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Coral Reefs in Hawaii

Off the Kona coast, Big Island.

Off the Kona coast, Big Island.

Coral reefs are some of the most complex and stunning seascapes on earth. They are incredibly fragile ecosystems often referred to as the “rainforest of the sea,” created by the skeletons of millions of small marine invertebrates. Ever-expanding, the reefs are home to thousands of fish and many other diverse types of marine life. Reefs can be severely damaged by excessive soil runoff, which is the primary threat to Hawaii’s reefs as well as by contaminants in the water. For these reasons, agencies such as the Coral Reef Initiative and the Hawaii Coral Reef Networks are committed to protecting the coral reefs through further research and conservation.

Hawaii has examples of the three basic types of reefs, which are the fringing, barrier and atoll reefs. Most of Hawaii’s reefs are fringing reefs, which start close to the shore and grow outwards from the island. Hawaii has examples of barrier reefs in Kaneohe Bay on Oahu and on the southern side of Molokai where the reefs start their growth further away from the shore and then grow outward towards deeper water often leaving a lagoon between the shore and the reef. When a fringing reef continues to grow upward from a volcanic island that has sunk entirely below sea level, an atoll reef, circular in shape with a lagoon in the center, is created. Examples of atoll reefs in Hawaii are the French Frigate Shoals and Kure Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, which are a part of the Hawaiian Islands archipelago located northwest of the island of Kauai.

Hawaii has over 85% of the coral reefs to be found in America, with most of them located in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. The reefs in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands are now also part of the largest marine conservation area in the world, called the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which is known to have some of the most amazing reefs and marine life to be found anywhere on the planet. As most of Hawaii’s coral reefs are now located within the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and a part of America’s national park system, thankfully, they will be better protected for future generations to enjoy. Unfortunately, travel to this area is virtually impossible at the present time because access to this one-of-a-kind marine monument is closed due to cuts in Federal funding. However, travelers to Hawaii can still see examples of beautiful reef systems within the eight major Hawaiian Island as noted below.

Coral reef on Maui

Coral reef on Maui

Haunauma Bay is a State of Hawaii marine sanctuary located in east Honolulu. As all fishing and all types of marine harvesting has been banned here and because human activity is carefully monitored and controlled, here you can see an abundance of marine life and a reef ecosystem in a relatively pristine state.

Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island, boasts of visibility for over 100 feet through the pristine blue waters. This is a favorite diver spot for visitors and locals alike, as it offers an unparalleled view of Hawaiian reef life.
Kaohe Bay just outside of south Kona, divers can admire some of the most unspoiled reefs in the Aloha State and may even spot one of the rare and endangered monk seals.

Honaunau Bay, also on the Big Island, is the perfect place to watch dolphins dive, sea turtles drift with the current and vibrant fish slip in and out of the coral reefs .

Kaneohe Bay on the northeast coast of Oahu has a shoaling coral reef and numerous dive spots. Swimmers can enjoy glimpses of humuhumunukunukuapua’a (trigger fish), uhu (parrot fish) and the occasional hammerhead shark near Mokoli’i (or Chinaman’s Hat).

The Coral Gardens on Maui’s western coast teem with tropical fish and sea turtles, in what is considered one of the most unique and beautiful coral formations in Hawaii. Turtle Reef in Maui is another dynamic dive spot to see a wide range of fish species in the glorious reefs.

Hanalei Bay in Kauai has coral reefs on the sides and in the center of the bay. With a historical sunken ship and clear waters, this is a fantastic place to witness Hawaiian seascapes.

Molokai has many beloved diving places, and is surrounded by one of the largest barrier reefs in Hawaii, extending nearly 27 miles. Miraculously surviving from sediment overflow from the land which depletes much needed sunlight, the coral reefs around Molokai are a must-see for avid divers.

When visiting Hawaii, it is important to bear in mind that these islands and surrounding ocean environments are home not only to Hawaii residents, but also to an abundant host of birds, fishes and marine life that need protection. Hawaii welcomes visitors with the Aloha spirit, but just as you would cautiously and politely enter a stranger’s home, it is important to keep the proper etiquette of how to behave in Hawaii. The beauties of the coral reef are meant to be enjoyed by all, so the care each individual takes to protect this part of Hawaii’s ecosystem will help preserve it for future generations. Here are some of the ways that you can help to protect it:

  • Avoid touching or stepping on coral.
  • Do not touch or antagonize stationary or slow-moving marine life that lives near or on the coral reef system.
  • Do not feed marine life or pollute the water.
  • Boaters should use mooring buoys or anchor in the sand to prevent coral reef damage.
  • If you see any dumping in the water, any poaching, contact with or abuse of marine animals, be sure to report this as soon as possible.
  • Read and respect any signs near beaches, shore trails, lagoons, etc.
  • Pick up everything you brought with you, being careful not to leave trash or personal belongings on the beach.


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