BIG ISLAND OF HAWAII: Virgin Snorkelers at Kapoho Tide Pools

Snorkelers and Coral Reef off Big Island of HawaiiKaren Rentz and our friend floating over the Kapoho coral reef

Our lives have moments of pure awakening, when we experience a place (or a new idea or fresh music or a great book) for the first time. That was our experience snorkeling in the Kapoho Tide Pools, a wonderful coral reef south of Hilo.

Reflections of Coral Reef on Surface of Kapoho Tide Pools off HaDappled by sunlight, the coral reef casts its reflections up on the surface

Snorkeling was entirely new to us. The idea of safely breathing underwater while encountering strange creatures was so alien that we wondered if we could even do it. A variety of relatives and friends had tried it and had trouble with trying to breathe and swim underwater at the same time. We were apprehensive, but how can you go to Hawaii and not even try? On the other hand, we didn’t try surfing, the other great Hawaiian form of water play.

We started by visiting a dive shop, and getting lots of advice on masks and snorkels. After purchasing our first masks and snorkels (from an online source, without fitting the masks first–a big mistake!), we visited our local high school swimming pool during free swim hours, and learned how to breathe through a snorkel, knowing that a life guard might be able to save us if we inhaled water instead of air. I took the risky step of investigating–then purchasing–a truly expensive underwater camera housing so that I could potentially take some coral reef photographs. That step forced me to make it a success!

For snorkeling wear, we each obtained a shorty wetsuit, which covers the torso and thighs and upper arms, and gives some warmth in cool seas. In May in Hawaii, it proved to be just right, though on land I felt like I had been stuffed into a casing like a sausage. We also wore neoprene caps to keep our heads warm and out of the sun. Finally, we wore neoprene booties to prevent the abrasion of the upper foot surfaces that flippers can cause. After all these purchases, we read that two Washington State snorkelers had just drowned while trying this new activity off the Hawaiian coast. Oh oh …

We flew to Hawaii, then drove around the island to visit some old friends who are now living on old lava flows south of Hilo. They had agreed to host our first few days in Hawaii, and to teach us how to snorkel in a place that has the reputation of being among the best snorkeling places on the Big Island. First they took us to a small cove along the coast that features water heated by volcanic activity. It was like snorkeling in bathwater, and was a shallow and forgiving place to try the basic techniques. There were even a few coral reef fish enjoying the water with us.

After graduating from the kiddie pool, we went with our friends to the Kapoho Tide Pools, which is actually a narrow and small bay that provides a relatively protected coral reef experience. We walked a short trail to a public access point, then donned our flippers and masks, and apprehensively floated off into the bay from a lava shelf.

Snorkeler's Legs at Kapoho Tide Pools on Hawaii Big IslandMy beautiful legs at the edge of the Kapoho Tide Pools; this small cove is bordered by cottages and a community park where visitors can enter the sea

We immediately experienced magic, with bright yellow Raccoon Butterflyfish and vivid lavender Blue Rice Coral and a hundred other creatures. The crystalline aqua waters revealed the promised new world to us, and it was even more wonderful than we could have imagined!

On our first day at Kapoho we gradually grew more confident about snorkeling, learning to expel water from a mask, clear a snorkel that had taken on water, and deal with leg cramps from flippers that were too long. Eventually we grew physically tired and hauled ourselves out for the day–wonderfully satisfied with what we had seen and learned.

Karen Rentz Snorkeling off Big Island of HawaiiWe each used a camera underwater to try and capture the magic

We returned the next day, enthused about seeing the place again. This time we had more challenges: we ventured out to where waves were roiling the reef, and found out that swimming and photographing under wavy conditions was more difficult than it had been in the bay’s more protected areas. Karen got a little seasick while trying to photograph where waves were tossing us around, and I was shoved by a wave into some coral, which left a coral-shaped bloody pattern on my knees and lower legs. Fortunately there weren’t any sharks nearby! We also found that saltwater tastes really salty, after ingesting too many mouthfuls.

Raccoon Butterflyfish in Kapoho Tide Pools off Hilo Coast of BigA school of Raccoon Butterflyfish in the aqua waters, watching us get our snorkeling lessons

Blue Rice Coral in Kopoho Tide Pools on Hawaii's Big IslandVivid purple of the Blue Rice Coral, a species found only in Hawaii and becoming rare

Blue Rice Coral, Montipora flabellata, in Kopoho Tide Pools on HThe corals are incised with dark lines; these are the recesses where Petroglyph Shrimp live

Slate Pencil Urchin and Coral in Kapoho Tide Pools off HawaiiSlate Pencil Urchin, with its fat reddish-orange spines, lives among the corals and other species of sea urchins

Ringtail Surgeonfish and Reef Reflections off Big Island of HawaRingtail Surgeonfish were one of approximately 35 species of fish we saw in this reef habitat

We were finally tired after two hours in the waves, and swam back to haul ourselves out. When I looked down at my legs, I realized that the backs of my Seattle-white legs were suddenly vivid pink.  As were Karen’s. Not good. We had forgotten to apply sunscreen, and hadn’t realized that we could get such an intense burn while snorkeling. Unfortunately, these burns were painful for Karen the rest of the trip, and she used a great deal of aloe vera to alleviate the pain and heal the skin. Live and learn.

We came away from our two snorkeling trips to the Kapoho Tide Pools newly aware of the wonderful world of the coral reefs. Sure, we had visited such reefs vicariously on television, but nothing can compare to actual experience. We learned new skills, and came away enthralled by a place of transcendence that we shall never forget.

Karen Rentz Snorkeling in Kapoho Tide Pools off Hawaii's Big IslWhen we swam to the mouth of the cove, the waves became more powerful and it was easier to lose sight of one another

Karen Rentz Snorkeling in Kapoho Tide Pools off Hawaii's Big IslI used a fisheye lens in this fisheye kind of place; this proved wonderful for showing the expanse of coral reef, often including reflections and the sky, as in this photograph of Karen

Photographer Lee Rentz Snorkeling off Big Island of HawaiiI even did a self-portrait with the fisheye lens, in which I come out looking a lot like a fish

Over-under View of Kapoho Tide Pools off Big Island of HawaiiI did a bit of what is called “over-under” photography here, simultaneously revealing the surface and underwater scenes

Saddle Wrasse and Plump Sea Cucumber off Big Island of HawaiiA fat sea cucumber and a Saddle Wrasse add color to the reef

Ringtail Surgeonfish and Reef Reflections off Big Island of HawaRingtail Surgeonfish and reef reflections up to the surface

Resting Yellowfin Goatfish in Kopoho Tide Pools off Big Island oYellowfin Goatfish rest the day away in sandy alcoves among the coral, then feed at night

Corals in the Kapoho Tide Pools off Big Island of HawaiiI found the surface reflections of the shallow reef endlessly fascinating; these are best where the reef is topped by shallow water, as it is here

Corals in the Kapoho Tide Pools off Big Island of HawaiiI haven’t figured out what caused all these bubbles floating in front of the lens

Coral and Reef Bottom in Kapoho Tide Pools off Big Island of HawWith small waves and a bright sun overhead, the surface casts this network of sunlit wave patterns on the floor of the reef

Convict Tangs over Coral Reef off Big Island of HawaiiConvict Tangs are named for their prison-issue uniforms

Karen Rentz Snorkeling in Kapoho Tide Pools off Big Island of HaFor those who haven’t tried it: snorkeling involves a mouthpiece attached to a hollow plastic tube that goes above the water. The nose is stuck inside the face mask, and isn’t used for what God intended it to be used for. Snorkelers become mouth breathers.

Snorkelers Reflections at Kapoho off Big Island of HawaiiKaren and Alice gliding through a liquid passage between sky and earth

Lined and Threadfin Butterflyfish off Big Island of HawaiiLined and Threadfin Butterflyfish above a sandy spot in the reef

Raccoon Butterflyfish in Kapoho Tide Pools off Hilo Coast of BigRaccoon Butterflyfish were approachable, often coming within inches of my lens

Rice Coral in Kapoho Tide Pools off Big Island of HawaiiRice corals remind me of some of the shelf fungi that grow on trees–but on a much bigger scale

Looking Up Toward Surface of Kapoho Tide Pools off HawaiiWho knows what we’ll next find as we swim the length of the reef?

We used an excellent ebook snorkeling guide for advice on snorkeling hotspots. The Big Island Hawaii Snorkeling Guide is available at Tropical Snorkeling.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask me to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date). 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.

Explore posts in the same categories: Adventure, animal, fish, Hawaii, ichthyology, image, landscape, nature, outdoor, photography, recreation, science, travel, wildlife

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