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 Hawaii’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 Oahu, the turtles are frequently seen on several North Shore beaches. On the Island of Hawaii, you can often spot them swimming along the Kona Coast, or resting on the sands of Punaluu Black Sand Beach in Kau. Much like visitors to Lanai, honu like to sun themselves on Polihua Beach on the north side of the island.
Spinner Dolphins (Naia)
Naia (spinner dolphins) are common throughout Hawaii and pods of these acrobatic marine mammals can often be seen off Hulopoe Bay on Lanai, off the Kona Coast on the island of Hawaii, or on Oahu off the Waianae 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 (Kohola)
If you’re in Hawaii between late November and early May, keep your eye on the coastline for water spouts. Every winter, thousands of kohola migrate to the warm Pacific waters to breed and nurse their calves. One of the best vantage points for whale-watching on Oahu is from the scenic Makapuu Lighthouse trail. (Bring binoculars, a hat, sunscreen and lots of water.) On Maui, whale watching tours depart from Lahaina Harbor. On the Island of Hawaii, the Kohala Coast or Hilo Bay are good places to see whales from land. The Historic Puukohola Heiau literally means “hill of the whale” and is a popular whale watching spot today.
Hawaii’s abundant waters are home to a variety of fish. In fact, roughly 20% of fish species in Hawaii are unique to the islands. From the bandit angelfish to Hawaii’s state fish the humuhumunukunukuapuaa (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 Hawaii, Hulopoe Bay on Lanai and spots like Shark’s Cove on the North Shore of Oahu 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 ilio-holo-i-ka-uaua or “dog that runs in rough water.” The Waikiki Aquarium on Oahu is home to a popular pair of monk seals.
Manta Rays (Hahalua)
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 Hawaii’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 Hawaii Island.