Hawaii's seas are teeming with life, but sadly its mostly in patterned swim suits, snorkels and fins.
If you are after a glimpse of the life aquatic, and the Pacific's most stunning displays of fish, take a deep dive into these marine reserves.
Maui's Molokini Crater: Like snorkelling in a packed aquarium
According to Hawaiian legend, Maui's Molokini Crater is the tail of a lizard whose body was cut in half by the goddess Pele. I imagine in the future, the story will be that this half-sunken caldera was engineered by the Hawaii Tourism Authority to resemble a set of arms thrown wide open toward Maalaea Bay, welcoming ships full of tourists. Nearly half a million visitors snorkel and scuba dive at the crater each year, lured by the promise of calm, crystalline waters with visibility often exceeding 150 feet. Once used for bomb practice by the U.S. military, this designated Hawaii Marine Life Conservation District is now home to some 250 fish species and 38 coral species. Snorkelling there, protected from wind and waves, you feel like you're in an aquarium, albeit one packed with other observers.
At least half a dozen boats, some with as many as 140 passengers, moor off the crescent-shaped crater. For every rainbow-hued parrotfish chomping on cauliflower coral, there is at least one pasty skinned snorkeller wrapped in a yellow flotation belt distracting from the peacefulness under the sea.
If you do go, avoid the boats that look like floating water parks - I would recommend Sail Maui's Paragon II, which caps trips at 38 guests - so you'll have fewer snorkellers near you in the water. Go during whale season (December through May) and you might even see some big fish during the breezy 2 1/2-mile boat ride.
Excursions to Molokini Crater with Sail Maui cost $125 for adults; 808-495-0879; sailmaui.com
Puu Kekaa and Honolua Bay: Room to roam
For a Snorkelling experience that feels more "Blue Planet" than "Life Aquatic," rent equipment and head to Puu Kekaa on the island's West Side. This lava promontory, also known as Black Rock, is at the north end of famous Kaanapali Beach, in front of the Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa. Entry from the shoreline is easy, but this is a DIY Snorkelling experience, so check beach safety signs. Go early, before the afternoon trade winds pick up, and snorkel along the edge of the rock. You'll reach a vertical wall about 30 feet deep, where you're likely to see sea turtles, spotted eagle rays, and a sandy bottom blanketed in starfish and urchin. In season, you might also be serenaded by singing humpback whales.
Fish geeks who crave more context can book a snorkel trip to Honolua Bay. (I'd recommend the Pacific Whale Foundation's eco-charters.) Located on the northwest side of the island, the bay is part of the Honolua-Mokuleia Marine Life Conservation District and is dense with healthy coral and schools of reef fish. High rock cliffs keep the waters mellow and clear most of the year (winter conditions are normally too rough for boats and snorkellers) and are prime for first-time snorkellers.
An encounter with a sea turtle is all the more special when it's one-on-one, which is often the case here and at Black Rock (in fact, turtles aren't found at Molokini Crater); just remember to keep the recommended 6-to-10 foot buffer around the protected creatures.
Excursions with the Pacific Whale Foundation cost $125 for adults; 800-942-5311; pacificwhale.org