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Snorkeling Kealakekua Bay

Probably one of the more touristy things I did on the Big Island was taking the Fair Winds II to the amazing snorkel site at Kealakekua Bay and the Captain Cook Memorial.

This marine sanctuary is reported to be the best snorkeling site in the entire state. CNN Travel, Smithsonian Magazine, and Travel and Leisure all include the Big Island on their lists of the top snorkel sites in the world and they all specifically mention Kealakekua Bay because of its mix of technicolor coral, large numbers of fish, turtles, and dolphins and it’s deep history.

It is here in January of 1778 that British Explorer James Cook, “discovered” Hawaii. He named his new discovery, the Sandwich Islands, to honor his patron, the Earl of Sandwich. At first, Cook and his crew were welcomed by the native people but that soon soured. On a later visit on February 14, 1779, Cook and his crew were killed by the Hawaiians.

Before I left the mainland for the Big Island, I did a little homework by doing a spread about fish I wanted to see at Kealakekua Bay, by sketching the fish beforehand. Identifying them in the water would be a little easier. I titled the sketch, ” A School of Hawai’i Reef Fish”. I ended up seeing seven out of the twelve fish that I illustrated.

The Fair Winds II is a double-decker catamaran that can handle one hundred people. We were a few short of triple digits as we headed out of Keauhou Harbor, the same harbor I set off from to see manta rays.

The boat ride south was about 45 minutes and Captain Dante, kept his eyes open for marine mammals such as spinner dolphins and humpback whale. Off to our starboard side we saw two humpback whales showing off their flukes as they dove down. After a pause of the cetacean encounter, Cap. Dante throttled up and we headed off to snorkeling paradise.

While we where nearing the bay, I spotted one of the birds on my wishlist flying over the waters to the southwest: a white-tailed tropicbird. This bird was likely flying back to it’s nest site, on the high cliffs that surrounded Kealakekua Bay. While we where in the bay, I spotted many more of these tropicbirds circling above the cliffs.

On the north side of the Kealakekua Bay, near where Cook was killed, there is a 27 foot high obelisk erected to Cook’s memory. The Fair Winds II pulled up just offshore of the monument for the snorkelers to grab a few shots. We then moved just to the south to our mooring.

As I was slathering on another layer of reef-safe sunscreen, I looked up at the cliffs, trying to find more tropicbirds, I spotted a dark bird with a forked tail and long, pointed wings. This was the classic silhouette of a frigatebird, in this case, a great frigatebird. Lifer!!

Now it was time to get wet and see fish. The Fair Winds II has many ways to enter the water: two slides on the bow, a high dive on the second story amidship, or steps off the stern. There was a jam at the stern steps as snorkelers fussed with their fins that I took the fourth option of egress: a big step off the side.

Once the bubbles cleared and I adjusted my mask, the colorful world of Kealakekua Bay came to life. Yellow tangs, Hawaiian sergents, black triggerfish, peacock groupers, parrotfish, and orangespine unicornfish. This was like visiting another planet!

Snorkeling and SCUBA diving (I’ve been certified since 2000) feels like flying. Flying above the hills and mountains of the coral reef. The fish are other “birds”. You cross over one “mountain range” and drop into a sandy valley that has it’s own collection of fish.

I swam toward the shoreline and I came upon a pair of exquisite Moorish idols. I had only seen these fish in the aquarium, and now here they were in their true and wild environment.

I passed over a shallow reef, careful not to kick so I wouldn’t damage the reef on impale myself on a sea urchin. I floated down into the next “valley” of sand and I saw a most desired fish. This was the official State fish of Hawaii and I had memorized it in second grade. It was a humuhumnukunukuapua’a or “fish that grunts like a pig”. This is Rhinecanthus rectangulus or the wedge tail triggerfish. I dove down to get an eye to eye view of the humuhumnukunukuapua’a, the fish was clearly on it’s patch of sand as it didn’t swim far from it’s sandy stronghold. Lifer!!

I had been somehow waiting for this moment since 2nd grade! And I loved it!

Sketching notes: I sketched the cliffs above bay in between snorkels from the top deck of the Fair Winds II. I later added the names of the fish I encountered in the bay on the cliff face.