What happens when everybody’s favorite vacation spot turns out to be, well, everybody’s favorite vacation spot? Some of the best snorkeling in Maui is actually a boat ride away, off the coast of an uninhabitable crater called Molokini. This is no secret: it’s in every guide book, travel article, and blog regarding Maui activities. So, what happens when “the best snorkel spot” is widely known? Easy – everyone remotely interested in snorkeling reserves a seat on half day snorkel/scuba trip catamaran there. Hawaii itself is a popular vacation destination, Maui even more so, and Molokini the go-to snorkel and scuba spot. It’s not always a pretty site.
The first time I did a half-day snorkel trip to Molokini was in 2006. It really was great. Though hardly a secret, this was just at the advent of online travel blogging, so tourists still relied more on their hotel concierges for activity tips and suggestions. There were two other catamarans besides ours that cruised from Maui to Molokini, and this was few enough so that we could all snorkel in relative peace. Flash forward to the Christmas holiday season of this past year, and…well, not so much. Everyone seems to know about Molokini, and there were seven other day trip boats out there along with ours. That equals a lot of people! Snorkeling with my family was fun, but there wasn’t a minute that went by without other Hawaii vacationers right next to us — some shouting, others elbowing, or worse accidentally kicking one of my kids.
Last year, we snorkeled at the Captain Cook Monument site of Hawaii’s Big Island and, while popular, it wasn’t overcrowded. This is likely because the Big Island simply isn’t as popular a travel destination as is Maui. The snorkel trip was better, in my mind. Part of the joy of snorkeling is the feeling one gets of being in the hot sun one moment, and in a completely different underwater world the next. Colorful tropical fish and the occasional green sea turtle, with no one else in sight…it’s quite a memorable experience. Being kicked in the face by an overzealous snorkeler’s fin is also a memorable experience, but in a completely different way.
Now, all these people swimming around, splashing and noisily calling to their families, has a deleterious affect on the marine life. Fish prefer to be left alone, of course! While we did indeed, see lots of butterfly fish, yellow tangs and the like, the shyer species were nowhere to be found. The humuhumunukunukuapua’a for example, is a trigger fish, and trigger fish are notoriously skittish. No shy trumpet fish, either. So, while I think I saw around the same amount of fish at Molokini Crater as I did in 2006, the diversity of species was reduced. It’s a shame. Biodiversity keeps habitats healthy.
Nearby child-friendly alternative: The southern coast of Maui, in particular the Wailea beach resort area, is famous for its smooth, calm waters. We stayed at the Wailea Beach Marriott Resort & Spa, and were able to snorkel right off shore, a few steps east of the Marriott resort property. It was less crowded than Molokini, and my kids had a great time exploring the underwater world without worrying about getting a foot in the face. While Molokini is still on everyone’s lists of best Maui snorkel spots, Wailea is pretty awesome too (go offshore a little for best results; we kayaked out a bit the second day). Now, what may be lost by not taking a chartered boat to Molokini is a secondary stop at “Turtle Town.” However, it’s an easy drive from Wailea to Makena, and there are so many green sea turtles lazing around there and La Perouse, it would be hard to miss them.
The best snorkel spot in Maui used to be the Molokini Crater, of this I have no doubt. However, if the site continues to grow in popularity, more fish will leave for quieter lives elsewhere. That can’t be a good thing, not for the marine habitat, not for the local economy, and not for tourists eager to see a fantastical underwater world while on vacation in Hawaii. Let’s hope things change, before it’s too late.
Thank you to the Wailea Beach Marriott Resort & Spa for hosting my family for this travel experience.