The History of Molokini Island

The history of Molokini island is intriguing, and it’s best known for two things: snorkeling and diving. You can take a comfortable trip out there on the Pride of Maui, so don’t miss the opportunity to go snorkeling and SNUBA diving. This 65-foot catamaran—specifically built for Hawaiian waters—is famous for her stability and comfort. She is ideal for sightseeing and cruising out to the spectacular Molokini snorkeling area. Here is some background on this underwater paradise.

Aerial image of Molokini island

The Pride of Maui will give you a smooth, comfortable ride out to incredible Molokini snorkeling. The history of this islet is fascinating.


Ancient Hawaiian Legend of Molokini

As Hawaiian legends go, this one is reasonably consistent: The fire goddess, Pele, was in love with a prince (who took the form of a Mo’o, or sacred lizard), but the prince fell in love with another woman. In her fury, Pele took revenge and, depending on which version of the story you hear, rendered either Mo’o or the woman in half in a jealous rage.

According to the legend, Molokini Crater is the tail end of the Mo’o, and the head is “Red Hill,” the red cinder cone of Pu’u O’lai across the channel. Legends of Molokini and stories may differ, but the fact remains: You don’t mess around with Madame Pele’s emotions.

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Molokini Island

Molokini Island, just off the West coast of Maui, is not really an island but an islet, a very small island with minimal vegetation and no inhabitants. The more scientific but less romantic version of Molokini’s creation is that Molokini is most likely the result of a volcanic eruption dating back 230,000 years.

While neighboring Haleakala volcano has erupted dozens of times since that date, this is generally believed to have been the initial event that formed the crescent-shaped islet in which we snorkel today. It was originally part of Maui island, but with the melting of the ice caps at the end of the last ice age, it’s believed that sea levels around Molokini rose 400 feet, surrounding the entirety of the crater with water.

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Polynesian Voyagers

Researchers estimate that the Polynesian voyagers first discovered Hawaii and Molokini around 500 AD. Based on the evidence found there, the ancient Hawaiians were apparently fishing around Molokini for many years. The crescent shape forms sheltering arms favored by coral reefs, and those reefs are home to abundant fish and other marine life.

Though no evidence exists that Molokini was ever permanently settled (fresh water is scarce on the dry, sloping rock), discoveries of stone sinkers and fishing lures by SCUBA divers suggest that the waters within Molokini were used as a food source and provided a healthy supply of marine life and fish. But not all its residents are located below the water. Birds nesting on the islet were gathered for their plumage and eggs, thereby making Molokini a resource for early Hawaiians by sea as well as by land.

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Hawaiian Fishermen

Molokini provided an excellent fishing ground for Hawaiians who trawled its calm morning waters with nets made of ‘olona (a shrub in the nettle family), firebrand, and stone sinkers. These ancient Hawaiian relics can be as big as your hand. Hawaiian fishermen also used to chew bits of the kukui nut and spread them over the water’s surface to make the water clear and glassy.

This enabled them to see what was going on underwater. Hawaiians’ ingenious fishing methods were not limited to nets, baits, and nuts; they even included the use of medicinal plants that temporarily stunned fish and made them float to the surface. Imagine that this method of harvesting fish was safe for human consumption!

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Pride of Maui Molokini Snorkel Tour

Exciting snorkeling experience

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Discovering the Volcanic Islet of Molokini

For the rest of the world, the volcanic islet of Molokini was uncharted until French explorer Jean-Francois de Galoup recorded it in 1786. Captain Cook’s crew, who left the islands in 1779 after their captain’s death, never mentioned Molokini. It`s likely they had too many other stories to tell about their time on the islands.

In 1883, King David Kalakaua hired two U.S. engineers to survey Molokini. The company they started, Alexander & Baldwin, is now well established in the islands, and in 1911, a navigation light was installed on Molokini.

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Ancient Hawaiian Relics Found at Molokini

You may still find ancient Hawaiian relics from the old fishing days in Molokini waters. If snorkelers or SCUBA divers find large, smooth stones that look like they have been worn soft by waves, these were brought in by Hawaiians for a fishing practice known as palu (chum). It was a bait mixture of ground fish, octopus ink, and plants.

The palu was tied to a hook, wrapped in a coconut leaf, attached to the stone, and dropped into the sea. The fisherman then yanked the cord, opening the package of palu down current. This practice attracted bigger fish to the area to feed. Other ancient Hawaiian relics modern divers seek are the teardrop sinker stones known as pohakialoa (long stone), which were up to 10 inches in length. These stones have been spotted at depths of up to 180 feet.

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Molokini's History & War

Sadly, Molokini’s history turned dark during World War II. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, martial law declared the islands as “federal property” to be used as bombing practice for the military. The military selected the island for target practice because its narrow shape made it comparable to submarines and battleships. The bombing profoundly damaged the islet, the reefs, and the life they contained.

Many surviving animals fled to other areas, and the fishermen refused to risk their safety by visiting the island. During World War II, the navigation light was extinguished for security. Then after the war, a wooden lighthouse was built–the third in Molokini history. This structure lasted 42 years until it succumbed to the elements. Nowadays, a solar-powered stainless steel light tower marks the islet and is serviced via helicopter by the U.S. Coast Guard. Aside from the bombing, Molokini Crater was also frequented by black coral divers harvesting large amounts of the precious resource, eventually finding their way into high-end jewelry stores. That, combined with the detonation of an unexploded bomb in 1975, which destroyed a large chunk of live coral, led to a public outcry that would ultimately result in the establishment of Molokini Crater as a Marine Life Conservation District in 1977.

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Molokini Crater as a Marine Life Conservation District

The reef is now monitored by the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, the University of Hawaii Marine Options Program, and the Division of Aquatic Resources. With the establishment of the Conservation District, a new era for Molokini Crater began. Local divers got involved to remove the remaining ordinance, risking their lives to save the existing reefs.

In the years since, not a single remaining ordinance has been found by the many divers frequenting the area. This is great news as Maui snorkeling tours, private charters, and whale watching offer some of the best views of the abundant life in and around Molokini Crater.

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Incredible Snorkeling and SNUBA diving at Molokini Crater

Molokini has become a world-renowned snorkel and SNUBA diving spot because of its excellent visibility–up to 80 feet. It has an area of 23 acres and is almost a half-mile wide. The water depths range from only a foot near the shore to 20-50 feet in most dive spots to over 300 feet at its deepest points. There are many options for exploring the crater, depending on what you want to see. For shallow-water snorkeling, the protection of the crescent-shaped crater makes for a very comfortable and serene swim.

When you take a Maui snorkeling tour to the crater between December and April, you will surely see humpback whales as they migrate through the islands to their breeding grounds. When you swim or snorkel during whale season, you can actually hear the whales singing! Their songs are other-worldly, and the sounds can carry for several miles. For the photographer, the best time to capture pictures of these fantastic creatures is to take a morning boat trip to Molokini so the soft golden light will frame your view.

While snorkeling at Molokini Crater, you will also want to visit the snorkeling site called Turtle Town. Appropriately named, this spot off the south Maui coast is home to an abundance of Hawaiian green sea turtles. In fact, the incredible variety of sea life makes Molokini one of the best snorkel spots in the world. It is estimated that over 250 species of fish can be found there, along with 100 species of algae and 38 hard coral species. You may also see moray eels, octopus, or manta rays if you are lucky. When snorkeling, look for the Humuhumunukunukuapuaa (say that five times fast!). It is the state fish of Hawaii and part of the Triggerfish family. This brightly colored fish has a snout like a pig which gives it the ability to blow air from its mouth to sift through the bottom sand and get to the algae it favors eating. This fish does not like to be crowded, so you will want to view this beautiful little guy from a distance if you encounter him while snorkeling at Molokini Crater.

Along with the colorful fish, you will also find vibrantly colored sea urchins, shy moray eels, and a few white-tip reef sharks. This shark is much smaller than most of its cousins, is found mostly in shallow coastal reef-lined waters, and, unlike its cousins, is mostly harmless. They are fearless and curious, so they may come close to swimmers to check them out. Generally, they range from 2 to 6 feet. You can recognize them by the white tips on their fins.

For the more advanced divers, a trip to the backside of Molokini is a true bucket-list item. Experienced snorkelers and divers will enjoy the challenge of the Molokini Backwall. This dive is a great place to take pictures and videos in unusually clear waters. Visibility off the Backwall typically exceeds 100 feet, and you never know what may swim by. A lucky diver may encounter larger animals like manta rays, whale sharks, and humpback whales during the winter migration.

Molokini Crater is the most heavily visited marine protected area in the world, drawing about 375,000 people during a regular year, which translates to about 100 people in the water at any given time. Fortunately, Molokini’s deep waters and strong currents help mitigate physical damage to the coral reefs or pollution settling in the area.

Currently, there are several protections in place for Molokini, including limits on the number of boats and tours allowed in the crater at any given time. Since the early 1970s, pioneering members of the dive community, whose livelihoods depend on the quality of the reefs in their area, have championed the installation and use of mooring buoys to lessen the harmful effects of anchors on coral reefs. Over the years, the movement has gathered momentum and is now widely accepted as an effective solution to one aspect of coral reef degradation.

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If you love to swim, snorkel, scuba dive, bird watch, or simply feel the history of somewhere new, this place is incredible. You cannot call your visit to Maui complete without a Molokini snorkeling experience.

History of Molokini FAQ

Is it safe to snorkel at Molokini Crater?

Yes, Molokini Crater is very safe when visiting with an experienced captain and crew. When choosing a Maui Snorkel Tour to Molokini Crater, choose a boat company that provides an expert crew, state-of-the-art snorkel, and safety gear. Aboard our world-class catamaran, our guests traverse to Molokini in style, and with stability and comfort always being a priority.

What do I need for Molokini snorkel tour?

Wear your swimsuit, bring a towel, reef-safe sunscreen and change of clothes in case you want to change after you snorkel.

What is the best time of day to snorkel Molokini Crater?

The early morning is the best time to snorkel Molokini. The trade winds pick up in the afternoon and make it a little more difficult to access the crater.

How long are the Molokini snorkel tours?

From our boat slip at Maalaea Harbor, it takes an average of one hour to reach Molokini Crater. Pending wind conditions, the journey can be quicker. Our #1 Rated Molokini Snorkel Tours are 5 hours in total. They allow guests time to experience Molokini best aboard a world-class catamaran.

Is snorkeling safe for kids and seniors?

Absolutely, including infants. Strollers are great for infants and toddlers. We have safety rails throughout the vessel, and entry into and out of the water is safe and easy with submerged stairs. We also boast a super water slide on the bow.

How long is the boat ride to Molokini?

Molokini is about an hour from the harbor. Its isolation is one of the reasons why the water is so clear. It’s a very scenic cruise to Molokini and once there you will be glad you came.

Are there sharks at Molokini Crater?

The short answer is yes. One of the more common species of shark at Molokini Crater is the white-tipped reef shark. This shark gets its name from the white tip on its dorsal fin, and they average 4.5 ft in length. The white tip shark is docile during the day and can be found cruising along the bottom of the reef.

Helen Shirts

Helen is a creative professional living the good life on Hawaii Island. She enjoys writing about local events, foods, and history. Her inspiration often comes from reading about local traditions and researching them to uncover some amazing stories. She truly enjoys sharing ideas for fun and unusual activities here in the islands she calls home.