Snorkeling Paradise Inside a Volcano Named Best US Beach

Hanauma Bay Beach Park in Oahu, Hawaii
Hanauma Bay Beach Park in Oahu, Hawaii, is a world-class snorkeling destination. With its incredible views, crescent-shaped beach and beautiful white sand, it has long been a popular spot for people looking to swim with tropical fish. This stunning destination was named the best beach of 2016. (Image credit: Denise Chow for Live Science)

Looking for a last-minute summer vacation spot? Try Hanauma Bay Beach Park in Hawaii. It's the best beach of 2016.

Hanauma Bay's new title represents the third in a streak of winners from the island of Oahu in the annual "Best Beaches" rankings, which are put together annually by Stephen Leatherman, a coastal researcher at Florida International University also known as "Dr. Beach." Leatherman ranks the top 10 public beaches around the United States based on factors ranging from sand softness and wind speeds to wave height and pollution. He even considers sand color, smell and noise. Amenities such as picnic areas are in the mix, too.

"Frankly, the United States is blessed with hundreds of wonderful beaches," Leatherman told Live Science. But this year, he said, top honors go to Hanauma Bay, with its dramatic volcanic landscape and waters "choked with tropical fish." [See Photos of the Best US Beaches of 2016]

A snorkeling paradise

Hanauma Bay on eastern Oahu ranks highly on many of Leatherman's criteria. It's "stunning in every respect," he wrote in his description of the spot. The sand is white, and the crescent-shaped beach actually sits inside a breached volcanic crater, making for stunning views. The snorkeling is also world-class, he said.

"You're just surrounded by tropical fish," Leatherman said. "It's like a different world."

Formed within a volcanic cone, Hanauma Bay was named a protected marine life conservation area and underwater park in 1967. Today it’s a snorkeler’s paradise. (Image credit: Denise Chow for Live Science)

The beach is closed on Tuesdays to give the reef fish a break from snorkel-clad observers; visitors also have to watch a video the first time they visit Hanauma Bay State Park to educate them on conservation and respectful snorkeling and swimming practices. There are lifeguards on duty, and shuttle bus service is offered from the tourist center of Waikiki because of limited parking.

Best of all, Leatherman said, Hanauma Bay is a nonsmoking beach. This year, nonsmoking beaches have been awarded bonus points in his ranking because of the prevalence of cigarette-butt litter on public beaches. Although, in terms of volume, there is more plastic littering beaches, cigarette butts are the main form of litter by number, Leatherman said.  

"Beaches are not big ashtrays," he said. All of Oahu's beaches are now smoke-free, as is the runner-up beach in the 2016 rankings, Siesta Beach in Florida, he noted.

The runners-up

Here is Leatherman's full list of the top 10 beaches for 2016:

  1. Hanauma Bay Beach — Oahu, Hawaii
  2. Siesta Beach — Sarasota, Florida
  3. Kapalua Bay Beach — Maui, Hawaii
  4. Ocracoke Lifeguarded Beach — Outer Banks of North Carolina
  5. Coast Guard Beach — Cape Cod, Massachusetts
  6. Grayton Beach State Park — Florida panhandle
  7. Coronado Beach — San Diego, California
  8. Coopers Beach — Southampton, New York
  9. Caladesi Island State Bark — Dunedin/Clearwater, Florida
  10. Beachwalker Park — Kiawah Island, South Carolina

Previous winners have included Waimanalo Beach in Oahu (2015), Duke Kahanamoku Beach in Oahu (2014) and Main Beach on Long Island, New York (2013). In previous years, the No. 1 beach has been "retired" from the list. In 2017, however, Leatherman plans to begin with a clean slate, reopening the contest to former winners as well as beaches that haven't taken the top spot before. Only Hanauma Bay will be ineligible.

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.