Forty thousand years in the making, volcanic eruptions that molded Hanauma Bay left behind one of Oahu's crown jewels. But could the bay's spectacular views and more than 300 species of marine animals also be its downfall?
The Department of Parks and Recreation is requesting $50,000 in its fiscal year 2015 budget to conduct a carrying capacity study of the bay. The study will examine whether the 779,580 people who visited Hanauma Bay last year is about right, or perhaps too much.
"The city wants to do a study just to make sure that the reef is going to be in good shape for years to come," said city spokesman Jesse Broder Van Dyke. "It's one of the most special places on Oahu."
In 1987, more than 3 million visitors flocked to Hanauma Bay, forcing the city to change course. The Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve was created in 1992 and kicked off educational programs and Tuesday closures to help keep the reef in the bay healthy.
Although Hawaii residents are allowed into the bay free of charge with a valid state driver's license, tourists over the age of 12 pay $7.50, which goes toward the Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve Fund.
In the past five fiscal years, the amount of money entering the fund has grown steadily, from $4.39 million in FY2009 to $6.18 million in FY2013. As of June of last year, the fund held a balance of $4.25 million.
"Most of the parks that the city has costs the city money to maintain," said Broder Van Dyke. "Hanauma Bay is one that pays for itself."
Currently, crowd control at the nature preserve is mostly limited to the parking lot.
When it fills up, it slows down the number of feet that could trample the reef. That's why Kelvin and Arlene Beaton of British Columbia, Canada, got a head start Friday when planning their visit to Hanauma Bay.
"We came out early because we didn't want to miss coming into the bay because the parking lot was full," said Arlene. "It's just gorgeous, the water's incredible, but when you're in the water the fish are super beautiful."
Another barrier that limits visitor traffic at Hanauma Bay is a mandatory eight-and-a-half minute video that instructs people on the dos and don'ts at the nature preserve. As the day progresses, wait times to watch the video generally grow longer.
"If they come early in the morning, usually they get a time coming up right away," said Broder Van Dyke. "If they come when it's really busy, like around lunchtime, they might be waiting for quite some time to be able to watch the video."
The city says it will choose a firm to conduct the capacity study if funding is approved by the City Council. If an analysis shows there's still too much human activity at Hanauma Bay, the city may be forced to turn visitors away.
"I think if it's for the good of the area and nature, then from my point of view, I wouldn't mind," said Ian Griffiths, of London, England, who visited the bay Friday.