Snorkeling in a Living Aquarium
If you’re looking for an amazing underwater adventure, head for the Wai‘opae Tidepools (also known as Kapoho Tidepools) on the Big Island’s eastern coast. A natural marine reserve, the landscape of barren lava is a stark contrast to the vibrant and colorful oceanic life that flourishes beneath the water. A virtual “coral garden,” Wai‘opae is rich with coral growth and high in diversity—the pools are home to blue, yellow and white varieties of coral, abundant with bright and energetic Hawaiian reef fish, such as the yellow tang, needlefish, and the lemon butterflyfish.
Located in the community of Kapoho Vacationland, the Wai‘opae Tidepools were established in 2003 by the State of Hawai‘i as a Marine Life Conservation District. Such areas are protected to conserve and replenish marine resources, such as the 400 species of inshore and reef fish that thrive off the coast of Hawai‘i. The relatively calm waters of Wai‘opae provide a unique sanctuary for juvenile fish to mature and reproduce.
Today, the Wai‘opae Tidepools are a vast aquatic landscape brimming with marine life. However, not too long ago, these shallow, brackish water pools were once non-existent. As explained by a marine biologist from the University of Hawai‘i, in 1975 there was an earthquake centered in the nearby community of Kalapana that caused a coastal subsidence. At the time, the tidepools barely existed and were much too shallow for marine life, such as coral, to grow. Much of the area was covered with land vegetation, but after the earthquake, deep pools and trenches were formed and flooded with water. Thus, the pools we know today were created.
An extraordinary feature of Wai‘opae is that an underground water table flushes into the pools near shore, providing the protected area with a mix of fresh and salt water. The tidepools’ physical characteristics are similar to a barrier reef; waves (generated by trade winds) break on the shallow outer ridge of basalt (volcanic rock) and, therefore, water is dispersed and circulated throughout the hundreds of interconnected pools. When the tide is high, swimmers and snorkelers can simply float from pool to pool, a truly unique and fun experience. When the sea is at, or near, low tide, explorers must hobble or scoot over the lava rock terrain. Unless you have the tough feet of Fred Flintstone, wear water socks or sandals to navigate the rocky shoreline.
For the non-water inclined, there are many flat lava shelves that are ideal for sunbathing and picnicking. Swimmers and non-swimmers alike should be aware, however, that research has proven certain chemicals in sunscreen can cause negative stress amongst live coral. These chemicals flush out living algae called zooxanthellae that live within the coral and provide essential food energy through photosynthesis, and also contributes to the organism’s beautiful pigments that we so admire. This leaves corals damaged and what remains is a skeletal structure that is very frail and “bleached.”
All sunscreens are not created equally. Eco-conscious consumers should read labels and avoid products containing butylparaben, ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate, benzophenone-3 and 4-methylbenzylidene camphor. While these substances may protect your skin, they ultimately destroy our precious coral reefs. Research proves that these substances interfere with underwater ecosystems even at very low concentrations. Instead, opt for natural sunscreen products that will still do the job, yet keep the environment safe.
The Wai‘opae Tidepools are easily accessible and can be entered under most weather conditions, however, please use good judgment and put safety first. Restroom facilities are not available in the area although there are bathroom facilities, a shower, and pay phone a mile down the road (Highway 137) at Ahalanui Park.
Enjoy your time at the Wai‘opae, but please take only photos and memories with you. Commercial activities, collecting or injuring any marine life, and taking sand and coral are strictly prohibited. The reef is extremely fragile and delicate, so be sure not to trample or stand on the coral habitats. The pools are relatively sheltered and safe, but always use extreme caution when around the ocean as conditions change.
Get Here: The Wai‘opae Tidepools are approximately 1-hour south from the Hilo airport; take Highway 11 (Kanoelehua Ave) south. After about 6.6 miles, turn left onto Hwy 130 toward Kea‘au/Pāhoa Rd. Once passing the small town of Pāhoa, continue to mile marker 11. Here at the only stoplight, you will intersect Hwy 132, turn left here toward Kapoho. Continue on this road until reaching mile marker 2 and passing Lava Tree State Park, the road forks, so bear sharp left toward Kapoho. At mile marker 8, you will come across a 4-way intersection, turn right onto the paved Hwy 137 (Kapoho/Kalapana Rd). Follow for about 1.5 miles and turn left onto Kapoho Kai Rd (wide, smooth asphalt street). Here you will enter Kapoho Vacationland, drive for approximately 0.8 miles and over a couple speed bumps, then take a left to continue on Kapoho Beach Rd. The pools stretch for one mile along the coast, follow the loop to the gravel parking lot. Enter the tidepools only at designated shoreline access points and please respect private property. Parking is limited and signs mark public access boundaries.