit and For information about the author, go here.

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