Snorkel the Reefs in a Volcanic Crater

In the Hawaiian Islands off the coast of Maui, Molokini's crescent shape and amazing reefs make it one of the top dive destinations in the world

Like other tourist meccas and locales on Maui and throughout the state, Molokini has an origin story. According to Hawaiian legends, Molokini was a mortal woman of great beauty who happened to be attracted to the same man that the fire Goddess Pele fancied. To rid herself of a potential romantic rival, Pele eventually turned this lovely maiden into stone. Pele’s wrath not only birthed an islet, but one of the most popular sites for snorkelers in the state. In fact, Molokini has acquired a reputation as one of the best snorkeling and diving spots on the globe. This sunken crater attracts hundreds of visitors every year who plunge into its inviting waters and marvel at the aquatic life found below the surface.

Potential snorkelers should note that the island is basically divided into the Right and Left Tips. There are fine diving spots on both tips, known as Reef’s End, Middle Reef and Tako Flats. The center of Molokini is home to a reef that provides great views for snorkelers, since visibility is up to 150 feet. There is also a spot for diving in the back of the crater with the island’s back wall descending to depths of 300 feet. The best time to visit Molokini is in the morning when conditions are said to be the most optimal.

Molokini is a snorkeler's paradise. (Courtesy Hawaii Tourism Authority/Ron Garnett)


However, Molokini’s status as a fish, sea-life and bird sanctuary means that snorkelers and divers are prohibited from walking on the island itself. Visitors are also forbidden to feed or get near the marine-animal residents of Molokini such as Hawaiian monk seals and green sea turtles. Whether the creation of an angry goddess or a slightly more benevolent Mother Nature, Molokini will enchant both the amateur and experienced snorkeler with its crystal-clear waters, array of underwater creatures and the overall aesthetic of the island’s shape—like a necklace cut from rock and stone but allowed to sit invitingly on the clear, blue waters of Pacific Ocean. Another marine must-see on Maui are the thousands of humpback whales who migrate here every winter. Just like visitors who vacation to Hawai‘i to escape cold climates, humpback whales love visiting Maui.

Called kohola in the Hawaiian language, humpbacks can weigh as much as 40 tons and they arrive in the waters off the Valley Isle from December to May, and these huge but majestic creatures can easily be seen having as a good a time in the ocean—surfacing, leaping and diving—as any visitor swimming and goofing off in a hotel pool might. Humpback whales travel thousands of miles from the waters off Alaska to visit Hawai‘i, because the warm, shallow waters off the islands are the best location for the whales to breed, give birth and cavort. And the south and west shores of Maui are one of the best places to watch humpbacks enjoy island hospitality in liquid form.

A humpback whale off Maui's coastline (Courtesy Hawaii Tourism Authority/Ron Garnett)


While cruising about, these gentle giants often engage in what is known as spy-hopping. Neither found in a James Bond movie nor John Le Carre novel, spy-hopping occurs when a humpback emerges out of the foamy spray and is at just the right height for an eye to rise above the waters to scan its immediate and surrounding aquatic environment. The whales use their powerful tails, known as flukes, as a sort of natural outboard motor which powers them through the murky depths to find food and sustenance. Flukes also serve as an I.D. card of sorts, as whale researchers use the lower part of the fluke to tell one humpback from another and categorize such whales for scientific purposes.

Researchers and scientists are not the only parties interested in taking boating trips to observe these whales in action. For Maui’s visitors, whale-watching tours have become one of the island’s top activities over the years. There are a number of companies that offer whale-watching trips and packages. However, federal law requires that boat operators do not come within 100 yards, so visitors expecting to get extremely up-close and personal to humpbacks may have to rethink their expectations and fantasies. Still, the sight of humpback whales jumping from and back into the ocean or merely surfacing and descending from any vantage point can truly be an awe-inspiring sight for any visitor to Maui. It is enough to banish thoughts of Captain Ahab permanently from one’s mind.

The Where List: Molokini dive charters, cruises and snorkeling guide services

  • Trilogy charters, begun in 1973, is the oldest family-owned business of its kind on Maui. Run by brothers Jim and Rand Coon and their Hawaiian wives, the eco-friendly charter company features expeditions to Molokini and other islands around Maui. Trilogy charters offer snorkeling at two sites around Molokini and provide gear to passengers. Each Trilogy vessel can carry between 40 and 50 guests, so book in advance. 207 Kupuohi St., Lahaina, 1-888-225-MAUI
  • Pacific Whale Foundation provides eco-cruises to Molokini and other locations, staffing each cruise with certified marine naturalists. There are four different snorkling excursion options to Molokini. All proceeds from PWF cruises help fund marine research, education and conservation efforts. 1-800-942-5311, ext. 1
  • The Four Winds II also offers charters to Molokini, but its glass-bottom boat makes it a good option for those who are unable to swim or perhaps just prefer to remain dry. Rather than a simple glass floor, the Four Winds II has incorporated a glass-enclosed viewing room, just below the water line, for non-swimming guests to view divers and marine life. The 65-square-foot room is accessible by ladder. 11 Maalaea Boat Harbor Rd., Wailuku, 1-800-736-5740

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