Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

Hawaii has a lot to offer, from its distinct culture and traditions to the delicious fusion of Polynesian and Asian cuisine and the shopping mecca that is Waikiki. But for many visitors, it is still the sun and surf that separate the destination.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority visitor satisfaction and activity surveys show Hawaii's natural beauty and beaches are consistently one of the top features tourists identify as the Aloha State's exceptional qualities, and swimming and snorkeling are by far top activities, with more than two-thirds of all U.S. visitors diving into Hawaii's crystalline waters during their stays.

These places are at risk, though. Hawaii's coral reefs have suffered from bleaching events multiple times in the last five years. Warming ocean temperatures are the main cause, according to scientists, but direct human pressures, such as sunscreen with chemicals that damage coral, have exacerbated the situation. Hawaii passed a ban on sunscreens with those chemicals that goes into effect in 2021, but that may come too late for some locations. Meanwhile, Waikiki Beach, the most visited tourist area in the islands, is eroding and the state is buttressing the problem with $13 million in repairs.

Campaigns continue to help educate both Hawaii residents and visitors on the future risks for some of its most treasured natural resources. Not far from Waikiki's failing sea walls, visitors can find an accessible window into the world that needs saving.

The Waikiki Aquarium, opened in March 1904, is the second-oldest public aquarium in the U.S. Located in Kapiolani Park, when it first opened as a private venture it was known as the Honolulu Aquarium. In 1919 the University of Hawaii took over administration and today the facility is home to a multitude of public exhibits featuring more than 3,500 marine creatures, educational programs and a scientific wing contributing to research and conservation. 

The Waikiki Aquarium's coral farm program is one of the most successful in the country, culturing more than 50 varieties of coral from locations across the Pacific, and today has the largest living coral collection in the United States. From a fragment they can grow new, healthy corals that can be shared with researchers and other aquariums and are also used to help restore damaged reefs.  Accordingly, the coral reef portion of the attraction is one of the chief highlights.

The "Living Reef" exhibit, which opened in February, features a diverse array of stony and soft corals from around the Pacific Ocean. In a darkened room, different species of coral are featured in their own individual tanks, each one brightly lit, enticing people closer to the glass to see the detailed features and imagine the undersea world where they were found. As it continues there are several tanks showcasing reef environments with a range of corals and variety of fish and other sea animals.

Another highlight is the exhibit of seahorses, seadragons and pipefishes, all part of the Syngnathidae family of sea creatures, in which the males carry the eggs and females do not participate in child care. Two seahorse nursery tanks among the 60-foot display hold juvenile seahorses bred at the aquarium.

Other tanks in the aquarium hold giant clams, jellyfish, eels, lionfish, and a variety of other animals that use unique adaptations to thrive in their environments. The "Hunters of the Reef" exhibit offers a small section of stadium seating and a picture window for taking in the sharks, jacks and groupers gliding through the water. 

The Waikiki Aquarium also participates in a multi-agency program to help protect Hawaiian Monk Seals, which are often rehabilitated and released when stranded in the wild. Some are too injured or ill to be let go, however, and the aquarium is currently home to one seal, Hoailona, that has cataracts. 

The Waikiki Aquarium is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is $12 for adults, $5 for senior citizens and ages 4 to 12 and free for ages 3 and under. Discounts are available for Hawaii residents and active duty military.

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