Although you will often see little red dive flags fluttering in the wind off the harbor at Ma‘alaea Bay, these are local spearfishers who are diving for tako (octopus). Don’t mistake this for a nice snorkeling spot. Although Ma‘alaea Bay once had a teeming reef prior to the 1990s, nearly 100 percent of it has died due to invasive algae species overcrowding the reef. It has been a case study for what will happen to all the island’s reefs if environmental dangers go unmitigated.
In an effort to return the crater to its former health, Molokini is now a tightly controlled marine preserve.When it comes to snorkeling, what Ma‘alaea is known for is the harbor that serves as the starting point for boats to Molokini Crater, a half-submerged volcanic caldera that rises from 300 feet of water. The reason Molokini is such a world-renowned dive destination is the fact that the visibility can stretch more than 100 feet on any day of the year.
There isn’t anywhere else in Hawaii where you can find water this clear. The deep crater isn’t affected by breaking surf in the same way that the beaches along the coastline can be. Since only a tiny bit of Molokini rises out of the water, the amount of runoff after a period of rain isn’t enough to affect water quality. Whereas the back of Molokini Crater drops off to almost 300 feet, the inside bowl where snorkel boats tie up is only about 40 feet deep, and the best snorkeling is along the rim of the crater in 15 feet of water.
At Molokini you have a great chance of finding colorful parrotfish, endemic reef species, octopuses, eels, and—if you’re lucky—maybe a harmless whitetip reef shark. One species notably absent from Molokini, however, are Hawaiian green sea turtles, although most tour operators combine a trip to Molokini with a second snorkeling spot along the coast of Maui so that you can check turtles off the list.
Snorkeling at Molokini is such a popular activity that it seems there are more humans in the water than fish. One of the best ways to avoid the mass of humanity is to get on the earliest boat you can. If you visited Molokini 20 years ago and are returning for another trip, you might notice there are fewer fish than the last time you were at the crater. The fish feeding that was a popular activity during the 1980s completely disrupted the area’s natural food chain. The larger fish drove out the smaller fish, and a handful of species began to take over the entire reef. In an effort to return the crater to its former health, Molokini is now a tightly controlled marine preserve, and you will be required to fill out a form which outlines the rules for visiting. Boat trips from Ma‘alaea take about an hour to reach the crater.
Boats to Molokini fall into three categories: small, medium, and large. The cheaper the ticket to Molokini, the more people there are going to be on the boat, which also means the more people there are going to be in the water snorkeling with you. The larger boats can have upward of 100 people on board during the busier months of the year. All of these large boats are diesel catamarans, but if you would prefer to sail on your excursion to Molokini, there are three sailboat companies that travel with 20-50 people on board.
Three raft companies offer group sizes of no more than 24, which get you to Molokini quickly and easily. These trips can be economical, and the small groups ensure personalized service. However, the food won’t be as good as on larger boats, and the bathroom situation can often be tight.
There are three departure points for reaching Molokini: Ma‘alaea Harbor, Kihei Boat Ramp, and Maluaka Beach in Makena. Of the three departure points, nearly all boats leave from Ma‘alaea Harbor. The only boats starting from Kihei Boat Ramp are the three rafts—Blue Water Rafting, Seafire, and Redline Rafting—as well as most scuba diving boats. In Makena, the sailing catamaran Kai Kanani departs directly in front of the Makena Beach and Golf Resort, and its early trip is one of the first boats to arrive at Molokini.
The best place for renting snorkel gear in Ma‘alaea is at Maui Dive Shop (300 Ma‘alaea Harbor Rd., 808/244-5514, 6am-6pm daily) in the Ma‘alaea Harbor Shops. There is a wide range of snorkeling equipment for rent or purchase, and you can pick up an optical mask if you normally wear prescription glasses. Maui Dive Shop is affiliated with the Ali‘i Nui sailing catamaran in the harbor just across the street, so you can often secure discounts on your rental gear if you end up combining it with a snorkeling charter (although snorkeling gear is provided on the boat free of charge).
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Hawaiian Islands.