South of Lahaina and west of Maalaea on Maui, the snorkeling at Olowalu Reef offers exceptional water clarity over an extensive coral reef system. The Olowalu Reef is spread across 450 acres and contains over 24 species of coral that provides seed polyps for the coral reefs along the West Maui coastline. Instead of the typical coral colonies growing on old lava flows found around Maui, the Olowalu Reef is an aggregate coral reef formation including a lobe coral colony with the coral skeleton estimated to be about 500 years old. This reef also provides habitat to one of the few black-tip reef shark nurseries in the Hawaiian Islands and is the home to a resident population of roughly 30 manta rays.
The Olowalu Reef is located 600 feet to 3,000 feet offshore and is roughly 2,500 feet wide. The water clarity close to shore is known to be very murky and improves dramatically as you snorkel out. Some snorkelers have estimated the visibility to be up to 120 feet at the outer edge of the reef. However, one about 1% of the snorkelers who come to Olowalu ever swim out far enough from the beach to get to the clear waters. While most snorkelers access Olowalu reef from the namesake beach, there are several snorkeling tour companies that have guided trips to the outer reef edge where you're likely to see them moored in the afternoons.
The Olowalu Reef snorkeling is particularly popular on windy afternoons when other Maui snorkeling dive sites are closed out. The West Maui Mountains protect this zone, and the water clarity and surf stay good on these windy days. While most snorkeling dive sites on Maui are best in the morning before the winds kick up, the snorkeling off Olowalu is not too bad in the afternoon since it is well protected. Just make sure to avoid this site in high surf.
Over the past decade, many local snorkelers have noticed a decline in the health of the Olowalu Reef. But, it still provides habitat to excellent biodiversity. In addition to the black-tip reef shark nursery and manta ray cleaning station, you may encounter butterflyfish, parrotfish and green sea turtle cleaning stations.
The Olowalu region is an important area to native Hawaiians. In the past, ancient Hawaiians were densely populated in Olowalu since it is one of the largest and deepest vallies in West Maui. Some of the best petroglyphs on Maui are found here on a basalt cliff. In more recent history, it was the site of the Kalolopahu, known as the Olowalu Massacre where locals were slaughtered in 1789.
Olowalu Reef is located 600 feet offshore of Olowalu Beach in water ranging from 3 to 25 feet deep. Olowalu Beach is located on Honoapiilani Highway (SR30) between Lahaina and Ma'alaea at mile marker 14.
To reach the snorkeling at Olowalu Beach from Lahaina, head south on Honoapiilani Highway (SR30) for about 8 miles to milepost 14. There is plenty of roadside parking. As you walk to the beach from the parking area, watch out for the numerous Kiawe thorns scattered about. Start snorkeling directly offshore of the mile marker 14 and look for the channels heading out through the reef.
Note: There is a proposed 1,500 home development called Olowalu Town for 636 acres of agricultural land across the highway from the beach. There is significant concern for the impact of the development and associated run-off on the health of Olowalu Reef. If you wish to voice your concerns on this issue, you can contact the Maui Nui Marine Resource Council. This is Maui, not the Mainland. To reach the snorkeling on Maui by air, you will need to fly into Kahului Airport (OGG) which is located in the middle of the north coast of Maui. It is served by direct flights from the mainland US and also by inter-island flights from several other Hawaiian Islands by regional carriers.
Overall, Olowalu Reef is the 15th most popular snorkel dive spot of all 21 snorkeling dives in Maui.