Tuesday, February 27, 2001
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Posted on: Tuesday, February 27, 2001

Hanauma Bay to require tour for visitors

Interactive graphic of Hanauma Bay improvement project

By Suzanne Roig
Advertiser East Honolulu Bureau

HAWAII KAI — Even cloudy skies and brisk tradewinds can’t keep visitors from snorkeling at Hanauma Bay.

Positioned near the ticket booth to greet them recently was Doug Kaneshige, the bay’s ambassador for the day. Standing under his green umbrella next to traffic cones strung together by orange rope, Kaneshige told persistent visitors that zones two and three were closed to swimmers because the currents were too strong.

Come November, Kaneshige won’t have to point to a temporary sign or stand under a patio umbrella. He’ll be standing in the city’s new $10.6 million education center when he tells visitors that Toilet Bowl and Witches Brew are closed because of weather.

"I am very disappointed," said Courtney Fisher of Houston on that recent blustery day. "I came out here on Tuesday and didn’t know the bay was closed. I came back today and they’re not good conditions."

Despite the warnings and the waits, Fisher said she was determined to visit what is considered one of the state’s top tourist destinations before she went home.

And the city is counting on that mindset as it embarks on construction of its Hanauma Bay education center and a rare conservation concept — mandatory education for bay visitors.

The city’s goals at Hanauma Bay are safety and preservation, but the success of the center could depend on how visitors react to waits of up to an hour to see an educational video. Delay or no, visitors seem to support the concept if it protects the bay, and conservation officials applauded the idea.

"A lot of natural areas are being loved to death with too many visitors," said Grace Yick, senior park ranger for the Upper Newport Bay Nature Preserve in Newport Beach, Calif. "There aren’t a lot of open spaces left and we need to protect them. Mandatory education is a great idea."

Fisher said she wouldn’t mind having to see a video before going snorkeling. But it can’t be too long, she said.

The state land board, after several public hearings and two years of discussion, recently approved the city’s plans, which include a theater, exhibit area, information desk, snack bar and gift shop.

Construction of the education center will begin in April, city officials said. The center, covered over by an earthen berm, should be completed by November, said Rae Loui, city director of design and construction.

"If you’re snorkeling, you need to educate people. If you’re in the water, you need to be educated about your surroundings. But you shouldn’t have to go through the education if you’re not going in the water," said Seth Harris of Seattle, who was visiting Hanauma while on vacation.

Restrictions increase

Over the years the bay has seen quite a few changes in what is allowed. As late as the early 1970s, people could drive down to the beach and park. In the mid-1970s, cars could only drop off passengers, and parking was allowed under the keawe trees. Ten years later, cars were banned from the beach.

It was at this time that people realized that allowing untold numbers of visitors to tromp around the reef could destroy the ecosystem. In the 1990s, the bay was closed for maintenance, fish feeding was banned and parking was limited; when the lot was full, no more visitors could enter.

The city charges tourists $3 to enter the bay; residents get in free. Parking costs $1. Once the education center is completed, all visitors to the park will be required to watch a seven- to nine-minute video about the reef, the nature preserve and its rules and how to protect the marine life, said Peter Rappa, a Sea Grant College marine science faculty member.

The theater is expected to hold 125 people, who will stand to watch the movie, said Alan Hong, bay manager. During peak times the wait will be about an hour between the time a visitor pays the entry fee and gets to walk down to the bay, he said. Regular bay users can get a pass, good for a year, that allows them to bypass the video, Rappa said.

The film will cover three primary areas, Rappa said: a historical and cultural history of Hanauma Bay, the importance of protecting the wildlife, coral, fish and sea turtles, and water safety.

While they wait to see the video, visitors will be able to peruse information kiosks and boards that tell about the history of the area, the volcanology, the geology and the marine life present in Hanauma Bay as well Hawaiian waters, Rappa said.

Education important

While mandatory education is virtually unheard of in state and national parks elsewhere, the bay will become the second attraction in Hawaii with such a requirement. The first was the USS Arizona Memorial. The concept for Hanauma Bay is based on the system at the memorial, Rappa said.

"We needed a program where we could sensitize everyone to the environment of the bay," Rappa said. "We looked around and saw how the Arizona Memorial was very effective."

National and state parks around the country offer a variety of education programs for visitors. Most are passive programs in which information is presented to visitors and docents are available. But visitors are not required to see or read that information before entering the park, as is the case at the Arizona Memorial, where visitors must watch a movie before taking a boat to the memorial.

The need for a mandatory education program at Hanauma Bay is clear, experts say.

The bay, a state conservation area, is one of the only places on Oahu where you can see an adult parrot fish, said Jennifer Barrett, Hanauma Bay Education Program assistant. Sea turtles, a threatened species protected by the federal Endangered Species act, often are seen swimming in Hanauma Bay, she said.

There have been instances where tourists have held sea turtles so their friends could take pictures, she said.

"Hanauma Bay is an important resource," Barrett said. "We get more than a million visitors a year at the bay. If we don’t educate people, then those visitors won’t be able to take that information along to other shoreline and coastal environments."

Or, as hardy tourist Fisher said, "Most people are idiots and don’t know not to touch everything."

Scaling back

The bay’s admission and parking fees bring in more than enough to cover the cost of building a new center, Hong said. Last year park revenues were more than $2.5 million. The debt service for the new center will be $638,000 a year for the first five years, after which there will be an increase. Maintenance and operations costs will total $1.7 million, with the excess going to support the district park, Maunalua Bay Beach Park, the rifle range and the Koko Crater Botanical Gardens.

Hanauma Bay was the state’s first marine life conservation district. Other conservation districts in Hawaii include Molokini Island, Shark’s Cove on Oahu’s North Shore, Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island and Manele Bay on Lanai. None of these areas have conservation requirements as strict as Hanauma’s, Rappa said.

The city first proposed the Hanauma Bay education center in 1999, but community opposition mounted fast. At first the city proposed using the neighboring Koko Head District Park for parking and shuttling people to the bay’s education center, and building a tram up to the top of Koko Crater. The plan has since been scaled back to the bay proper.

"The opposition actually has helped us by challenging us to redraw the plans," Rappa said. "The mayor’s original plans were far too sweeping. We have a better handle on things and a better defined education program."

The new facilities will take only about seven months to complete because the city has all its permits, said the city’s Lui. The bay may be closed for two weeks during construction to replace the tram road with concrete colored to match the lava rocks, Lui said.

Carol Harms and her husband, Chuck, look forward to the changes because they believe it will help preserve a treasure that has grown dear to them.

They started out as tourists and ended up as unofficial caretakers.

"The bay is everything everyone says about it," Carol Harms said. "It’s a renewing, nourishing place. It’s like crawling into your mother’s lap."

Correction: In a previous version of this story, the name of city Department of Design and Construction director Rae Loui was misspelled. Also, Kealakekua Bay is on the Big Island, not Molokai.

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