Snorkeling in Maui: Close Encounters with Turtles
By Marc Donadieu
Glacier City Gazette
Late October and early November are when Alaskans start thinking about getting away soon or in the next few months, which are great times to view sea turtles on Maui. I hoped to see a few turtles while snorkeling, but what surprised me was the near daily viewing of them in different places.
My wife, Associate Publisher Lesley de Jaray, and I stayed in a resort’s beachfront studio in Kahana (west Maui) for 10 days with no firm plans, just a list of possibilities to choose from daily, depending on conditions. Our primary focus revolved around snorkeling different spots and grilling dinner daily on the resort’s outdoor gas grills. We had a mix of indoor activities to account for rain, to get out of the sun and to avoid weekend crowds at places with little parking. Maui Brewing Co was just a five-minute walk away.
The first place we put on our fins, goggles and mask was Black Rock, a rocky stretch of lava at the north end of Ka’anapali Beach. On our initial venture out, we stayed alongside the rocky lava outcropping, which had a variety of coral and fish beneath the waves. After going around the outcropping and not seeing much, we returned to the beach for a short rest.
Then we headed out into the middle of the small bay, where we saw the first green sea turtle of our trip. With nobody else around, we took our time viewing the turtle eating algae off of coral. It seemed like time was in slow motion as the turtle went about dining while much smaller fish stayed close to its mouth. With a few sluggish flips of its fins, the sea turtle moved to a new nearby buffet.
The next morning, we were able to get an open parking spot to hike part of the Kapalua Coastal Trail along Kapalua Bay. There were many amazing views, especially for a photographer, when every few steps revealed something new. However, it is important to stay on the marked trail because it goes through a nesting colony of wedge-tailed shearwaters that rear their young in shallow ground burrows, and some are obvious from the trail.
Our next stop was Honolua Bay, after we solved the problem of finding a parking spot with limited ones available. The short walk through large trees down to the bay was lovely. Though the shoreline water was murky, we tiptoed our way down a rocky beach and shoreline and slowly slid ourselves down a decayed, two-strip, cement boat ramp to plunge in. We turned back three minutes later due to no visibility.
With our list of options handy, we chose to visit nearby Nakalele Point, coastal lava that features a blowhole spraying mist that sometimes shows a rainbow fragment or its colors depending on the sun’s angle. It’s mesmerizing because each wave offers different results, and the surrounding lava offers a dramatic backdrop or foreground. Be careful not to get too close because fatalities have happened.
The next day, we took the only guided snorkeling tour of our trip because it offered us locations during good weather we could not otherwise access easily. The trip was an amazing highlight. The first two spots were beside Molokini Crater, starting inside and then going out. The water was stunningly clear and blue, allowing us to see for a far distance as the water dropped off into the deep. The variety of marine life on a steep precipice was utterly engaging, and then we turned back for our return to the large red raft.
Next up was a visit to the outside of Molokini Crater, which offered a much different viewpoint with a sheer drop-off of several hundred feet and a small spot called The Elevator. Schools of fish, scuba divers and snorkelers circulated while open ocean waves crashed into lava worn smooth. Snorkelers can swim to point where two vertical cracks are separated by about nine feet in a lava wall to be elevated by waves as much as three feet. It’s an entertaining rise and fall.
Next up was La Perouse, a small bay with an interesting reef running through it as well as varied lava formations on the shoreline. Then we were off to the clear water and coral reefs off of McKenna Beach, also known as Turtle Town. On the way, there were bottle-nosed dolphins swimming beside our vessel. A few turtles were eating, resting or having their shells cleaned of algae by fish.
The next day we were a bit tired, yet The Maui Ocean Center was another highlight of our visit. We began by watching the new, 3-D, 14-minute film about humpback whales in Hawaii. The footage was amazing. We got to see a variety of fish and other creatures from the sea, including a feeding in the big tank featuring a 7-foot tiger shark and sting rays. Then we went to Puamana Beach Park in Lahaina for an evening swim.
The following afternoon we drove up the long, twisty road to Haleakala Peak, the highest point on the island at 10,023 feet. The peak is part of an alpine desert on ancient lava flow. The endemic silversword is one of the few plants that grows there and features long leaves with silvery powder.
After driving back to sea level, we were scrambling in Lahaina to find a beach for a quick sunset swim. We arrived at Hanakao’o Park just in time. As we entered the water, I saw a turtle head pop up on my right. As I alerted my wife, the head disappeared. Moments later, I looked down and just beside my leg was a large green sea turtle that seemed about to bump into me before it swam off. The unexpected encounter stood out.
The snorkeling was so engaging at Kahekili Beach, that we went three days in a row because there was so much coral, fish, turtles and moray eels to see. There was a large male green sea turtle with a big tail and a smaller female. We also saw a black moray eel with white spots slithering over coral and poking its head into holes. A big highlight was viewing a rarely seen 4.5-foot long tiger snake moray eel resting and moving across the coral. It was long, thin and was purple with pink spots. Its small mouth was full of sharp teeth, so we kept our distance.
Kahekili Beach is part of the much larger Ka’ananapoli Beach, where a man was killed by a tiger shark last year, according to a recent CNN report. The same report said tiger sharks were spotted over a couple of days at a beach 30 miles south of Ka’ananapoli Beach when we were there, so stay aware of your surroundings and snorkel with a partner.
Alaska Airlines has direct flights from Seattle, so reaching Maui is easy. The hard part is deciding what to do and where to go once you are there because you have many options, especially if you like to snorkel and see turtles.