Molokini Crater

This fascinating volcanic crater lies midway between the islands of Maui and Kahoʻolawe. Extremely popular with travelers, this underwater site can see more than 1000 visitors in a day. Half of the crater rim has eroded away, leaving a crescent-moon shape that rises 160ft above the ocean surface, with a mere 18 acres of rocky land high and dry. But it’s what’s beneath the surface that draws the crowds. Snorkelers and divers will be thrilled by steep walls, ledges, white-tipped reef sharks, manta rays, turtles and abundant fish.

The legends about Molokini are myriad. One says Molokini was a beautiful woman who was turned to stone by jealous Pele, goddess of fire and volcanoes. Another claims one of Pele’s lovers angered her by secretly marrying a moʻo (shape-shifting water lizard). Pele chopped the sacred lizard in half, leaving Molokini as its tail and Puʻu Olaʻi in Makena as its head. Yet another tale alleges that Molokini, which means ‘many ties’ in Hawaiian, is the umbilical cord left over from the birth of Kahoʻolawe.

The coral reef that extends outward from Molokini is awesome, though it’s lost some of its variety over the years. Most of the black coral, once prolific in Molokini’s deeper waters, made its way into Lahaina jewelry stores before the island was declared a marine conservation district in 1977. During WWII the US Navy shelled Molokini for target practice, and live bombs are still occasionally spotted on the crater floor. In 2006 a tour boat with an inexperienced captain sank at Molokini. No one was injured, but after an inept salvage job, 1200 coral colonies had been destroyed. The company incurred a $396,000 state-imposed fine.

There are a few things to consider when planning a Molokini excursion. The water is calmest and clearest in the morning, so don’t fall for discounted afternoon tours – go out early for the smoothest sailing and best conditions. For snorkelers, there’s simply not much to see when the water’s choppy. The main departure points for Molokini trips are Maʻalaea and Lahaina Harbors. You’ll get out there quicker if you hop a boat from Maʻalaea, which is closer to Molokini. Going from Lahaina adds on more sail time, but if it’s winter it’ll also increase the possibilities for spotting whales along the way, so it’s sometimes worth an extra hour out of your day.