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Inside: From navigating the online reservation system to what to pack, here are my best local tips for a perfect day of snorkeling at Hanauma Bay.
Nestled on the southeastern shore of the island of Oahu, Hanauma Bay is a stunning protected marine life conservation area and one of the best places for snorkeling in all of Hawaii.
Created 32,000 years ago by a series of volcanic explosions, what remains today is a pristine volcanic crater marine ecosystem thriving with life.
What’s so special about Hanauma Bay?
Designated as a protected area since 1967, the nature preserve has a relentless commitment to conservation efforts and it shows. That’s why both tourists and locals alike flock to Hanauma Bay for snorkeling, drawn by the crystal-clear shallow waters and abundant coral reefs.
Exceptional conservation efforts ensure the bay remains a sanctuary for both marine life and snorkelers. A visit to Hanauma Bay is a chance to witness the results of successful conservation firsthand.
Why a day at Hanauma Bay for snorkeling is a Must-Do
Hanauma (literally “curved bay” in Hawaiian) Bay is the epitome of snorkeling on Oahu. The vibrant marine life here includes playful Hawaiian green sea turtles (known as honu) and as many as 400 species of fish that call this pristine marine ecosystem their home.
It’s not every day you have the chance to glide over shallow coral reefs in calm water, spotting a Moorish Idol or a butterfly fish in crystal-clear waters.
But when you come to Hanuama Bay for snorkeling, that’s exactly what you can do! Even if you’re not a strong swimmer, the calm shallow waters and attentive lifeguards make this a safe snorkeling experience for beginner snorkelers.
And that’s why I consider it one of the best snorkeling spots in Hawaii and a must-do Oahu experience.
And while a day at Hanuama Bay is one of the top family activities on Oahu, I also consider it the perfect day at the beach for couples. What’s more romantic than snorkeling side by side with the one you love?
Is Hanauma Bay worth it?
I’ve been lucky enough to snorkel all over the world, from Thailand to Tahiti and Aruba to Australia. But the Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve is truly a unique experience and one of my all-time favorite spots for snorkeling.
It’s not just about the colorful tropical fish or the shallow coral reefs, it’s the entire experience. It’s extremely well-organized and run, with everything you need for a perfect day that snorkelers of all levels will enjoy. That’s why I believe Hanauma Bay is one of the best places in the world for snorkeling.
So yes, Hanauma Bay is worth the hassle. But, if you don’t want to get a rental car or fuss with the reservation system (or if you have your heart set on a specific day to go), you can always book one of several snorkel tours to Hanauma Bay.
Keep in mind that tours really just include transportation and reservations (not the $25 entry fee, you’ll pay that when you arrive). So a “Hanauma Bay Snorkeling Tour” is a bit of a misnomer. But if you can’t get a reservation or don’t want to drive, this is the best tour option for snorkeling at Hanauma Bay:
However, don’t be discouraged by the reservation process, you can do this! You just need a few easy tips for success and I’ve got you covered there.
But first, let’s cover the basics…
Hanauma Bay Need to Know Info
Here’s everything you need to know to plan your visit:
Where is Hanuama Bay?
The Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve is located at 7455 Kalaniana’ole Highway approximately 10 miles from the Waikiki hotel zone on the southeastern tip of Oahu. If you’re coming from Waikiki, plan on a minimum 30-minute drive with no traffic (which is rarely the case in Honolulu, so better give it 45 minutes to be safe).
If you don’t have a rental car, you’ll need to book a tour or take an Uber or Lyft. The city bus no longer stops here.
Tip: If you need a rental car, Discount Hawaii Car Rental is my go-to for the best rates on Oahu.
For rental cars in Hawaii, go to the local experts. They’ll find you the best rate among all the major companies with no booking fees. And their customer support is top-notch.
When is Hanauma Bay open?
The nature preserve is open to the public Wednesdays through Sundays from 6:45am – 1:30pm. Visitors must leave the preserve by 4:00pm each day.
Note that the preserve is CLOSED on Mondays and Tuesdays. It can also be closed due to extreme weather conditions like high winds and surf.
How much are Hanauma Bay tickets?
The per-person park entrance fee is $25 for non-Hawaii residents 13 years or older. Kids 12 and younger are free (but still need a reservation). The online reservation system also charges a 2.35% service fee for credit card payments.
Hanauma Bay Parking
Parking is $3 and must be paid in cash only, they will not take a credit card. Parking is limited to just 300 spaces and often fills up by late morning. On our most recent visit, when we left around 10:30am, the “parking lot full” sign was already up at the entrance point of Kalaniana’ole Highway.
And just because you have a reservation, you’re not guaranteed a parking space. But if you go early, you won’t have a problem (more on that shortly).
Mastering the Hanauma Bay Online Reservation System
The bay operates under a structured online reservation system run by the county of Honolulu with time slots available every 10 minutes. The first time slot is at 7:00am and the last is at 1:20pm.
Since moving to Oahu, I’ve gotten pretty good at navigating the Hanauma Bay online reservation system (mostly by trial and error!) and I’m going to share my best tips for scoring that coveted morning reservation.
But before I get to that, here are a few things you need to know:
Most importantly, here’s the link you’ll need to make reservations: Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve Reservations
Online reservations are only available 48 hours in advance. So no matter how much advance planning you do for your visit to Oahu, there’s no way to guarantee a visit to Hanauma Bay for snorkeling unless you book a tour.
The reservation system populates at exactly 7:00am Hawaiian Standard Time (HST). For example, if you want to visit on Saturday, you can book your reservation starting promptly at 7:00am local time on Thursday.
Best Time of Day for Hanauma Bay
The earlier the better, but you don’t have to get there right when it opens. The preserve’s operating hours are especially suited to early risers and, honestly, that’s the best time to go for many reasons. The biggest reason is parking.
As I mentioned above, there’s no guarantee you’ll snag a parking space, just because you have a reservation. Plus, they start clearing the beach at 3:30pm and you won’t know until you get there how long you’ll want to stay. So try to get a reservation before 9:00am.
3 Best Tips for Scoring a Morning Reservation
Alright, let’s get to it! My secret sauce for securing the all-important morning reservation at Hanauma Bay. No, it’s not rocket science. In fact, it’s actually pretty simple.
Let’s say, for example, that you want to make a Friday morning reservation:
1. Get to know the reservation system. You can’t book a Friday reservation until 7:00am on Wednesday, but you can get prepared on Tuesday. Check out the reservation site. There’s a handy chart that will show you what time slots were available for the previous two days and what time each time slot sold out.
You’ll notice that some sold out at 7:02am and others were more like 7:15am or 7:20am. That will help give you an idea of which time slots to target.
2. Don’t try to book at the top or bottom of the hour. These are always the first time slots to go. The first time you try to make a reservation, your instinct will be to go for a nice round number like 8:00am or 9:30am. Fight the urge and instead shoot for something like 8:10am or 8:40am (8:20am has also been a great time that has never failed me).
Pick a time with 35 tickets available (not 15). Most time slots have 35 tickets available. However, the earliest time slots only have 15 each. That’s because they allow some space for walk-ins who arrive early. The goal is to make it to the payment screen on your first try. If you don’t, you’ll be scrambling for a different time slot and might miss out.
3. Be ready to book at 6:59am…sharp!! The daily reservation times populate exactly at 7:00am HST and the time slots are gone within minutes. If possible, use a laptop instead of your phone. I’ve tested both and the laptop is quicker.
If you only have a phone, enlist help from someone else in your party and use multiple devices targeting different time slots. Once you get to the payment page, you’re good! You’ll have a few minutes to finalize your reservation and pay.
What to do if you screw up a reservation
Let’s just say you get caught up in the frenzy of snagging a time slot and in the process of completing the reservation for 2 adults you forget to add the 7-year-old child going with them. And when you try to go back and add the kiddo all the reservations are sold out. (Okay fine, I did that…it was me.)
Luckily, it turned out to be an easy fix, we called the number on the ticket confirmation and explained what happened and they said it was fine, just show up a few extra minutes early to sort it out. Technically you are supposed to make a reservation for children 12 and under even though they are free. But thankfully, the folks at Hanauma Bay State Park are reasonable people.
And if all else fails…
Can you visit Hanauma Bay without a reservation?
Yes, it is possible to get a walk-in ticket to visit Hanauma Bay. A limited number of walk-in tickets are set aside primarily to accommodate those without internet access or a computer. However, there are no guarantees. If you do want to try it, be in line at the ticket window no later than 6:45am.
The Hanauma Bay Snorkeling Experience
So, you followed my tips and got your reservation, now what? Here’s a rundown of what to expect on the day of your visit.
Arrival and Parking
Plan on 45 minutes to get to Hanauma Bay from most Waikiki hotels. When you turn off from the highway, they’ll ask for your reservation confirmation to allow you into the parking lot. If you don’t have a reservation, as long as there is space in the lot, they’ll let you in if you tell them you’re trying for a walk-in ticket.
Again, the parking fee is $3 (cash only) and there are no in and out privileges. Allow plenty of time for the drive and parking process, you’ll need to be in line at the admission window 15 minutes before your reservation time. And remember, parking spots are not guaranteed.
Check-in, gift shop, & cafe
At the check-in window, the person who made the reservation will need a photo ID to get the actual tickets. Have your online reservation confirmation in hand.
Near the check-in window, there’s also a handy gift shop for anything you may have forgotten (like the required reef-safe sunscreen). There’s also a small cafe you can return to later if you get hungry, just be sure to get your hand stamped before you head to the cafe so you can get back in.
Once you’re checked in, you’ll be grouped with others and ushered into the Marine Education Center for an overview of the preserve and then to the theater to view the educational video.
The educational video
Every visitor to Hanauma Bay must watch a mandatory 9-minute educational video. The short video educates visitors on the bay’s fragile ecosystem and emphasizes essential safety rules (like how to avoid strong currents in two specific areas).
It also provides tips to minimize your environmental impact by not disturbing marine life like the Hawaiian green sea turtles, the tropical fish, and the coral itself. Don’t touch the coral, don’t step on the coral, don’t chase turtles, etc.
Beyond instilling respect for the natural habitat, the video ensures that both first-timers and experienced snorkelers understand the part they play in preserving Hanauma Bay for future generations.
How to get down to the beach
After the educational video concludes, you’re free to head down and enjoy the beach. There are two ways to get down there – a handy tram or a walking path.
It’s an easy and scenic walk down to the beach but if you’re laden with gear for a full day of adventure, just hop on the tram. I, for one, vote for the walk on the way down and the tram on the way back up!
Renting Snorkel Equipment
If you have your own gear, you can of course bring it. But most people don’t own snorkel gear or have room to pack it for their Hawaii vacation. So, for just $20, it’s easy enough to rent the complete set – snorkel, mask, and fins.
You can also get a life vest for an additional $10 (well worth it if you have younger children or anyone who is not a confident swimmer). The rental kiosk is located down on the beach.
Food & Drink Options
There is one cafe or “snack bar” at Hanauma Bay with decent food options like salads, wraps, and drinks. But it’s located near the ticket window outside the ticketed area so when you get hungry or thirsty you’ll have to take the tram back up top (and remember to get your hand stamped for return entry).
A better option is to bring at least a few things with you. You are allowed to bring in a smaller cooler with drinks and snacks (just no large coolers, glass, or alcohol).
I’d definitely recommend that if you have young children with you. While there are food options there, it’s more convenient to bring your own.
Are there restrooms & showers?
Yes, there are both restrooms and showers down on the beach level.
How’s the actual snorkeling at Hanauma Bay?
What I love about Hanauma Bay for snorkeling is that you can be as cautious or adventurous as you’re comfortable with. If you’re an experienced snorkeler and a strong swimmer, you can go farther out in the bay and see even more of the coral reef. It just might be one of the best snorkeling experiences accessible from shore anywhere in the world.
But if you’re a more cautious snorkeler (like me!) there are wide shallow and calm parts of the bay with a soft, sandy bottom where you can comfortably don your snorkel gear and just hug the edge of the reef. You’ll still see plenty of fish along the edges so this is a great option for smaller kids or first-time snorkelers.
How much time do you need for Hanauma Bay snorkeling?
The answer to this question is different for everyone. For me, we typically go for about 3 hours – start to finish. But it’s easy to lose track of time and spend an entire day here. Just make sure you bring plenty of that reef-safe sunscreen because you won’t find much shade at Hanauma Bay.
The whole process from parking to getting settled on the beach can take an hour so plan on at least half a day to get the most out of your experience.
What to pack for a day at Hanauma Bay
If you show up in just your swimsuit and a towel, you can buy almost anything else you need there. But there are a few things you should bring to save money and/or make your day a little more comfortable:
- Parking entrance fee of $25 (if you didn’t pay online)
- $3 cash for parking
- Your reservation confirmation & photo ID
- Towels & swimsuits
- Snorkel gear (or you can rent it)
- Water shoes are helpful but not necessary
- Beach Chairs (if you prefer)
- Umbrella or pop-up tent for shade if you need extra sun protection
- Reef-safe sunscreen (the only kind sold in Hawaii)
- Small cooler with drinks & snacks
What else can you see near Hanauma Bay?
After spending a wonderful morning snorkeling among the tropical fish and Hawaiian green sea turtles at Hanauma Bay, this part of Oahu has plenty more to offer.
Here are a few of my favorite things to do on Oahu’s windward side after your visit to Hanauma Bay:
Visit the Halona Blowhole: Why the Halona Blowhole is a Must-See on Oahu’s Loveliest Coast
Hike the Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail: This Family-Friendly Lighthouse Hike is Oahu’s Best Trail for Spotting Whales
Visit Oahu’s tranquil Japanese temple: Escape the Waikiki Crowds with a Visit to the Byodo-In Temple