Review of Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve

I was in Honolulu on holidays last month and had the opportunity to visit Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve. The beach was ranked #1 in 2016 by Dr. Beach and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Hawaii with over one million visitors per year.

View of Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve
This one is going on Instagram #NoFilters

This gorgeous looking beach is home to turtles, seals, fish… and dead coral. After spending a day there, I left questioning what had happened to it over the years… This blog post is about the state of Hanauma Bay today and why I don’t believe the lessons from the past sixty years have been truly acknowledge by those responsible for protecting this unique marine ecosystem.


Hanauma Bay beach was once a playground for kings and queens. It used to host multicolored coral and a lot more sea life than what it does today. It is an exclusive (and highly valuable) piece of real estate that, rightfully so, was acquired by the City and Council of Honolulu in 1928. Funny enough, it was acquired for USD$1 which calculated to today would equate to USD$13.

As with so many other events in the history of the 2oth Century, the mismanagement of Hanauma Bay is a prime example of human greed and lack of respect for nature damaging our planet beyond repair. It started in the 50’s with the coral being dynamited to make way for a telephone cable and carried on with another 40 years of unlimited tourist abuse.

There are reports of as many as 10,000 people per day visiting the beach in the eighties and of coral being deliberately destroyed to create more swimming space for visitors. It goes without saying that the surrounding natural areas were also damaged to make way for – you guessed it – a parking lot.

At some point in time – I’m not sure when – the City decided to implement an entry fee to get in the beach and limit the amount of visitors per day. A report published in 2002 mentions this fee as being $3 so it is safe to assume that for the last 15 years money has been collected at the gates. Today, that entry fee is $7.5. I think that’s a more than reasonable amount to pay to visit the Bay.

According to that same report from 2002, in August that year the Visitor Education Center was open. It cost around $13.5 million dollars. The Visitor Education Center basically gates access to the beach so that you can’t descend to it without going through the museum and watching a video about marine conservation.

I’m not going to go down a rabbit hole of questioning where all of the money collected over the years has been invested. I don’t have the resources or the knowhow to do a detailed investigation on the Bay’s financials. As of 2002, the operating expenses of the Center were around $2 Million annually. I emailed the Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve using the contact form on their website and inquired about how many visitors the Bay receives per year, how many of those visitors are paid-visitors and how the revenue is used. I didn’t receive an answer.

What I do know is that, while I was there, I witnessed a disappointing lack of marine preservation best practices. I am used to seeing public beaches being mistreated but for me this was worse since this is a beach that is meant to be well protected and well funded.

Here are some of the issues I found:

  1. If you take a close look at the photo above, you will notice that people are clearly standing and swimming on the coral. I didn’t see any areas being restricted to the public nor any members of staff requesting for swimmers to stay away from certain shallow areas. It was almost as if it was a given that people were free to swim and step on the coral.
  2. None of the rubbish bins at the beach had lids! This just completely blew my mind. They were basically out there in the open, waiting for birds and rodents to pick them apart and spread their content. Which brings me to my next point…
  3. In less than 30 minutes I picked up an abnormal amount of rubbish from the beach. Some of it had clearly been around for a while.
    Rubbish collected at Hanauma Bay
    All sorts of rubbish collected from the beach.
    Dozens of pieces of plastic
    Small pieces of plastic get mistakenly eaten by animals, leading to their death.
    Microplastics are smaller than a bottle cap and are often confused with food.
    Plastic on the beach
    Some of this plastic could’ve easily been avoided. A lot of snorkeling gear breaks up into pieces.

    Animals get entangled in plastic
    Animals get entangled in this type of rubbish and eventually die.

Should we expect an apocalypse from the fact that one concerned citizen picked up a bag of rubbish from the beach? No. For what it’s worth, I was just doing what I’m supposed to do.

What I have to wonder though, is this: how come an organization this well-funded doesn’t have any members of staff doing regular walks on the beach to pick up rubbish during the day? How can they possibly not justify that investment, considering the amount of visitors they have per day and the nature of their activities?

It is absolutely crucial that we – as a species – prevent more rubbish (particularly plastic) from making its way to our Oceans. In this regard, I expected more from the governing authorities of Hanauma Bay Preserve.

Showing visitors a 5 minute video when they arrive is not enough. It is my personal opinion that the video itself could be a lot better but, at least, it’s something. It doesn’t exempt the council from employing better practices and putting the safety of our oceans first, though.

A post on the City and Council of Honolulu website mentions that a 1999 study “suggested that beachgoers and snorkelers have had little detrimental effect on marine life”. This was in 1999. 18 years ago. We didn’t knew back then what we know now. I also find this conclusion incredibly convenient for the Council.


Reading about the history of Hanauma Bay is like reading through a Greek drama: things used to be great, beautiful and unique but tragedy struck and now we are left with a lot less than what we started off with.

The beach has been repeatedly damaged over the years and while some of the Council measures are worthy of applause, it’s not enough. In the financial interest of keeping tourism going, not enough is being done to prevent further damage to the environment.

There’s no serious attempt to restore the bay to its former glory either; I saw no mention of coral gardening anywhere and, again, the lack of best practices just suggests to me that there’s more concern about profit and maintaining face among the public than actually preserving nature.

I hope that, in the interest of our Oceans and future generations, more is done to protect this absolutely unique and gorgeous corner of our planet.

6 thoughts on “Review of Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve”

  1. The toughest part is these places are so clean and pristine, then get overrun by tourists and since strict fines are not enforced, pollution ensues. Saw it happen in Bali and Thailand, and some places in Fiji are going down this road too.

    I see Costa Rica as being at the forefront of hosting high volumes of tourists but staying green and clean. The freaking water all throughout the country is clean and quite drinkable, in most spots, save streams in urban San Jose. That place knows how to preserve nature!


    1. Thanks for commenting Ryan! Do you have any articles that you recommend reading on how Costa Rica is leading on that front? Would love to have a look!

    2. I live here. So sorry what you encounter on our beautiful Hanauma Bay. I also pick up there trash. Spring break is horrible in Waikiki broken glass bottles, papers, cans anything you could think of. We have a lot of volunteers we go out and pick up all their mess. With our snorkeling gear. so sad to see that. Thank you for your great Aloha spirit wish everyone had it. Hope you come back and visit. God bless peace be upon you forever. Emily Vasquez

      1. Hey Emilia,

        Thank you for your note and no problem at all! I am soooooo glad to hear there are groups of volunteers helping clean up the beach! Keep up the good work and keep fighting to keep our Oceans clean!

  2. In the late 60s/early 70s when I was a little kid and we started going there, it was a desert. Way overfished.

    That was about the time they declared it a preserve, and over the years the fish came, and came, and came … they lost pretty much all fear of people, and you fed them from your hand at the risk of getting your hand all bit up; happened to my younger sister. Also, this is really funny, we were in shoulder-deep water, I dunno, talking or something, and the tips of her long hair were dipping in the water, and the fish came swarming around. “Stupid fish!” she’d say and dunk her head down to look at them, and they’d go away, then when she raised her head they came back. It was hilarious.

    The main problem here is just plain too many people. Even touching a coral can damage it, and in the inner, “friendlier” parts of the bay, there was little to no living coral in my memory. Keep in mind there’s fossil coral formations at many Hawaii beaches. A big problem is too many people there even if they don’t touch any coral or anything, the suntan lotion and just plain skin oils go into the water and mess it up. A second big problem is people feeding the fish. Changing over to green peas rather than, well, everything, is a big improvement, but really, fish-feeding should be forbidden, then park rangers can do some very limited fish-feeding after hours.

    People should have to take a hot bath before going in, just like before you go into a furo/hot tub, and it’s better to wear a “rash guard” than slather on suntan oil, and a rash guard won’t wash or rub off.

    Seriously, if you’re very pale and used to non-tropical climes, why not one of those body suits that’s a sort of “fetish” wear now but they make sense. The sun is strong in Hawaii. It only takes a few to start a fashion or trend, and it helps that those suits are a thing in Japan. I grew up there and if I’m ever back, I’ll be sporting a rash guard and a big hat, even though I have *some* melanin.

    I will always treasure the memories from little-kid-hood to a teen, of that wonderful place. The epic picnic on “stray cat hill” above Hanauma Bay. Picnic there and you’ll know why it was epic. Climbing around on the rocks where people don’t normally go. Finding a huge auger shell (I put it back). The Toilet Bowl. Being there as late afternoon was turning to dusk, letting little waves on the shore break over me and wishing I had a camera because the result was beautiful enough for “Surfer” magazine. And one day, surfing, or trying to surf, the little break that was happening over one of the fossil reefs, and having the air raid siren test go off. Ahh, the memories.

    1. Thanks for commenting Alex, you are pretty much on point there! As a species, we should strive to ensure that the next generations can create memories just like the ones you described! It is precisely because of that that I hope more prevention work takes place in Hanauma Bay!

Comments are closed.