For local residents of a certain age, a visit to Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve on Wednesday morning felt like a happy dream of small-kid beachgoing days.
The great volcanic amphitheater reopened to the public after nine months’ COVID-19 closure, and the nearly empty parking lot was free of tour buses, vans, trolleys and taxis. There were no lines at the entrance gate, where a masked staff member asked if you were going swimming, and, when you said yes, waved you through, wishing you a wonderful time.
Viewed from the cliffs on a windless, halcyon morning, the turquoise waters between the curved arms of the bay stretched transparent over the dappled sandy lagoons and coral reefs, occasionally fanned by small waves. A dozen people snorkeled or splashed in the shallow water while 50-some others sat in groups of less than five, spaced far more than 6 feet apart on the white sands.
“It’s gorgeous,” said Joella Hansen, a Hawaii Kai resident and regular snorkeler at Hanauma Bay before the closure. “The fish are bigger and brighter and the water’s clearer than I’ve ever seen,” she said with a radiant smile as she emerged from the ocean.
Indeed, because scientists studying the bay ecosystem have been observing signs of recovery in the absence of 3,000 visitors a day. A new limit of 720 daily visitors has been set for the reopening in a pilot program seeking to balance conservation with recreation, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said in a press conference Wednesday afternoon at the preserve.
“Hanauma Bay has been resting, getting refreshed,” Caldwell said, reminiscing that the last time he swam at the bay, with his daughter when she was small, “it felt like bathing in suntan lotion, and the fish were being harassed, chased by other (swimmers).”
Now, he said, scientists had observed “the uhu are returning and the papio and the ulua are coming in.”
“Looking down and seeing the clear water brings back (memories) when I was a kid in the parks program, coming here on field trips and with family,” said Michele Nekota, director of the city Department of Parks and Recreation, which manages the bay.
“(Hanauma Bay) looks exactly as it did 30 to 40 years ago,” she said, thanking the state Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Aquatic Resources, the nonprofit Friends of Hanauma Bay and the University of Hawaii at Manoa Sea Grant program for their partnership in conserving the preserve.
The water in the bay is 64% clearer than it was pre-pandemic, added Lisa Bishop, president of Friends of Hanauma Bay, which has been working on a coral restoration project with DAR.
”For the first time in more than 40 years there is no sunscreen in the water, no artificial sedimentation, no people walking on the reefs,” Bishop said.
In an effort to sustain this nascent but impressive ecological recovery by reducing human impacts, the pilot program will keep visitors to no more than 187,200 per year rather than up to 840,000 before, Caldwell said.
Reopening hours are also shorter, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m, and a second weekly closure, on Mondays, will be added to the traditional Tuesdays.
In addition, no commercial activity, from food and equipment rental concessions to snorkel tours and private and public buses, will be allowed in the preserve.
The restrictions aim also to reduce risks of exposure to the novel coronavirus, Caldwell added, along with a requirement that masks be worn by everyone throughout the preserve except while swimming, and that social distance be kept.
Asked about the duration of the pilot program, Nekota said it would last at least one to two months, while Bishop said she would like to see it extended for at least one year to allow newly planted corals to gain a foothold, and for scientists at the Coral Reef Ecology Lab in the Marine Biology Department of the University of Hawaii at Manoa to conduct comparison studies of fish behavior and water clarity after the return of visitors.
Nekota said the preserve would support itself with fewer visitors because raising nonresident admission to $12 a person from $7.50 “will help balance revenues.”
Caldwell added it was his understanding the reserve had been created with conservation, rather than tourism values, in mind.
“It was established as a reserve, not to let as many people in as you can and collect all the kala,” he said. “I think some in the visitor industry have forgotten what makes Hawaii special.”
Meanwhile, beachgoers were reveling in the mellow quiet and beauty of a first reopening day without any previous announcement or fanfare.
“We drove by the bay every day and just by chance this morning, on our last day, we saw it was open,” said Brian Stone, visiting with his wife, Bella; daughter, Kamae; and son, Nixon, from Hillsboro, Ore.
Lisa Carter and Eric Balk of San Francisco, taking what would have been their honeymoon trip if their wedding hadn’t been postponed due to COVID-19, said they’d gotten lucky, driving over for a wishful look even though online sources said the bay was closed.
As for the fish, their size, abundance, variety and silence spoke wonders as they swam in graceful couples and vast, rippling schools, most not fleeing when snorkelers approached.
“The fish seemed less inhibited,” said Hawaii Kai resident and regular bay snorkeler Jane McCallister.
Indeed, two foot-long butterflyfish were observed darting up close to one snorkeler’s mask.
Hanauma Bay was designated the state’s first Marine Life Conservation District in 1967.
In the 1970s and 1980s visitor attendance peaked at an estimated 10,000 people a day. A management plan implemented in 1990 sought to mitigate human impact by reducing visitation, improving facilities, banning the feeding of fish, and educating bay visitors.
“There’s a certain gladness in our hearts even if we’re not able to go down to the bay, which has such significance to Native Hawaiian culture and (local) people,” Caldwell said of the recovering resource.
But here’s a tip, in case you’re asked: Only swimmers, not sightseers, were admitted to the bay on Wednesday, when at least three cars carrying nonswimmers were turned away at the gate.
To comply with COVID-19 restrictions, face covering mandates apply at all times within Hanauma Bay, and social distancing will be required. The new rules are as follows:
>> Capacity will be limited to 720 people a day.
>> Vehicular and pedestrian entry will be allowed from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. and all visitors must leave by 4 p.m.
>> Hanauma Bay will be closed Mondays, Tuesdays and Christmas and New Year’s days.
>> Entry into the parking lot, the reserve and its theatre will be limited to 30 individuals at a time. Once that group enters the theatre to watch a mandatory educational video, the next group will be allowed to enter.
>> Entry and parking fees for nonresidents of Hawaii have increased as follows: $3 parking fee for nonresidents; $12 entry for nonresidents; free entry for Hawaii residents (with valid ID) and children 12 years and younger
>> No commercial activities will be allowed to operate in or transport visitors into Hanauma Bay.
>> The gift shop, education center, food concession, snorkel and locker rental facilities will remain closed; visitors must bring their own snorkel equipment.
>> Bathrooms and showers within Hanauma Bay will be in operation.
>> City bus service into Hanauma Bay will continue to be suspended.
For more info, visit honolulu.gov/parks-hbay.