In Maui nature is everywhere, abundant and amazing. Lucky to live in Hawaii, we are surrounded, literally, by an underwater world that is full of wonder and magnificent creatures. Not even in our wildest imaginations can we dream of all that exists out there in the deep blue, but we can share with you some fun things we do know about a few of our neighbors who dwell ‘unda da sea’.
Sea Life in Hawaii
Green Sea Turtles (Hawaiian Name – Honu)
Green Hawaiian Sea Turtle
Gentle giants of the sea, pro surfers of the waves, and protectors of the coral reefs – Hawaii’s honu cruise in graceful motion to the beat of no ones drum but their own. If only they could throw the shaka as they drift by on island time, it would seem only fitting. They feed on algae (helping to keep our coral clean and healthy), and sea grass which turns their fat layer green; it is that and not the color of their shell that gives them their name.
The Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle is the only indigenous reptile found in Hawaii, dating back as many as 150 million years. It is a symbol of good luck, by ancient Hawaiians in the form of a guardian spirit (Aumakua), believed to be departed loved ones that continue to look over and protect their lineage. Because they are revered as Aumakua, combined with that they are born on land and often come to rest on sandy beaches; even though they spend most of their lives in the ocean, they are considered by ancient Hawaiians to form a revered triangular link of man, land, and sea. If you search them out you will find the Honu pattern is heavily used in ancient petro glyphs as well as in modern graphic form around the islands.
Sea Monkey Honu fun fact: there is a giant green sea turtle that frequently cruises one of our snorkel destinations and his name is Stage Coach because he is so big! We can never promise he will show up, but when he does – wow!
Humpback Whales (Hawaiian name: Kohola)
Of all the hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Hawaiian islands each year, there is none more eagerly anticipated or welcomed back than the Humpback Whales! Whale season in Hawaii is officially from December through April. February is the month known to the local folk as ‘whale soup’.
Humpback Whales travel to the warm tropical waters in the safe basins to birth their offspring. They come from Alaska, Mexico, and Russia; traveling approximately 39 days of non-stop swimming around 3,200 miles to get here. They can actually turn off half of their brain at a time to rest it for the long journey.
Once here, there is great excitement! Thrilling breeches as they hurl themselves far up into the air only to come crashing down in a giant splash – giant tail fins slapping the water with a resounding crack – waving Aloha with their school bus-sized arm fin, the pectoral – singing – courting – giving birth – nurturing – competition pods of males fighting over a female (yes, the whales – but not unlike the sailors in the old local watering holes, too!).
One of the most amazing things to experience is hearing the whale song underwater while snorkeling, or seeing the magnificent creature silhouetted off in the not too distant water, knowing you are sharing the same space – it is exhilarating beyond all belief! We could go on and on with facts and tales of whales. Join Sea Monkey during the season and let our crew expand your knowledge while you laugh, oooh and aaah together over the breathtaking spectacle of the Humpbacks.
Sea Monkey Humpback Whale fun fact: It’s only October, but they are back! At least the scouts are, which is incredibly exciting. The scouts travel right ahead of the pods to ‘scope things out’. They look out for killer whales, sharks, and other dangers. They find the safe havens, and they sing it back to the pods on their way. Meanwhile, the local boats and fishermen have officially received their first playful Humpback Whale shows and Aloha waves of the season – – – Come join us!!
Sharks (Hawaiian Name – Mano)
White Tip Reef Shark
The serious side of the ocean – Hawaiian waters are home to over 40 species of sharks, though the most commonly seen is the docile white tip reef shark. White tips eat many small fish, octopus, and crustaceans, and are harmless to humans unless harassed and provoked. Most sharks have to continuously move in order for water to move in their mouth and over their gills, allowing them to breathe.
White tip reef sharks can rest on the ocean floor and pump water through their mouth. Ram ventilation is what it’s called for sharks to breathe while swimming; they use muscles around their mouth when resting. Their skin is made up of what is called denticles which is essentially rows and rows of almost microscopic shark teeth which prevent the growth of algae on their skin, so make sure you pet your shark from head to tail and not the other way around!
Other common sharks found around Maui are Tiger and Hammerheads. Definitely not friendly, tiger sharks will eat turtles and whales and are known to attack humans as well. Hammerhead sharks are mostly found around Molokai but can be found in small numbers around Maui. Sharks are considered a most prized Aumakua in the Hawaiian culture.
Sea Monkey shark fun fact: Mala Ramp, on Westside Maui, collapsed in 1992 during hurricane Iniki and has become a favorite hang out for white tips. They like to be lazy and hang out under ledges and in lava tubes, so the fractured ramp provides a fun playground for them to eat, sleep, and put on a show for snorkelers! If weather permits, Mala Ramp is a place we like to visit because it is safe and full of an amazing array of marine life – you might get lucky and see a white tip in the distance!
Dolphins (Hawaiian Name – Nai’a)
Beloved for their ability to look like they are always having the time of their life – jumping – spinning – swimming – dolphins are full of excitement! Hawaii’s 3 most commonly seen dolphins are the Bottlenose, the Spinners, and the Spotted. We would have to say that Spinner’s are definitely the most fun. They are small, have a long beak and in a single leap out of the water they can spin as many as six times. They are found around all of the main islands of Hawaii, hunting at night and either resting or playing during the day.
Spotted dolphins are easily confused with spinners; they are closely related and look very similar. However, the end of their beak is white-tipped and mature ones have a spotted color pattern on their body. Mostly seen in the channels between the islands, the spotted do not rest near shore. Both the spinner and spotted dolphins travel in schools from small numbers up to hundred.
Bottlenose dolphins are much larger in size, live in smaller pods, their color is uniformly gray, and their beak is thicker and more blunt. Super intelligent and very playful they love bow riding where they surf in front of a boat or even a whale’s bow wave.
Sea Monkey dolphin fun fact: It’s so much fun to listen to the stories of captains and fishermen here in Lahaina harbor, and one of them shared this little tidbit: since we are not allowed to pursue swimming with dolphins, she has found that if they are in the nearby waters while your snorkeling, sing into your snorkel while you’re swimming around often times they will come to you – don’t know if it works or not, she swears it does – but it’s worth a try!
Manta and Eagle Rays (Hawaiian name: Hihimanu)
The Hawaiian name means lavish, magnificent, and elegant. The beautiful creatures glide through the water and along the sandy bottom of the ocean like they are gracefully dancing the waltz. Their large flat side fins look like giant butterfly wings. Feeding on mostly plankton and occasional clams, snails, shrimp and fish with no shell, it uses the head fins like speared paddles to scoop food into its mouth.
Manta ray ‘wings’ can get so large that a grown man could lay on each one, each with their arms stretched over their heads and possibly still not cover the full span from tip to tip. That’s huge! Rays have skeletons made of cartilage like sharks, but the resemblance stops there other than the fact that both are awe inspiring. Quite often seen in the Hawaiian waters while snorkeling, the rays are still considered elusive for as soon as you see one, they are off in a moment, perhaps they are related to Batman?
Sea Monkey ray fun fact: though this is a cheat and really nothing to do with the animal ray – Sea Monkey boat is a Sea Ray, too, and glides just as beautifully along the top of the water as the animal rays do underneath! If only it was able to run on fish food instead of gasoline.
Hawaiian Monk Seal
(Hawaiian name: Ilio holo I ka uaua which means dog that runs in rough water)
Hawaiian Monk Seal
Extremely endangered with numbers reported to be below 1,200, the Hawaiian Monk Seal is only found in US waters around Hawaii. They are one of the only two mammals in existence that are native to Hawaii. Often found snoozing and warming themselves on local beaches, they are still considered a rare sighting.
Tiger sharks are the main predator for the monk seal, especially the young. However, entanglement from fishing gear, coral bleaching, canine diseases, and ocean acidification are factors that contribute to the dwindling numbers.
Able to dive up to 900 feet in deeper waters, most of their hunting is done in shallow reefs where they thrive on fish, octopus, and crustaceans. They live 25-30 years if they are lucky enough to elude the threats that humans pose. A monk seal pup has a very hard time surviving tiger shark hunts and human interference into their habitat. If you see a Hawaiian Monk Seal consider yourself blessed, but please be respectful and keep your distance. There are preservation teams around the island’s that will come to stand guard over the seal while it rests at a moment’s notice.
Sea Monkey Monk Seal fun fact: There is a local gentleman known to all as “Doc”, his life is dedicated to the monk seals and he can be seen in Lahaina harbor daily spreading his love and knowledge of the seals that he claims to be able to communicate with. If you see a man in a funny straw hat with whirly-gigs sticking up 2 feet above it, that’s Doc! And you can rest assured knowing that he would love to stop and chat with anyone about the Hawaiian Monk Seal. You can even check out his series of informational videos on YouTube by searching DrLeisure1. The following video, not by Doc, is rare footage of the monk seal and a green sea turtle playing, though we do not believe the turtle is having very much fun, what do you think?
Monk Seal Playing With Green Turtle
Eels (Hawaiian name: Puhi)
Eels are elongated fishes with a snake-like body. They live in crevices and roles, rarely displaying their entire body in the open. In Hawaii they are quite abundant and represented by many species
Eels tend to be territorial, but do not live in only one hole or location for a long time. Eels are constantly opening and closing their mouth, which makes them appear aggressive; however, this is simply the way they breathe. Since eels generally stay in their hole during the day, many of them are quite willing to model for you, at least facial shots. Some of the bolder species such as the Yellowmargin and Whitemouth Moray, along with the Conger Eel, may even allow you to place a framer on them.
Sea Monkey eel fun fact: It’s a little more challenging to photograph the shy garden eels, so this is how you outsmart them paparazzi style – leave your camera outside of it’s burrow and back off about 20 feet, sure enough the eel will reappear and perform for your video!
Picasso Triggerfish The official Hawaiian State Fish
(Hawaiian name – Humuhumunukuapua’a)
There are some very showy guys and gals swimming around in the ocean here in Hawaii – they sport a very ostentatious name and look like they’re all dressed up with nowhere to go, so they hang around the coral reefs showing off their fancy selves. They are the Hawaiian state fish and their name is Humuhumunukunukuapua’a. Intimidating, but it’s a lot easier to pronounce than it looks. Just say it like this and you will sound like a Hawaiian in a minute: Who-moo-who-moo-noo-koo-noo-koo-ah-pooh-ah-ah. Easy, right, so cheehoo and pat yourself on the back!
Humuhumunukunukuapua’a is a triggerfish that is very territorial, so even though they are a show off for snorkelers, they like their space and we highly advise you give it to them, as they have been known to aggressively bite ankles! When Humuhumunukunukuapua’a are happy, healthy, and feel non-threatened their colors are bright and beautiful. When sleeping or feeling invaded they have the ability to tone themselves down into muted coloration for protection.
Sea Monkey Humumunukunukuapua’a fun fact: We hope someday you have an opportunity to snorkel and encounter this flashy fellow, if you’re not a water adventurer you can visit him at the Maui Ocean Center or any aquarium in Hawaii. If worst comes to worst, he is so popular, you will surely see him sported on t-shirts up and down the strip in Old Lahaina Town!
(Hawaiian Name: Wana, pronounced vah-na)
Beautiful spiny creatures called sea urchins draw the attention of snorkelers and divers for their exotic presence. Either round or oval, their spines are designed for special habitats. They have five zones of tube feet, which allow them to attach themselves securely to the coral reef or the ocean floor, and five zones of spiny needles to protect them from predators. Some sea urchins hang out directly in the wave crash zone so these tube feet keep them from getting tossed around. Hawaii has several species of sea urchins; the Collector Urchin and the Pencil urchin are two of the most popularly seen.
Collector Sea Urchin
The collector gets it’s name from the fact that it’s an ocean hoarder, hanging onto debris that washes over it like seaweed, gravel, and shell – it uses the debris to hide itself.
Pencil Sea Urchin
The Pencil urchin is brightly colored and make for beautiful photo opportunities. Neither of these are harmful, unless you accidentally step on them, so don’t do that! Always be aware of what’s around you as you play in or explore the ocean.
Diadema Sea Urchin
The Diadema urchin is the one you want to look out for. Its slender spiky needles are venomous and extremely painful, so look but don’t touch, it could send you to the emergency room.
Sea Monkey sea urchin fun fact: watch our homepage video and see our crew holding a pencil urchin for the guests to see. Our crew loves to guide you as you snorkel and share the wondrous creatures that live beneath the sea – it’s a magical place down there!
Mahalo for joining us on this short version journey about a few of the amazing creatures that live in Hawaii’s natural aquarium – the Pacific Ocean. Should you find yourself visiting one of our little rocks we call islands, we hope you will take the time to swim, snorkel or dive in our clear waters and experience the spectacular underwater world up close and personally. Truly, there is nothing like it! Whether whale watching from a distance, snorkeling from offshore or chartering your own personal experience aboard a luxury private day cruiser yacht, you will take home memories that will last a lifetime. Aloha!
Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube; “Hawaiian Reef Fish” by Witte/Mahoney; “Documenting The Super Moms of Seals The Hawaiian Monk Seals of Kalaupapa” by Dr. George R. Harker.
Hawaii Wild Life Fund
Maui Ocean Center
Smithsonian Ocean Portal
Hawaii Travel Guide