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Snorkeling the Not-so-Lonely Islet of Molokini

Updated: Mar 24, 2021

As a Maui local, I’m routinely asked for recommendations. Part of being from here is that you’re likely to serve as an unofficial (or very official) island guide from time to time.

sea level view of Hawaii's Molokini

When I’m asked about the ocean, I always recommend snorkeling. I think of snorkeling as a gateway into diving. The equipment is easy to rent, easier to use, where all you do is lay flat on your stomach and cruise along the surface. If diving isn’t your “thing,” then snorkeling just might be, and there’s no better place to snorkel than the mysterious wonder of Molokini crater.

Some Hawaiian mythology for you. The fire goddess Pele was madly in love with a prince. The prince, however, had fallen for another woman. Pele, in her fury, sought revenge on the prince’s lover, striking the woman in half and turning her into stone. Her head came to be the cinder cone mound that lies on Maui’s Makena Beach, while her body drifted out to sea and became, you guessed it, Molokini.

If there’s one thing you learn for certain about Hawaiian legend, it’s that you NEVER mess with Pele.

Molokini is as mysterious as it is elusive – a crescent moon sitting 1/3 of the way towards neighboring island Kahoolawe. You won’t see Molokini unless you’re on the south side of Maui. There, the crater seems close enough to swim. (Pro tip: don’t)

That proximity makes Molokini charters a breeze. I boarded the Kai Kanani at the unholy hour of 6 a.m. because I thought, what a great way to start the day! I sure as hell wasn’t thinking that when my alarm went off at 5:15.

I’ve gone with family and friends on charters like these before, but this time I wanted to go on my own.

One of the crew had taken notice. “You’re by yourself?” He didn’t so much as ask, but state, and with such nonchalance that offered me some comfort. It’s not so unusual to go at things alone. Like dining. Going to the movies. Traveling. Living.

Other guests on the charter were more curious, asking me why while we stood in line for breakfast.

I said I was auditing.

That seemed to do the trick.

school of trigger fish near Molokini, Hawaii

Island life can make you crave loneliness. You drive down the same roads, past the same landmarks, meeting the same people and talking about the same things. Islands are small by definition. You want the world to feel big again. Sometimes you need to get away. That gets compounded when your home itself is a popular getaway, but even locals need a vacation from life’s drama, from Facebook and Netflix drama.

“Self-care,” we often meme and proclaim. It dawned on me that I chose a lover’s spat as an escape, but that’s neither here nor there.

We glided onward in a supreme-sized catamaran. The giant mast and the lack of data reception made it feel like we were voyagers.

That feeling vanquished when selfie sticks got in the way of my sun. Within 20 minutes, Molokini went from the size of a stone to a full-blown crater, curving on opposite ends like a smile, or an open embrace. It truly looked like part of Maui had chipped off and drifted away.

Molokini is a rare islet. Too small to be an island, but large enough to merit a designation – one that’s led a curious history. Early Hawaiians routinely ventured out to Molokini to fish. I can’t blame them. It’s kind of an epic fishing spot.

During World War II, the U.S. Navy used the islet as target practice, citing its resemblance to a battleship. That you can definitely place blame. Both Molokini and Kahoolawe were used as bombing ranges – veritable shooting galleries in the Pacific. I thought about how lonely that must feel, being unable to decide what happens to you.

I myself could think of 10 things I’d like to do with a place like Molokini and almost all of them involve some kind of variation on Tom Hanks’s performance in Cast Away. None of them, however, involves explosions.

parrot fish under a reef in Hawaii, scuba diver's dream

If once there was nothing but chaos here, what I found now as we arrived was undisturbed peace and awe.

Molokini is one of three volcanic calderas in the world. Snorkeling in these waters means you’re swimming inside a volcanic crater. That’s one off the bucket list.

Ascending 160 feet above water and stretching half a mile long, there was so much to take in before getting in the water. Molokini is also a protected seabird sanctuary, sheltering 2 species of birds: Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and Bulwers Petrels. Locals may not be permitted to fish here, but for these birds it’s fair game.

Shearwaters are pale and grey, while Bulwers are ominously black as crows. Over a thousand of them have made their nests at the crater. They feed during the day so most of the flock had cleared, minus a couple late risers paying us no mind on the cliffs.

Fins on and breathing tube slung across my cheek, I felt like a kind of bird myself. The crew handed out fins and goggles while the captain designated which section of the water we’d be snorkeling in. Molokini might be secluded, but there’s more than one charter that comes here and it can get crowded real fast.

Splashing heard all around, I dove into the sapphire clear water and immediately felt christened, blessed.

A thing about snorkeling: it’s only as good as the spot you’re in. Molokini, then, will make you feel like a pro. Underwater visibility is unparalleled. With the lack of surrounding sand, the sun shining down, as well as the crater’s arms protecting snorkelers from winds and the ocean current, visibility is unimpeded up to 150 feet, which is insane. I don’t see that clear on land.

The crater boasts an ecosystem of over 250 species of fish. The charter provided a roster of the marine animals we’re likely to encounter, but keeping an eye out for all of them was like playing Where’s Waldo except Waldo was EVERYWHERE.

school of marine fish over a reef in Hawaii

I spotted the very decorated Sergeant Major, one I remembered because of its name and the zebra-like stripes streaking down its side. Not to be confused with the Moorish Idol, another I quickly saw. They have 2 thick stripes and a fin-like tail cresting above its head.

Yellow Tangs were unmistakable, as were the Racoon Butterfly – both of them yellow and at times hard to tell apart. I followed snorkelers’ pointing fingers to see an octopus hightailing in the opposite direction. Perhaps it was for the best. If its tentacles had grabbed me, I would’ve jetted it back to Maui. (Octopus’ freak me out; no one should have that many arms.)

I’m happy to report that I saw the humuhumunukunukuapua’a in all of its colorful glory. I’m sure they prefer “reef triggerfish,” but as a local it’s also my duty to say their full name when the opportunity arises.

Snorkeling presented a unique vantage. It’s an odd, otherworldly sensation looking down on things in constant motion. You simultaneously see how small and big things are. The fish teeming all around and the coral reef laid below; boats fixed to mooring lines and the ocean that went on forever. I forgot how vast the sea felt beyond my eyeline and comprehension. I was swimming in one tiny solar system of this vast ocean universe.

When it was time to go, I felt like I could’ve easily snorkeled for a few more hours, though, the deep wrinkles on my fingers indicated otherwise.

Back on board, people compared notes on which fish they saw and the ones they hadn’t, already making promises to themselves for their next Molokini venture.

“Don’t let this be your last time here,” the captain said aloud, steering us out of the crater.

The catamaran slowly churned back towards Maui, which somehow looked bigger than I had last seen it. Molokini, too, didn’t look so lonely anymore surrounded by boats and other snorkelers jumping in. Birds would gradually return to their nests with the day’s catch and the schools of fish below would resume their cycles on the reef. Maui and the routine that awaited me didn’t feel so small, but renewed in its grandiosity.

Perspective. That was why I decided to snorkel Molokini on my own.


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