While people-watching on the Hawaiian Islands is certainly interesting, it can’t compare to the excitement of spotting our colorful underwater residents. From yellow butterfly fish that dart among the rocks to benevolent green sea turtles, it’s easy to see these fascinating locals while snorkeling, scuba diving, or at an aquarium. Here are a few of the species of local marine life you might see during your visit.
Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles (Honu)
These gentle creatures are among Hawaiʻi’s most beloved. If you’re snorkeling, they’ll coast on by as if they’ve known you all their lives. Because these are a protected species, it is important not to touch the honu. On Oʻahu, the turtles are frequently seen on several North Shore beaches. On the Island of Hawaiʻi, you can often spot them swimming along the Kona Coast, or resting on the sands of Punaluʻu Black Sand Beach in Kaʻū. Much like visitors to Lānaʻi, honu like to sun themselves on Polihua Beach on the north side of the island.
Spinner Dolphins (Nai‘a)
Nai‘a (spinner dolphins) are common throughout Hawaiʻi and pods of these acrobatic marine mammals can often be seen off Hulopoʻe Bay on Lānaʻi, off the Kona Coast on the island of Hawaiʻi, or on Oʻahu off the Waiʻanae Coast or Maunalua Bay. Spinner dolphins are aptly named for their affinity to spin as they leap out of the water. Seeing these playful animals ride in the wake of your boat is an unforgettable—and not uncommon—experience.
Humpback Whales (Koholā)
If you’re in Hawaiʻi between late November and early May, keep your eye on the coastline for water spouts. Every winter, thousands of koholā migrate to the warm Pacific waters to breed and nurse their calves. One of the best vantage points for whale-watching on Oʻahu is from the scenic Makapuʻu Lighthouse trail. (Bring binoculars, a hat, sunscreen and lots of water.) On Maui, whale watching tours depart from Lāhainā Harbor. On the Island of Hawaiʻi, the Kohala Coast or Hilo Bay are good places to see whales from land. The Historic Puʻukoholā Heiau literally means “hill of the whale” and is a popular whale watching spot today.
Hawaiʻi’s abundant waters are home to a variety of fish. In fact, roughly 20% of fish species in Hawaiʻi are unique to the islands. From the bandit angelfish to Hawaiʻi’s state fish the humuhumunukunukuāpuaʻa (which ironically isn’t endemic), snorkelers and divers will be richly rewarded for their exploration. The clear, calm waters off the Kona Coast on the Island of Hawaiʻi, Hulopoʻe Bay on Lānaʻi and spots like Shark’s Cove on the North Shore of Oʻahu are great locations to see fish in their native habitats.
The Hawaiian monk seal is on the Federal endangered list and according to some sources, there are only about 1,100 left in the wild. If you think their faces are puppy-like you’re in good company. Their Hawaiian name is ‘īlio-holo-i-ka-uaua or “dog that runs in rough water.” The Waikīkī Aquarium on Oʻahu is home to a popular pair of monk seals.
Manta Rays (Hāhālua)
The mysterious manta ray is one of the largest fishes in the ocean with wingspans of up to 20 feet or more but unlike stingrays or eagle rays, mantas do not have stingers. The Island of Hawaiʻi’s Kona Coast is the best place to spot friendly manta rays at night. You can see them attracted to the spotlights in the waters off of resorts like the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel and Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay, just south of Historic Kailua Village (Kailua-Kona). Or to get up close and personal, book a manta ray boat tour to snorkel or scuba with manta rays. This may be one of the most memorable adventures you experience on Hawaiʻi Island.