It's hands off at Hanauma Bay park

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HONOLULU -- The Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve is one of those places most tourists want to check off their list of spots to visit.

But changes made at the preserve over the past several years suggest that agents qualify their clients first, sending only those interested in conservation on the trek out to east Oahu.

First and foremost, this snorkeling spot is a nature preserve, with a $13 million education center that focuses on protecting the environment.

Tour buses are no longer allowed, and the park is not going out of its way to accommodate more visitors. (Annual visits are down by 2 million since 1989, when the number topped 3 million.)

"The more people who come, the more damage is done here," said Jeffrey Kuwabara, outreach coordinator with Hanauma Bay's education program.

The preserve is closed on Tuesdays to give the water and beach a chance to recover, and it shuts down when the parking lot fills. It is illegal to park on the side of the highway leading to the bay, as people once did, so visitors should be prepared to be turned away, at least temporarily, during the busy summer months.

Also illegal is feeding or attracting the fish in any way, a popular but harmful activity permitted until 1999.

"It's a conservation area, not a petting zoo," said Kuwabara. "A lot of people still don't understand that."

Anybody who visits the bay "should come to watch nature behaving naturally," said the preserve's manager, Alan Hong.

Many people, armed with false expectations, go home disappointed, Hong said. They want a place to barbecue and play Frisbee. They ask where the shopping is. "Everything we do here is really aimed at protecting this place," he said.

This is why all visitors must watch a seven-minute video about reef etiquette before walking down the hill to the beach.

Here are some points travel agents should pass on to their Hawaii-bound clients:
• The reef is covered with living things, and touching it can cause damage.
• Visitors should walk only in sandy areas.
• Minimize the use of sunscreen to keep oils out of the water.
• Collecting anything -- sand, rocks, shells -- is illegal.

Hong said Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve issues a limited number of group-tour permits each year, but many groups without permits shuttle people to the bay, then drop them off uninformed of the ecological and safety rules.

Legitimate operators are required to give safety talks and accompany groups into the water. The list of legitimate operators changes daily, said Hong. For information, call (808) 395-2211.

The cost of admission to nonresidents is $3 per person. The park is free to residents. Parking is $1 per car.

For general information, call (808) 396-4229.

Safety tip: Swimmers beware

HONOLULU -- Officials at Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve have a warning for visitors: It may look like a safe, protected area, but 12 drownings occurred there last year. Many were in shallow water. The current outside the reef is powerful, so only the strongest swimmers with extensive ocean knowledge should explore the deeper waters.

Four lifeguards are on duty at all times, but to be safe, snorkelers should always swim with a buddy. And if you join a tour group, make sure it's legitimate.

To get the latest information on tours, call (808) 395-2211.

To contact reporter Katherine Nichols, send e-mail to [email protected].

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