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Tips for safe snorkeling adventures in Hawaii

Tips for safe snorkeling adventures in Hawaii

May 21, 2015

One of the most popular water activities on the Hawaiian Islands is snorkeling. Being able to swim along the surface of the water and see some colorful fish, turtles, coral, and other sea life is an unforgettable experience. Fortunately, snorkeling is an activity that can be enjoyed by everyone, as long as you know how to keep yourself safe during a snorkeling adventure.

Injuries to tourists are far more common when snorkelers are unfamiliar with safety procedures or when they engage in risky behavior. According to an analysis of visitor safety from the Hawaii Department of Health, snorkeling is the most common cause of non-resident ocean drownings in Hawaii.

  • Over a ten year period of time, 115 people drowned while snorkeling in Hawaii. Of these victims, only 13 were residents of Hawaii, with the remaining 102 being non-residents.
  • On Oahu, 50 people lost their lives while snorkeling during this time with approximately 59 percent of the victims being residents. The remaining 41 percent were non-residents.
  • Kauai had 18 people drown while snorkeling. Approximately 77 percent were non-residents.
  • On the island of Maui, an estimated 29 percent (30 people) of all drowning victims lost their lives while snorkeling. The majority (72 percent) were non-residents.
  • Hawaii County saw 17 snorkeling deaths. Out of all of the county’s drowning victims, 56 percent were residents.

The Department of Health analysis also states that nearly half of all drowning victims and patients in Hawaii are visitors, with the highest rate among non-residents occurring on Kauai.

If you are planning to go snorkeling while in Hawaii, here are some tips to keep in mind to help keep you safe:

  • Never go snorkeling alone. Always snorkel with at least one other person.
  • Do not turn your back on the ocean. Waves can be extremely powerful.
  • Go snorkeling in the morning, when the water is clear and the winds low.
  • Avoid snorkeling in areas where the water is extremely shallow or where visibility is poor.
  • Try floating on the water’s surface as much as possible or using a flotation device to help you save energy and avoid exhaustion.
  • Stay close to shore so that if you do become fatigued, you can return to shore quickly or be rescued in more dangerous situations.
  • Stay aware of your surroundings at all times. Many snorkeling areas have sharp coral and hard rock directly under the surface. Paying attention to your surroundings can help you avoid injury.
  • Even when you are swimming or snorkeling, your body can become dehydrated.
  • Keep yourself hydrated by drinking lots of water.
  • Children must be supervised at all times. Snorkeling can be strenuous and losing sight of a child who is snorkeling can mean tragedy.

If you are aren’t sure where to go, but are looking for the best spots to snorkel, these destinations ranked highest in Hawaii Magazine’s Facebook poll:

Fifth place goes to Ke’e Beach. This extremely popular snorkeling destination can be found along Kauai’s north shore. It is also right near the trail that leads directly to the Na Pali Coastline.

Fourth place is a tie between Ka’anapali Beach, on Maui’s west side, which has more than a mile of white-sand beaches and an underwater lava rock ledge, and Honolua Bay. Honolua Bay can be found along Maui’s northwest shore, but be sure to go there during the summer months when the waves are calmer. Winter is surf season, so surfers can be expected to be out in force at that time of year.

Third place goes to Kealakekua Bay, on Hawaii’s Big Island. Kealakekua Bay is part of a Marine Life Conservation District and known for being a wonderful spot to snorkel, scuba dive, or kayak.

Second place is shared by Molokini, in Maui County along Maui’s southwestern coast and Tunnels Beach along Kauai’s north shore. The crater where Molokini is located has a crescent shape that helps shield snorkelers from strong waves. The area is the home of at least 250 different marine species and 38 species of hard coral. Tunnels Beach has numerous inner and outer reefs through which snorkelers can navigate. A view of Makana Peak, or “Bali Hai” from the movie South Pacific, can be seen from this snorkeling destination.

First place goes to Hanauma Bay along the southeast part of Oahu. Hanauma Bay is a nature preserve and marine life conservation district and a very popular snorkeling destination. It is estimated that there are more than 400 different species of fish and marine life present in Hanauma Bay. To help protect the bay’s fragile ecosystem, visitors and guests are required to watch a video and get educated on how to reduce any negative environmental impact while snorkeling and swimming.


Even the most popular and most frequented snorkeling destinations can also be dangerous for unwary visitors. Earlier this month, KITV reported that two snorkelers had to be rescued by lifeguards in separate incidents at Hanauma Bay. The first involved a 56-year-old snorkeler who was located about 40 yards off the beach. She was initially found unresponsive, but was revived when rescue personnel performed CPR. The second involved a 70-year-old woman, who was found floating face down in waist-high water only 10 yards offshore. Rescuers had to perform CPR and use an Automated External Defibrillator, before transporting her to a local hospital in critical condition.

In a more tragic turn of events, the Seattle Times reported that a Washington couple recently drowned while snorkeling near Hawaii’s Hanauma Bay. The couple had apparently been in distress, about 200 yards outside of Witches Brew cove, when a hiker spotted them and called for help. By the time lifeguards were able to reach them and begin CPR, the couple was unable to be revived and were pronounced dead at the scene. The exact cause of the drowning is not known, but authorities suspect that one party may have been having difficulties when the other tried to assist.

It is reported that 11 people have lost their lives while swimming or snorkeling at Hanuana Bay between 2009 and 2013. Other potentially dangerous snorkeling spots include tourist favorites like Waikiki Beach on Oahu, Black Rock on Maui, Kahanamoku Beach and Lagoon on Oahu, Molokini on Maui and La’aloa Beach on Hawaii’s Big Island.


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