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Part I of this series discuses Snorkeling Gear; Part II of this series covers Snorkeling Technique; Part III covers Snorkeling Etiquette; Part IV discusses Snorkeling Safety and Part V covers Big Island Snorkel Spots.

Waialea Beach in Kohala is the gateway to many small, secluded secret beaches on the Big Island...but why go any farther than this?  It's perfect! Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Waialea Beach in Kohala is the gateway to many small, secluded secret beaches on the Big Island...but why go any farther than this? It's perfect! Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Of all the Hawaiian Islands, because it is the youngest, the Big Island has the fewest and smallest beaches…this leads to crowding during the height of tourist season at some beaches. Because Hawaii is still rural, there are still some wilderness (hike-to-only) beaches; a few of them are among the best on the island.

Many wild beaches may be camped upon but you must apply for a permit from the appropriate agency. Overnight camping on Hawaii beaches is simplified because of the mild climate–usually I take a few quarts of water, a couple sandwiches, my camera, dry clothes for post-snorkeling comfort, a fleece blanket and rice mat to sleep on (a beach towel will suffice) and a small tarp on the off-chance it rains. The key here is that if the weather turns truly ugly, you are rarely more than an hour from your car. You may wish to bring a few extra quarts of water to rinse the salt off after swimming—it’s difficult to sleep comfortably with salty skin.

Two things to bear in mind—although is sometimes doesn’t seem it, Hawaii DOES have tides…camp well back of the beach area. Secondly, beach fires are not only illegal, they are hugely dangerous on most beaches on the west side.

Ke-awa-iki Beach (park off Highway 19 just north of Mile 79; walk along gravel road towards the ocean to a fence and foot trail; about 15 minutes to beach): A little walking over a lava road and a’a rewards you with a beautiful beach many locals don’t know about. This tiny black-sand beach has good snorkeling on the south side, where there is still a pocket of white sand. 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.

Hiking north, one comes to Pueo Bay, where freshwater springs make the snorkeling interesting but weird, with large temperature and salinity gradients. If one takes the trail heading inland towards a conspicuous growth of hala trees, one comes to a pair of lovely golden pools. A golden algae gives these pools their distinctive color, but be sure not to damage the growth by walking on it. Finish the trek by hiking back across the a’a…approximately 4 miles, round trip.

Photo by Donald MacGowan

Makalawena Beach on the Big Island is the epitome of Hawaiian white sand beaches...and it's always uncrowded: Photo by Donald MacGowan

Makalawena Beach (turn off Highway 19 south of Mile 90 at Kekahakai State Park; at the end of the road, take obvious trail north over lava field; the trail traverses rough lava and keawe breaks, so shoes are required): Makalawena is the finest swimming and snorkeling beach on the island and the most beautiful beach setting. This beach sports a series of coves, refreshing shade, big sand dunes and a nice freshwater pond to rinse-off in. A great backpacking getaway, a one-way through hike along the Ala Ali’i trail from Kekahakai State Park, past Makalawena to Kual Bay is a fabulous trip.  Do not forget your camera; this hike will be a major highlight of your trip to the Big Island.

The land fronting the beach is owned by Bishop Estate and is slated to be turned into a development of condos and resorts; vigilance and protest on the part of locals and visitors is the only way we can keep this last, wild Kona beach wild.

Pawai Bay (in Kailua Kona, drive to the end of the Old Airport County Beach Park; hike along the ocean to the first, obvious, sandy bay): Spectacular, secluded, secret; Pawai Bay is perhaps the most interesting snorkeling spot on the island. Walk along the sea cliffs and coves about 15-20 minutes north, to the Queen Liliuokalani Children’s Camp at Pawai Bay. Remember, non-Hawaiians are restricted to travel along the tidal zone and only the edge of the shoreline…to venture even a few feet inland is trespassing. The ever-watchful security guards will remind you of this.  Repeatedly.

Pawai Bay hosts a choice sandy beach with a small channel leading to open ocean and exciting snorkeling. Many charter snorkel tours bring clients here, but you can visit free by making the short hike in. Submerged caverns, arches and caves are filled with fish and coral and pristine water. From the shore, this is not a snorkel adventure for rank beginners.

Swim through the sandy bay to the channel and out to the cliffs. Be wary of surginess and don’t go in when the surf is big. Once in the larger bay, look back toward shore where numerous small channels lead shoreward but dead-end in cliffs; your passage back is the only channel through which you can see sand at the end. Remember this when trying to get back into the little bay.

The bay itself lies on Queen Liliuokalani Trust lands. Non-native Hawai’ians are not allowed on the land or to use the facilities. State beach access laws allow you to visit as long as you stay immediately along the shoreline; the beach is patrolled 24/7.

Kealakekua Bay from the Captain Cook Monument. Simply the finest snorkeling.  Ever.  Photo by Donald MacGowan

Kealakekua Bay from the Captain Cook Monument. Simply the finest snorkeling. Ever. Photo by Donald MacGowan

Captain Cook Monument (The trail leaves the Napo’opo’o Road right at telephone pole number 4, just 500 feet below where it drops off Highway 11; parking is tight, but safe): This hike is a fine walk through tall grass, open lava fields and dryland forest, opening onto one of the most pristine ocean beaches in the world. Hiking down to the Monument is great fun—the return is hot, thirsty and strenuous but rewards you with panoramic views of the coast. The 2.5-mile hike takes about an hour down, somewhat more to return. The trail runs straight down the left side of a rock wall toward the sea. As the pitch straightens out, keep to the left at the fork and proceed to the beach through the abandoned village. You strike shore several hundred feet northwest of the monument—remember to bear right at the trail junction when returning, or you face a long and unpleasant time wandering the a’a fields.

Snorkeling at the monument is wild and scenic, from shallow tidepools north of the wharf to the steep drop-off under the cliffs. There is a concrete marker in the tidal zone denoting the exact spot Cook fell somewhat north of the actual monument.

Honomalino Beach (turn off Highway 11 just south of mile marker 89, drive through Miloli’i; start hiking between the county park and a yellow church. Keep along the right at forks in the trail, in and out of the surf line, to avoid private property): A true gem of West Hawai’i and rarely crowded, Honomalino Bay is reached by a 20 minute hike from the south end of Miloli’i Beach County Park. Snorkeling is very interesting on the north side in the rocks, when the surf is low. The water, though very clear, is sometimes quite cold due to spring discharge in the sand on the beach.

Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Mahana Green Sand Beach at South point on the Big Island: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Mahana Green Sand Beach (Turn off Highway 11 to South Point, follow signs to Mahana Boat Launch. Park just above the boat ramp for the 2 1/4 mile hike to the Green Sand Beach): Absolutely unique to Hawai’i, beautiful and strange, are the green sand. The green sand beach at South Point is the best known, largest and most accessible of these. The sand grains here are olivine crystals, washed out of a cinder cone that has been partially breached by the sea.

When you reach the end of the trail, you are a hundred or so feet above the beach on the rim of the remnant of the crater. At the start, there is a tricky spot edging over a 3-foot ledge, but below this the trail is wide and clear One can also easily scramble down middle of the cone, but this can be slippery. Although tricky to spot on the way down, from the beach looking up the way back to the crater rim is easy to follow.

The beach lies in the interior of the cone, and the protected cove makes for a wonderful swimming/snorkeling spot but be wary of currents. Do not go out far, nor in at all in high surf or strong winds. The bizarre color of the water shrieks for color photographs, particularly underwater photographs taken while snorkeling.

A video covering many of these topics is available here.

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

All media copyright 2009 by Donald B. MacGowan

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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 will discuss Snorkeling Technique and Part III will cover Snorkeling Etiquette; Part IV of the series covers Snorkeling Safety and Part V will cover Big Island Snorkel Spots.
Photo by Donald MacGowan

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

We’ve covered snorkeling gear and technique…before we go any farther, let’s talk a minute about snorkeling safety.

First and foremost, as with all ocean sports, never turn your back on the ocean. Just as important, never snorkel alone; never get more than 20 feet from your partner. Before getting in the ocean, memorize the color of your partner’s mask and snorkel…this is how you will recognize him from a distance in the water. Listen to advice from the lifeguards, obey posted warnings, always pay attention to the currents, surf conditions and surges over rocks. Chat with people coming out as you are going in…what were conditions like?  What do the recommend?  Where was the cool stuff?

Plan your points of entry and exit before you get wet; try to enter and exit from sandy areas with little of no surf. You and your partner should agree on a plan about where you are getting in and getting out of the water, what part of the bay you are going to explore and how long you plan to be out. Don’t overestimate your abilities, plan conservatively, err on the side of safety. Don’t change this plan once you are in the water, except to make it shorter and more safe.

Don’t confront incoming waves head-on, don’t try to jump over them and don’t turn your back on them; duck under incoming waves before they reach you.  Watch the local kids on boogie boards…see how they duck the waves?  You do that, too.

Never snorkel on windy days. Offshore winds may take you unexpectedly out to sea or make it hard to swim back in and onshore breezes stack extra water, high on the beach, making nasty rip-currents as it flows back into the ocean. Onshore breezes also bring in jelly fish and man-o-war.

If you are caught in a current, don’t panic; don’t swim against the current but rather swim diagonally across it toward shore. Keep going, you’ll make it. No, keep going.  I know you are tired., but you’ll get there if you just…keep…going.

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.

Many people like the extra comfort and safety provided by wearing an inflatable snorkeling vest or having a “floatie” such as a polystyrene noodle or a boogie board.  I say do it—don’t be intimidated by those idiots out there with nothing, be swayed by the intelligence of those out there who do have something for extra flotation.  A noodle or boogie board will also allows you a platform to rest on and catch your breath between dives, and helps you navigate any waves more comfortably.

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. I cannot stress this enough–it’s easy to get overtired; get your partner and swim in BEFORE you feel fatigued, thirsty, sunburned; BEFORE the wind comes up or the surf builds. So stay focused, stay oriented, always know where you are, where your partner is.

Safety around fish, marine mammals and sharks is thouroughly discussed here.

Lee Ann MacGruder Snorkels the shallows at Ho'okena Beach: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Lee Ann MacGruder Snorkels the shallows at Ho'okena Beach: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Sunscreen washing off your body pollutes the water and is a major factor in coral death–wear a t-shirt and baseball cap to avoid sunburn while in the water, waiting until you are out of the ocean and rinsed off to apply sunscreen. 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.

Many things in the ocean sting, most commonly sea urchins–avoid them, do not handle or step on them. White vinegar kills sea urchin stings from embedded spines and, regularly applied, helps to dissolve the spine. Other home remedies for sea urchin, jelly fish and other stings include the application of moistened tobacco, hydrogen peroxide or urine (this latter can be hard to self-administer and will quickly let you know who your real friends are). Like wasp stings, most stings from ocean creatures are not medically dangerous, merely a painful nuisance, but it’s best to be prepared with whatever remedy you choose in your beach kit. Some jellyfish stings and all man-o-war stings are potentially life-threatening and need to be treated at the emergency department of the nearest hospital.

This shouldn’t even need mentioning, but of course, if you’ve been drinking–even a little, you should not go snorkeling. Snorkeling is best done between about 9 a.m. and noon, anyway, so sobriety shouldn’t even be an issue. Oh, right; you’re on vacation–I forgot.

Don’t forget to drink lots of water…immersion in salt water is very dehydrating and just swimming around you’ve worked harder–and sweated more–than you realize. Be kind to your skin and rinse yourself and your gear with fresh water immediately after you get out of the ocean and remember to apply sunscreen and wear your sunglasses. Don’t overestimate your skin’s tolerance for beach sun; a nasty sunburn is distressingly easy to acquire and will absolutely ruin your vacation. Now might be a good time to go inside and cool off, rest a bit–you are on vacation, you know?

Photo by Donald MacGowan

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

That’s a few of the gear technique and safety tips you should bear in mind…remember to heed whatever advice the lifeguards give you–they are seasoned professionals who intimately know their beach; obey posted rules and be wary of riptides and currents. Most of all, spring for a cheap-o $10 disposable underwater camera, get in the water and enjoy…those fish won’t photograph themselves, you know!  Shoot, they;re cheap…buy two!  And take pictures of each other, for Pete’s sake!

A video covering many of these topics is available 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 – a short video about snorkeling in Hawaii is available here. To see a funny video of my family learning to snorkel in Hawaii, go here. For information about the author, go here.

All media copyright 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