Finding Sea Turtles in Hanauma Bay, Oahu

Growing up, Hawaii was not on my radar. It has only been recent years that I realized what a dreamy destination it is. I’ve now been to Oahu but all the islands have received a spot on my bucket list! My one goal when I vacationed there was to see a sea turtle. I had done some research and determined the best places to spot them were on the North Shore and at Hanauma Bay. When I went in October 2017, there were 2 turtles who were loyal Hanauma Bay residents. A staff member told me however that they usually come early in the morning as that was the best time to feed. I went in the late morning, but in typical Natalia fashion, I was stubborn enough to not leave until I spotted one.

Backing up just a bit

For those of you going to Oahu, Hawaii, Hanauma Bay is a must! Just a short 15 minutes from Waikiki and with an average of 3000 visitors per day, it is one of Oahu’s top destinations. A beautiful protected marine bay, it was formed within a volcanic cone. Hanauma bay offers a diverse ecosystem for people to snorkel in. Due to the high volume of visitors and years of neglect, conservation efforts have been put in place. Every Tuesday, the bay is closed to allow the fish a day of feeding without interruption. Volunteers are on site to help educate visitors about reef conservation and the types of fish that live there. Park entry fees are 7.50$ a person and free for locals, active military and children under 12.  The park offers amenities for a fee including a snorkel set, locker use and a tram to get down and up from the park. Parking on site costs 1$ however get there early because it fills up fast!

Hanauma Bay – First time

When we went around 10am, it was completely full. We kept driving about 2km’s past the beach until we got to a look out and contemplated parking there. Although, we are almost certain the only parked vehicles allowed were the ones stopping to take photos of the view. Thankfully there was a very kind, very helpful police officer there. Side note – Oahu has some of the friendliest, happiest, most helpful people I’ve ever come across! Granted, if I lived in Hawaii I probably would be happy all the time too. The incredibly hospitable locals was the cherry on top of a fabulous vacation!

So back to the post. The police officer informed us if we drove back the way we came and made a left shortly after passing the reserve, there would be a residential area that people can park! The distance from the residential area is about 500m and some of it is up hill but every step of the way is worth it. Once on site, there is a marine education centre complete with a small shop and theatre room. Mandatory for all visitors is a 9 minute video presentation to learn about marine life, preservation and safety rules. If you think you’ll visit the bay within one years’ time, you are able to put your name on a list so that during your next visit, you can skip the video. The video plays every 15 minutes so once you’ve paid, you should be down on the beach within 30 minutes.

My brother and I were on the same page for turtle searching. After we put on our waterproof sunscreen and waited 30 minutes we set out. Almost immediately after stepping into the waters you can spot tropical fish. My first time snorkelling was in Koh Phi Phi, Thailand and that, and watching a baby elephant run, was the highlights of my time in Thailand. So even seeing fish, which I’m normally afraid of swimming with, was incredible. I’m not going to pretend to be some marine expert and list the names of some fish I saw after googling “Hanauma Bay fish.” But I will tell you, we saw a lot of very beautiful, very colourful fish. My brother even saw an eel which I’m thankful I didn’t.

The most difficult part of searching for a turtle was the lack of available sand to stand on. Visitors are responsible in doing their due diligence of not standing on or touching the coral. There aren’t many shallow, coral-free spots to rest at when you’re tired and need a break without having to return to shore. That stuff is literally everywhere. We spent two hours in the water so you can imagine how exhausted we were as we essentially never gave our bodies a break.

Ninety minutes into the swim, my brother and I decided we would check one more area then call it quits. We went east in the water and..

There it was! Our hard work paid off and my goal for Hawaii was better than complete. I not only saw a wild turtle, I swam with her! It was a surreal experience. My brother has a GoPro so he was able to get these amazing shots.

It’s important to keep in mind that it is illegal to touch, disturb, capture or kill a sea turtle in Hawaii. The penalty is up to a 25,000$ fine and/or a year in jail. We made sure to keep a respectful distance from her even when she swam towards us. I was thankful to see that other snorkelers showed the same respect.

Pro tip –

As we were leaving, we looked at the view once more and realized we could have found the turtle sooner. From the top of the hill we saw numerous people swimming close together around the area we saw the turtle. They had obviously spotted her too. We realized if we put a little thought into what we were seeing while heading down, we would have known where she was from the get go. We spent 2 hours in the water which I’m happy about as the whole snorkeling experience was incredible. However, if we found her at the beginning when we weren’t so tired it probably would have been more enjoyable.

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