If you go to Maui, you can’t miss Molokini. You can see the cliffs of the mostly submerged crater jutting up through the waves from Kihei and Wailea, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about all the free brochures that’ll inevitably pile up in your rental car.
Molokini, along with the Road to Hana and Haleakala, is one of the premiere attractions to the island of Maui. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why.
I wrote in my previous post about how Oksana and I managed to pay about $50 each for this “free” tour, so there shouldn’t be any need to rehash that part of the story.
Molokini promises much and delivers little, or at least it did on the day we went. We were told that the submerged crater was home to turtles, sharks, and all varieties of tropical fish. Even better, we would be able see all these things because the ocean’s bottom-churning waves exhausted themselves on the crater’s rim. Not only that, but most of the Molokini tours also included a stop at Turtle Town, a section of coastline along Maui that was jam packed with green sea turtles.
So we laid out the cash and waited our turn with eager anticipation. Just like good tourists.
We arrived early at the harbor; got there even before our “all-around-inflatable” boat was launched. Once onboard and underway, our snorkeling guide laid out the rules: The crater is small and there would be a lot of people visiting today – for that reason we were not allowed to leave the group. Also, time in the water would be limited to about 20 minutes. Oksana and I exchanged a silent, disappointed look.
Possibly in an attempt to cheer us up, the guide then mentioned that if we all behaved (i.e., stay near the boat), we could swim on over to the edge of the crater and out over the 200ft drop-off. True or not, she said that members of this particular tour were some of very few to be allowed that special privilege. I couldn’t tell if she was telling the truth or just trying to butter us up.
Our second guide then brought out a photo album filled with pictures of things we might see. There were dolphins, rare(ish) hawk-billed turtles, and even a whale shark. When pressed, she admitted that whale shark was only seen in the area once, years ago.
We arrived in the crater amidst a veritable flotilla of ships, many of them already disgorging their sunscreen-slathered cargo. I was first in the water (Oksana and I had brought my own equipment); the only thing slowing me down was deciding whether or not to wear fins. The skin on the back of my heels was still raw from the last time I used them, but I didn’t want to struggle to keep up with the group if and when they swam out over the rim. I decided to wear them; my heels would heal eventually.
The first thing I noticed, after doing the spit-rinse on my mask, was that the claims about the water clarity were true. The boat was anchored in, oh, I don’t know, 30-40ft of water, but I swear that it looked like 12ft. I saw something interesting and dove down – only to realize, when the pressure on my mask increased, that it was much deeper than it looked! It surprised me and, after clearing my ears, whatever it was I had seen was gone.
While waiting for Oksana to hop in, I swam towards the stern and, consequently, nearer the lava-rock cliffs that formed the above-water portion of the Molokini crater. Fish came out of nowhere and impressed me with their numbers… until I noticed that someone on the boat was tossing food into the water. A quick look around confirmed that ALL the fish in the area were swarming towards the few snorkelers in the water near our boat.
Oksana caught up to me then and we began to test our guides’ limits. We didn’t stray too far, just enough to distance ourselves from some of the more bumbling snorkelers in our group, and the guides’ never called us back. Unfortunately, other than a few fish here and there among the coral, there wasn’t anything to see! In the 20 minutes we had, the highlight was a single trumpet fish about a foot-and-a-half long.
A towel hung on the back of the boat was our signal to gather up before the 100 yard swim out towards the crater’s edge. Up until that point, I had been mostly propelling myself through the water with my arms, but in order to keep up, I was forced to use my legs, too. I could tell that the fins were doing more damage to my tender skin, and it wasn’t just an annoyance this time, either. It hurt! The current strengthened against us, though, and I didn’t have much of a choice.
Preoccupied with my Achilles tendons, I wasn’t paying close attention to our surroundings. We were in deep water, anyway, and there wasn’t anything larger than plankton within fifty feet of our group. I figured there would be nothing to see along the sandy bottom, but Oksana, swimming along beside me, grabbed my forearm and pointed. A tiny shark, barely a foot long, swam with some fish along the bottom below us.
We tired ourselves out, fighting the current, but we did make it out over the drop-off. It was impressive, to see the wall of coral slope away at such a steep angle with the rays of flickering sunlight shining down into the darkness, but we couldn’t stay to admire the view (or look for anything more impressive than a colorful fish.) The boat was waiting to pick us up, and even if it hadn’t been, the sea was doing its best to push us back into the crater.
We hauled ourselves out of the water, Oksana and I being the last ones back on deck; I love being in the water and Oksana really really had to pee.
Oksana and I had to jockey around for our seats because by the time we were back on the boat our guides were passing out cans of soda and Tupperware containers filled with sliced pineapple and Costco muffins. Oksana looked for it first and pointed out the salty blood-water mix that was trickling down the backs of my ankles, but I tried to hide it from everyone else. Pay no attention to the dark stains on the thinly-carpeted deck!
Our next stop was just south of Kihei. You can probably guess why they call the area Turtle Town, though after snorkeling it, I can’t say I was terribly impressed. Perhaps all the turtles were fleeing from the hundreds of snorkelers in the water. Oksana and I swam along a rocky outcrop that jutted out towards deeper water and we did, indeed see a turtle. Unfortunately, so did everyone else and it was quickly chased off.
I missed the eel that someone spotted, and the octopus, too. In fact, the most noteworthy thing that happened while we were swimming at Turtle Town was that I had a whole boat-load of people shout at me. I had been following the progress of a couple divers below me and didn’t hear their approaching catamaran. Their guide tried and failed to get my attention – they were planning to anchor near me – before, I assume, he enlisted the help of the 100 or so tourists on deck. Actually, an instant before they all screamed their lungs out at me, I happened to raise my head up out of the water and look directly at their boat. It wasn’t as embarrassing as it could have been.
After the second disappointment that was Turtle Town, our captain told us that we had the opportunity to try another site that was “exclusive” to our tour. Further down the beach, a small boat had been intentionally sunk to form an artificial reef. We only had about five or ten minutes in the water, but at least this time it was time well snorkeled. The boat itself was in maybe 50 feet of semi-murky water; you could just make out the half-dozen turtles stretched out on the deck.
Periodically, they would come to the surface for air, allowing us the opportunity to get a little closer. These turtles were much less timid and the captain later told us that it was because the shipwreck was a site where divers frequently approached – and sometimes even petted – them. Can’t say I would endorse that behavior, but it was pretty cool swimming along behind a green sea turtle at arm’s length.
Once we climbed back on the boat, our little snorkeling adventure was essentially over. Oksana passed the time on the way back to the harbor by chatting in Russian with a Ukrainian-born Australian and his daughter. I simply reflected on how the three-hour trip seemed to have passed so quickly… and contrasted that with how the 5-hour trips on the 150-passenger catamarans must seem like an eternity.
Was Molokini worth the price of admission? Not in my opinion; there are far better places to snorkel around Maui that you can drive right up to in your rental car. Does that mean I regret going on the tour? Not really. Molokini is geologically interesting and we got to snorkel around a small shipwreck we otherwise would never have known about.