How Pandemic-Related Closures Allowed Oahu's Hanauma Bay to Recover

Sunset over Hanauma Bay on Oahu

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Carved by nature into the coastline of Oahu’s east side and distinguishable by its turquoise waters, Hanauma Bay is a true natural wonder of Hawaii. A result of the island’s most recent volcanic activity about a million years ago, this curved bay boasts easy accessibility, proximity to Waikiki, and some of the state’s best snorkeling. Because of this, Hanauma Bay earns a place on the itinerary of almost every tourist who visits Oahu.

Hawaii’s economy thrives on tourism; on Oahu, it amounted to more than $6 billion dollars worth of expenditures from January to September of 2018. That same year, 80 percent of the island’s 4.5 million visitors participated in ocean activities. As the most popular snorkeling destination in the state, Hanauma Bay's fragile ecosystem has seen a steady stream of visitors for more than 50 years.

Groups of tourist snorkeling in Hanauma Bay

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History of Hanauma Bay

The bay provided ample fishing and ocean recreation for Hawaiian royalty for generations, helping designate it as Hawaii's first Marine Life Conservation District in 1967. By the 1970s and 1980s, visitor attendance was pushing 10,000 people per day, the human impact wreaking havoc on the bay’s delicate environment. Officials put a management plan into action in 1990 to help combat the years of neglect and overuse, reducing the number of visitors, banning the feeding of fish (which had previously been a touristic highlight), improving facilities, and implementing an educational program.

Hawaii passed a statewide law in 2018 banning reef-harming sunscreen to help mitigate some of the pollution at its famous beaches. Still, other threats like human trampling and climate change effects have remained troubling to Hanauma Bay conservationists. Trampling on coral colonies, which usually occur when snorkelers stand on top of reefs or accidentally kick them with their fins, have been studied by scientists in Hawaii specifically since 2001. Although studies have shown that coral mortality can lessen if given sufficient time without impact, many of Hawaii’s reefs are easily accessible or near urban areas and thus continuously disturbed without time to recover.

In March 2020, however, Hanauma Bay gained a rare opportunity for relief when Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell closed the park due to COVID-19 concerns. The park’s closure gave scientists a priceless opportunity to study this incredible ecosystem without outside visitor impacts.

Arial view of Hanauma Bay on Oahu

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Positive Effects on the Bay During the Pandemic

Overnight, Hanauma Bay went from welcoming busloads of people each day to no more than five socially distanced small groups of scientists and environmentalists at a time. For the first time since the site gained unprecedented popularity in the 1970s, Hanauma Bay had the chance to make a comeback.

The City and County of Honolulu revealed in August that researchers had observed larger fish and an increase in endangered Hawaiian monk seal activity since the park’s closure in March, citing a report conducted by the Coral Reef Ecology Lab of the University of Hawaii. Compared to data from two years ago, the water inside the bay was now 42 percent clearer as well.

In October, the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources was able to begin a long-term coral restoration project by planting five nursery grown corals in the waters at Hanauma Bay. Not only is it the same type of coral species native to the area, but it's also the first from the DLNR nursery to be studied inside an area of high human activity. The project will provide invaluable benefits to the nature preserve’s marine habitat conservation research.

Researchers will continue to collect data as visitors return to the bay in order to compare things like fish reaction time and foraging behavior, coral growth rates, water clarity, and Hawaiian green sea turtle populations.

Visiting Hanauma Bay Now

After about nine months of closure and with the uncertainty of COVID-19 still hanging in the balance, Hanauma Bay officially reopened on Dec. 2, 2020 to expected changes. While the park famously remained closed every Tuesday to allow the bay to heal in the past, officials are now keeping it closed on both Mondays and Tuesdays. Park hours have been reduced, now open from 7:45 a.m. to 4 p.m. with last entry at 2 p.m., and lifeguards will start getting everyone out of the water by 3:15 pm.

Perhaps the biggest change is the significant reduction of guests allowed inside at a time. Before shut down, the bay saw upwards of 3,000 bodies per day. Now, visitors are capped at 720 visitors daily and parking attendants limit access to 120 per hour, which comes out to about 30 people every 15 minutes so as not to overwhelm the system. This includes cars and walk-ins, the only two options since tours have stopped.

While returning guests who’ve visited within a one year period used to be exempt from watching the mandatory educational video upon entry (which educates about conservation, why you shouldn’t step on the reef, etc.), it’s now required for everyone. Adults 12 and older now cost $12 for entry (up from $7.50) and Hawaii residents are still free, while the $3 car charge for parking remains the same. They are no longer renting out snorkel equipment or selling food, so visitors are encouraged to bring their own.

Unsurprisingly, face masks must be worn at all times while outside of the water. Be prepared (and we can not stress this enough) for a long wait to get in. Some have reported waiting upwards of three hours for entry during the first week of reopening, and while there have been rumors of an online booking system in the future, no officials have confirmed it. Keep in mind, since Hawaii’s law banning sunscreen with reef-harming ingredients oxybenzone and octinoxate went into effect in January 2021, reef-safe sunscreen is a must at all Hawaii beaches.

Colorful fish at Hanauma Bay in Hawaii

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What We Stand to Lose If We Let Hanauma Bay Down

Coral reefs help support some of Hawaii’s most precious resources: its ocean ecosystems. Not only do reefs protect coastlines from erosion, but they also provide habitat and shelter for about a quarter of all marine life. On the economic side, coral reefs provide for the local fishing industry and tourism-based jobs in the community.

The abundance of tropical marine life that flourishes inside Hanauma Bay is the site’s greatest allure. Protected by the reef, snorkelers can discover brightly colored and unique species in the bay, some of which are protected under the Endangered Species Act and found only in Hawaii (like the elusive Hawaiian monk seal or the graceful Hawaiian green sea turtle). The Hawaii state fish, humuhumunukunukuapua'a, thrives there, as well as rainbow colored varieties of uhu (parrotfish), the sunny lau’ipala (yellow tang), and hundreds more.

Although the closure has benefitted the nature preserve’s conservation directly, it has also meant a freeze in ticket sales, which along with fees from parking and snorkel rentals go towards the Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve Fund. The fund, created in 1996, helps support the operation and maintenance of the bay, but also goes towards important educational programs and environmental studies there.

The new restrictions are sure to ruffle a few feathers, but it's important to remember Hanauma Bay’s distinction as an important cultural and environmental site, as well as a popular tourist attraction. “As a fiscally responsible nature preserve, Hanauma Bay has served as an amazing model of how to focus on both the recreational needs of the community and the conservation of its natural resources,” said Department of Parks and Recreation Director Michele Nekota in the press release announcing reopening. “We see these new operations as a pilot program, which we hope can improve efforts to learn from, enjoy, and maintain Hanauma Bay in this pandemic era.” The management of this Hawaiian treasure is a conscionable balance between economic and environmental value. 

The pandemic has demonstrated nature’s resilience and its ability to heal when granted the opportunity. If given the chance, Hanauma Bay has the potential to heal itself from years of overuse. The delicate harmony of promoting the bay as a financial resource for the community and respecting it as a prominent piece of Hawaii’s history will hopefully continue to inspire policymakers and visitors to protect Hanauma Bay for generations to come.

Article Sources
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  1. Severino, S., Rodgers, K., Stender, Y., Stefano, M. "Hanauma Bay Biological Carrying Capacity Survey 2019-20 2nd Annual Report." Hawaii Coral Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program. May 2020.

  2. "Coral Reef Ecosystems." National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. February 2019.

  3. Honolulu Department of Parks and Recreation. "Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve reopening Wednesday, Dec. 2." Dec. 2, 2020