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** This trip is not recommended for kids under 5.
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Coral Gardens & Olowalu – West Maui
West Maui Coast
The area along the north side of Maui’s western coast, just around the corner from Maalaea Harbor (where you’ll board the Maui Magic), and up towards Lahaina Town and the Kaanapali Resort Area, is known as the West Maui Coast.
Driving up to Lahaina from Maalaea along the Pi’ilani Highway, you encounter Maui’s one and only tunnel. Local tradition dictates that you honk your horn while driving through the tunnel so that the “Menehunes” (our little mischievous imps) who live in there will not be accidentally hit! That’s the story anyway, and kids get a kick out of it.
In ancient times, Olowalu was quite well populated with Hawaiians and known for growing dry land taro and its shady breadfruit groves. Other crops such as sweet potato and plants that produced materials for clothing, shelter and transport were also raised. A meandering stream and network of irrigation ditches nourished these crops. Once the Europeans settled here, sugar cane was grown and a sugar mill operated in the area.
Perhaps the best known petroglyphs (glyphs carved into rocks) on Maui are found in Olowalu. Located on a basalt cliff, they are made up of geometric designs, human and animal shapes as well as sails. There are about a hundred images in all, chiseled by ancient inhabitants.
On a more sullen historical note, what became known as "The Olowalu Massacre” took place in an area several miles further north of the tunnel.
In 1789 a European sea-trader, by the name of Simon Metcalf and captain of the “Eleanora”, came to Maui and anchored further south on Maui off of Makena Bay in order to barter and trade with the natives for necessary provisions. The story goes that one evening, under the cloak of darkness, several Hawaiians stole one of Metcalf’s a skiff (one of his smaller boats) and also tragically killed a watchman in the process.
Angered by what had transpired, Captain Metcalf ordered his crew to fire cannons into the village. He additionally had a few of the villagers captured and interrogated. They told him that his boat had been taken by the villagers of Olowalu (further-away on the Western Coast of Maui). Seeking even more retribution, Metcalf set sail for Olowalu. He moored his boat off the shore and when the Olowalu villagers naively came out to barter and trade with the “Eleanora”, Captain Metcalf open-fired with the canons, killing over 80 of the Hawaiians and injuring many more. The slaughter became known in Hawaiian as “Kalolopahu”.
All History Aside
There are a couple of spots along the West Maui Coast where we like to stop to take in the sights and snorkel, depending upon the wind and wave conditions that particular day. Many of the larger boats out of Maalaea and Lahaina harbors often come up the West Maui Coast for their afternoon snorkel trips because Molokini can be too-windy at that time of day. Coral Gardens and Olowalu Reef can get pretty crowded then, but the Maui Magic adventures to this location in the mornings, when we generally have the whole area to ourselves. Plus, the icing on the cake is that, at these West Maui locations you will typically get the amazing opportunity to snorkel and swim with turtles!
These are our a few of our favorite snorkel spots on the West Maui Coast:
It is much-better to snorkel this location from a Boat! Most visitors to Maui just know Olowalu as a popular snorkel beach (located at Mile Marker 14) with lots, and lots, of cars parked on the side of the road. However, as many have beachgoers can attest, this extraordinary area is not very easy to enter as the reef bed is extremely shallow near shore and it is quite a challenge not to get scraped up on the coral while entering the site. Not very many of the snorkelers who enter from the beach access get out to where we moor the Maui Magic.
Snorkeling off-shore and from of a boat is defnitely the way to go! The water is plenty deep to dive or jump into and the rewards of exploring the outer Olowalu reefs are amazing. The water visibility, being further off the beach, is much clearer than near shore, and the awe inspiring view of the Ukumehame Mountains from the boat, where you can often glimpse a rainbow or two, is breathtaking! Note – Make sure to take advantage of the great photo opportunities, from Maui Magic's upper deck, of the majestic, and often cloud shrouded, Ukumehame Mountains with the beautiful blue of the Pacific Ocean down in the foreground.
Turtle Cleaning Stations
Olowalu has a very extensive reef bed, ribboned with sand channels running through it and the fish life here is quite extensive. There are also two turtle cleaning stations in the area, which practically assures turtle sightings. Turtle Station explanation goes here. It’s fun to try and see how many turtles there actually are in the area, as they are masters of hiding under the ledges or blending in right on top of a coral reef. Along with Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles that the Olowalu area is particularly known for, are all the beautiful parrotfish and wrasses that swim through its shallow underwater coral canyons. Look closely at the reef formations and you will be surprised at all the various minute marine-life tucked in the crevices if you just look closely enough.
Amazing specimen corals abound! Aptly named, Coral Gardens is renowned for the incredibly beautiful and massive coral heads of several different varieties. The magazine Coastal Living called it one of the world’s top ten snorkel sites. Tucked into the cliffs near the West Maui Mountains, Coral Gardens is an excellent spot to get out of the wind and take shelter as well as offering an amazing array of tropical fish in addition to the Green Sea Turtles that we often see here. On rare occasions, we have seen an endangered Hawaiian Monk seal here, basking in the sun on the rocky shore.
Coral Gardens is a unique, beautiful natural reef formation that is located in a naturally protected bay, on the West-side of Maui. It is additionally home to Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles, hundreds of species of Hawaiian fish like; Parrot Fish, Angel Fish, Trigger Fish and Butterfly Fish. Crabs, Octopus and a variety of Eels are also full-time residents here too. All the natural reef formations, at Coral Gardens, provide a canopy of hard coral that are loaded with a multitude of nooks and crannies. These make the perfect dwelling place for a spectacular array of marine animals. Coral Gardens is an ideal, medium to shallow-depth, snorkeling location – because the seabed slopes gently and gradually away from the shoreline along the West Maui Mountains. This makes it the ideal spot for the beginners and intermediate snorkelers.
Coral Gardens is protected by the high cliffs of the Pali coastline. They provide shelter from the winds and make this one of the most consistently pleasant snorkel locations. When Molokini is too windy or high seas prevail, one can always count on Coral Gardens to typically provide perfect water conditions and the best spot for a fantastic snorkeling experience. The water color and clarity here is truly marvelous. The shallow depths allow lots of sunlight to penetrate which makes for great underwater visibility too. When you view this location from high-atop the Pali Coastline, you see this amazing spectrum of blues and greens that come from all the colorful corals below. But snorkeling here is something else! The colors, coral formations and rainbow of fish are a magnificent underwater spectacle to behold!
Maui Classic Charters was one of the original boat companies to first explore this treasured habitat and because of this, we were able to secure one of the premium mooring spots. Centered in the middle of "all the action", our mooring location provides the optimum Coral Gardens snorkeling experience! You are able to snorkel right on top of the most spectacular reef formations that are bustling with marine-life. The waters here are usually crystal-clear and underwater visibility is typically outstanding. This area is always teeming with lots of marine-life, so there is lots to see below the surface. Looking down into the water, from up on deck, one can see straight to the bottom and even get a glimpse at the turtles that pop their heads up from time-to-time to breathe.
Within the first few minutes of snorkeling at this spectacular location, you can see the widest variety and most diverse collection of marine-life than most other Maui snorkel locations have to offer. Although parts of it are accessible by shoreline access, the largest and best coral formations are located much farther from shore, so the premier sights and places to snorkel are only accessible by boat. Simply put, Coral Gardens is one of the highest-rated, and certainly more popular, Hawaii snorkeling spots! In fact, the snorkeling here is so amazing that, Coastal Living Magazine refers to Coral Gardens as one the "world’s top 10 snorkel sites".
Snorkeling With Turtles in Maui
- When snorkeling around turtles, at Olowalu or Coral Gardens, never aggressively approach them. Do not kick your fins too much, relax your movements, swim calm and very slowly and they will be more encouraged to let you approach.
- Turtles seem to enjoy gazing at their reflections from the glass of a snorkel mask. So remember to aim your mask towards the turtles gaze when near them.
- Never attempt to touch or grab onto a turtle. They are a protected species here in Hawaii and it is against the law to handle or harass them.
- Keep your hands to your side and do not make wide arm movements. Turtles are often scared when they see big leg or arm movements.
General Snorkeling Tips
- The longer you stay in the water snorkeling at these locations – The better chance you have of seeing more marine-life.
- Despite Hawaii's waters being warm – Wearing a rashguard or a wet suit top will allow you to stay in the water longer.
- Pause every so often, when snorkeling, to stop and have a look above the water to take a bearing on where your position is away from the boat.
- Control your instincts to chase after the marine-life and you may find that they actually begin to approach you. Remember, most marine-life can out-swim you anyway!