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Snorkeling Sea Life

Guests often ask what kind of ocean life we see on our tours. I’ll talk here about what we’ve seen over the seventeen years of operating Maui Sailing Canoe, and spending possibly more time sailing and paddling the beautiful water of Wailea more than anyone. Although we rarely go to snorkel Molokini, honestly, the nearshore reefs of Wailea and Makena are “better.”


Let’s start with the most common animal we see and that is the Hawaiian green sea turtle AKA “Honu.” The Honu is indigineous to the Hawaiian islands, meaning it is found here naturally AND it is found in other parts of the world naturally. I remember my uncle on the North Shore of Oahu had a huge Honu shell on his living room wall (he and my aunt lived in an old church converted to a house). These guys used to take turtles. In fact turtles have been used for food, tools, etc since the ancient Hawaiians. They only became a “protected” species in 1978 when I was 5. Since then the turtle population has exploded! I’ll get into detail on the Honu in another blog, but suffice to say they are very common where we sail and snorkel, and it’s actually very rare to NOT see at least one. An interesting note, for some reason the honu doesn’t show up at Molokini, which is why some of the bigger tours offer the “Turtle Town’ as a second stop.


One could write volumes on the variety of fish we snorkel with. Since we are in relatively shallow water we generally see a lot of reef fish (as opposed to pelagic fish, which are out in the deep). The colors are amazing from the bright yellow “Lau-Wiliwili” to the popular Finding Nemo Moorish Idol character or the “Kihikihi” to our State fish the “Humuhumunukunukuapua’a” or the Picasso Triggerfish. Sometimes we’ll get some bigger, better tasting fish swimming through like the popular Bluefin Trevally “‘Omilu”, the ‘Awa (bonefish), and the ‘Uku otherwise known as a Gray Snapper.” By the way if you ever see ‘Uku on a menu in a restaurant, make sure and get it, trust me.


Over the years we have gotten better at finding the octopus, or in Hawaiian the “He’e,” or more widely known across Hawaii the “Tako.” For some reason the Japanese word for octopus “tako” has stuck, and even the most Hawaiian of Hawaiians will call it a tako. The tako is incredibly hard to find while snorkeling, and takes years of practice just to see it (nevermind learning to actually handle one). After years of snorkeling and diving in and around Hawaii we’ve developed what us locals call a “tako eye” meaning we can actually spot them! Check out the website gallery for some pics and vids of the tako!


About once a week we get to see the Spinner Dolphin otherwise known as the “Nai’a.” We love these animals and they love us. For some reason they get very curious with boats and are not at all shy when we see them. We have been completely surrounded by literal hundreds of these beautiful creatures. It is illegal to throw your snorkel gear on and jump right in with dolphins and whales nowadays, but a handful of times they have come so close to where we were already snorkeling that our guests got to have the absolute bucket list experience of swimming with dolphins (legally I’d like to add). I have to say that although many people would love to swim with a dolphin, when you are faced with it, it can be pretty intimidating…friendly as they are, they are also a very large sea creature after all.


Occasionally we get lucky and encounter the endangered Hawaiian monk seal or the ‘Ilio holo i ka uaua. The monk seal is endemic to Hawaii, meaning it occurs naturally here and nowhere else in the world. Hunted to the brink of extinction in the early 1900’s the population has made a huge comeback due in large part to conservation efforts by NOAA, The Marine Mammal Center, University of Hawaii, and others. These seals are not afraid of humans, and can be very curious. Sometimes their curiosity can be a bit scary if you’re snorkeling with them, so we like to give them a wide berth!


The Manta Ray and the Spotted Eagle Ray, or Hahalua and Hihimanu respectively are also an occasional treat. These are considered part of the shark family and like the shark, are cartilaginous. They are filter feeders and can often be found coasting around doing big figure 8 swims within a few hundred yards from Wailea Beach and Polo Beach. The biggest hahalua I’ve seen personally was on the north shore of Oahu while surfing. The one I saw looked like maybe 20-30 feet across! I didn’t even realize they got that big, but yes, they do. The Hihimanu is a bit smaller and likes to cruise along the sea floor in relatively shallow water. These are beautiful, docile creatures, and we get to see them all the time while snorkeling “Turtle Town.”


Finally, I have to touch on the one question we get asked the most…”Are there sharks?” Well, taste the water, if it’s a little bit salty then yes, there are sharks. All kidding aside we  do see small reef sharks, or Mano, fairly often. Mostly white tips, but sometimes black tips, and rarely a few small hammerheads. White tips like to sleep in the shadows during the day, and can mostly be found sitting still under a ledge or in a cave. There are a few caves off of Turtle Town, Chang’s Beach, and Wailea Point where we can almost always find one sleeping. These Mano are completely harmless to us snorkelers. They are more scared of us than we are of them, and if you try and swim towards one it will dart away immediately! Now, I cannot tell a lie….in 17 years of tours we have seen exactly 2 big Tiger Sharks aka “Niuhi.” This is a large, beautiful, fearsome animal to be treated with the utmost respect. The Niuhi does not want anything to do with us and will generally avoid humans. They are so rare for us to see that I put it this way….we are lucky if we get to see a big Tiger!



Sage 04 August 2022