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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, August 16, 2002

Hanauma visitor center opens to public today

 •  Chart: Let the learning begin

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Staff Writer

After years of complaints, community input and change orders, the $13 million Hanauma Bay Marine Education Center opens to the public today, altering forever the Hanauma Bay experience for visitors, residents and marine life.

Jeffrey Kuwabara, Hanauma Bay educational program expert, shows off one of several interactive educational stations that teach about the bay's various forms of life.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

Here's what's new: Clean restrooms, an interactive educational center, a gift shop selling 45 SPF sunscreen, fresh trams bringing visitors down to the bay (50 cents) and back up ($1), and a seven-minute video showing the delights and dangers of the bay.

Here's what isn't new: Limited parking, a spectacular, unscarred landscape and the best snorkeling on O'ahu.

"It's what we've been waiting for all these years, a chance to tell the story of the bay in the right way," said Jeffrey Kuwabara, a Hanauma Bay educational program expert with the University of Hawai'i's Sea Grant Extension Service.

The new center is designed to give visitors a brief overview of the geology, history and biology of the bay through interactive computer exhibits, a gallery area, and the video, which will be "mandatory on the honor system" for first-timers at the bay.

Visitors arriving at the bay starting today will pay $1 to park (Get there before 8:30 a.m. or after 2 p.m. or risk being turned away because the park is full, staffers said), then be funneled to a new ticket booth area, where a $3 fee will be collected from nonresidents. Residents still get in free, in a policy that Ben Lee, city managing director, said has been legally justified by the city corporation counsel.

First-time visitors, including residents, will then be directed past a 6-by-12-foot tile mural by artist Thomas Deir of the bay's marine life into the gallery area, where they can explore the bay through pictures, a three-dimensional coral model and one of eight touch-responsive computers, which are set up to help identify the life of the bay, which range from sea slugs to sea turtles and wrasses to sharks.

The next stop is a 110-person theater, where visitors will see a seven-minute, $250,000 video produced by the city. The film, featuring the music of local group Na Leo, is designed to be equal parts entertainment and education, containing some pleasantly disguised warnings about walking on the reef, feeding the fish or venturing too close to the dangerous areas known as Witches Brew and Toilet Bowl.

Exterior landscaping blends the new Hanauma Bay Marine Education Center with the surrounding environment. The center features displays and programs to educate visitors to the wildlife and environment of the bay.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

Wireless headsets will allow visitors to hear the film in eight languages, including Japanese, Chinese, Korean, English and Hawaiian.

After that, visitors will be turned loose through stainless steel doors wrapped in a red-dirt screen to get what they came for — a beach and snorkeling experience unparalleled in Honolulu. They can either take the new trams or walk to the bay, where there are snorkel concessions, dressing rooms, an information kiosk, lifeguard support facilities and more restrooms.

"It sounds like a good idea and looks very nice," said Arthur Ubben, who, along with his wife, Amy, and two teenage children, were visiting the bay for the first time yesterday morning while on vacation from Peekskill, N.Y. "I would have been happy to stop in and get a little more information."

The final version of the

visitor center has been designed to blend in well with the environment. Looking not unlike those "natural" structures that have popped up as animal homes in progressive zoos in the past few decades, the building might well have been carved out of the old lava that formed the bay.

It hasn't, though; it was just made to look that way.

Using more than $1 million in faux rocks cast and colored from natural formations at the site, and native landscaping (including naupaka, pili grass and hau) to hide the structures and utilities the 12,000-square-foot complex flows down the hillside on flag-stone paths and opens up with cave-like apertures to allow entrance to the various facilities.

"You'd have to be able to fly to notice it from below," Ubben said.

A small concessionaire area will be open Sept. 10, replacing a shave-ice stand and plate-lunch business that have been operating under an old blue tarpaulin near the lookout area for years. Because of environmental concerns, it no longer will be possible to buy food or drinks at the lower level of the park, Lee said.

A small gift shop, run by the same owners who have had the concession at the Waikiki Aquarium for 13 years, sells sunscreen, disposable underwater cameras, and take-home gifts that range from educational books and videos about the bay to rubber octopuses.

Attendance at the bay, which averages about 3,300 people a day, is not expected to increase. The preserve's limited parking acts like a natural gate, which helps protect the bay's environment, Lee said.

Even with all the changes, the park is likely to remain high on most visitors' list of things to do.

"Everyone told us we had to go to Hanauma Bay," said Dena Jenkins, who was sharing a strawberry and kiwi shave ice near the new visitor center as workers rushed to put in last-minute plants and polish new stainless steel railings atop rock walls. "I'm glad we did."

Almost all the changes will be for the better, say those who have shepherded the center through a series of literally up, down and sideways moves in recent years.

Friends of the bay have said for years that an educational component was needed to enhance the visitor experience and to help protect the purity of the bay's marine life, but a proposal by Mayor Jeremy Harris to build the center took years to get off the ground, while residents argued about the precise location, look and nature of the building and its exhibits.

Lee, who guided reporters on a tour of the new facility yesterday, said the city had to spend more than $1 million extra to move and redesign the building from its original location on a grassy overlook area to the upslope hillside. Then, the city had to halt construction for several months when it turned out to be 5 feet too tall, making it visible from the beach below.

"In the end, though, I think we got it right," Lee said. "It was worth waiting for."

Reach Mike Leidemann at 525-5460 or mleidemann@honoluluadvertiser.com.