Aerial view of Molokini Crater off the coast of Maui.

Aerial view of Molokini Crater. Photo © Forest and Kim Starr, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

A visit to Molokini Crater can be the best underwater experience you have in Maui… but if you’re not prepared, it could be disappointing, too. If you’re planning a trip to Molokini, here are the most important facts to keep in mind.

Time of day is important. Molokini Crater is rarely accessible in the afternoon due to the trade winds blowing out of the north or the east. During about 80 percent of the year the trade winds are so strong that Molokini Crater is filled with four-foot wind waves by noon. This is why all of the boats leave early in the morning. So when you are presented with a discount tour to Molokini and you see it departs at 2pm (conditions permitting), understand that the conditions will only rarely be permitting. You might get lucky, but chances are you’ll end up snorkeling at a spot named Coral Gardens along the Maui shoreline.

The ride back to Ma‘alaea is going to be rough. For 80 percent of the year (and almost 100 percent of summer), the ride back to Ma‘alaea Harbor is very rough. It’s not dangerous; it’s just that it’s blowing 30 knots and sheets of sea spray coming over the bow. Some people love the ride; others are terrified. It’s best to grab a protected seat toward the back of the boat and brace yourself.

Do you really need that wet suit? The water temperature in Maui fluctuates between 73 degrees in the winter to 79 degrees in the summer—colder than the Gulf of Mexico, but still warmer than most oceans around the world. If you go on one of the large diesel boats, you will be asked if you want to rent a wet suit. The crew receives a commission on wet suit rentals, so expect a sales pitch. Only spend extra money on a wet suit if you think you will actually need it.

There aren’t any turtles at Molokini. Molokini Crater offers dozens of species of fish, impossibly clear water, and healthy, vibrant corals, but the one thing missing is green sea turtles. All of the turtles are found along the southern shoreline, so if you want to see some turtles, book a charter that stops along the shoreline.

Large surf means green turtles. Wait. Aren’t turtles always green? This means that if there is large surf along the southern shoreline (more frequent in summer than winter), then the water color at Turtle Town will be closer to green than blue. If the visibility along the shoreline isn’t what you expected, it’s due to increased surf.

Molokini isn’t always accessible. Molokini is inaccessible most afternoons due to the trade winds; if the wind is blowing out of the north then the crater isn’t accessible in the morning either. Often this wind switch can occur within a matter of minutes, so there is a slight chance you might end up snorkeling at a Plan B spot, which usually still ends up being a good trip.

Don’t feed the fish! Molokini Crater is a tightly controlled marine reserve. Feeding fish or stepping on coral can carry heavy penalties. Don’t show up with a bag of frozen peas and expect to get away with it.

Map of South Maui, Hawaii

South Maui


Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Hawaiian Islands.