Maui Ocean Center is renowned for our commitment to educating and inspiring visitors about the wonders of the ocean. Central to this mission are our dedicated Marine Naturalists, whose wealth of knowledge and passion for marine life bring an extra dimension to the aquarium experience.
When you visit the Maui Ocean Center, you’ll have the opportunity to engage with these knowledgeable experts firsthand. As you wander through the exhibits, you can approach the Marine Naturalists stationed throughout the aquarium to ask questions, seek guidance, or simply engage in captivating conversations about the marine world. Their deep understanding of marine ecosystems, marine life behavior, and conservation efforts will undoubtedly enrich your visit, helping you develop a deeper appreciation for the ocean’s beauty and significance. Whether you’re unable to visit the aquarium physically or simply prefer to explore from the comfort of your own home, you can access their expertise through the various online resources below.
At Maui Ocean Center, we strive to create an authentic and thriving Hawaiian coral reef environment. Everything you see in our aquarium comes from the Hawaiian Islands and was carefully collected by our dedicated curatorial team from the waters around Maui.
In the Shallow Reef Exhibit, you’ll witness the diverse components of a Hawaiian coral reef ecosystem. While the vibrant and colorful reef fish may catch your attention at first, there is another group of animals that plays a vital role in coral reef ecosystems worldwide. These are the corals, which have been growing for centuries beneath Hawai’i’s waters.
Despite their rocky appearance, corals are actually classified as animals, belonging to the same group as jellyfish and anemones, called cnidarians. Each coral polyp, although not visible to the naked eye, lives within a colony and contributes to its overall structure. Corals secrete calcium carbonate, a white substance that helps them adhere to the rock below and builds up over time to form the entire reef.
Corals are not just structural components; they also provide food and shelter for other reef inhabitants. They catch and consume free-floating microscopic plants and animals, known as plankton, using their tentacles and stinging cells. However, to meet their nutritional needs, most corals rely on a symbiotic relationship with tiny single-celled algae called zooxanthellae. These algae live within the coral tissue, providing food through photosynthesis and giving corals their vibrant colors.
Unfortunately, coral reefs are facing various threats due to human impact, climate change, pollution, and overcrowding. Stressors can lead to coral bleaching, where corals expel their colorful algae and appear white. To protect coral reefs, it’s crucial to practice reef-friendly behaviors. Be mindful when swimming or snorkeling, avoiding contact with the reef, and taking all personal items and trash with you when leaving the beach. Use reef-safe sun protection, such as zinc or titanium oxide-based sunscreens, and refrain from feeding fish in the wild.
By working together and showing respect for these amazing structures, we can help preserve Hawai’i’s coral reefs.
What sets our facility apart is that we only display animals found in Hawaiian waters, and our curatorial team collects and releases organisms under a special state permit, ensuring a dynamic and ever-changing population in the exhibit.
The Mid Reef exhibit is home to over 20 different species of reef fish, showcasing a realistic and thriving reef community found in Hawai’i.
By looking closely at the fish, you can identify how they swim, their body shape, size, and color. Notice the various swimming styles: some use their tails for propulsion, while others flap their pectoral fins like birds, and some rely on their top and bottom fins. Examining their faces reveals interesting features such as the shape of their mouths and the position of their eyes relative to their mouths, which can provide clues about their feeding habits.
For example, closely spaced eyes and mouths suggest a diet of small plankton in the water column, while eyes positioned far from the mouth indicate a diet that includes spiny prey like sea urchins. Sharp teeth may indicate a diet of small slippery fish, aiding in gripping their food, while pronounced lips could indicate an algae-grazing diet.
Taking note of these details reveals the perfect design of each fish. Fish with similar physical characteristics often belong to the same family, indicating their relatedness. In Hawai’i, there are several easily identifiable fish families. The surgeonfish family, for instance, consists of bilaterally compressed fish with a distinctive sharp spine at the base of their tail, which resembles a surgeon’s scalpel.
The unicorn fish family includes species with a conical structure on their heads, resembling a unicorn horn, although not all species have this feature. Instead, they have two sets of spines at the base of their tail. Butterflyfish, known for their small pointed mouths and colorful bodies, have a vital mouth shape for feeding on tiny coral polyps and worms, exhibiting butterfly-like behavior as they fly over the reefs.
Triggerfish have bilaterally compressed bodies too, using their powerful jaws to crush prey like crabs and clams. They possess unique trigger-like fins that can extend and lock into place, acting as a self-defense mechanism. The ras family is characterized by their long and torpedo-shaped bodies, utilizing strong pectoral fins for propulsion. They come in various shapes, sizes, and colors and have sharp teeth for capturing prey.
One notable ras species is the Hawaiian cleaner ras, which engages in symbiotic cleaning behavior, picking off parasites and dead skin cells from other fish. Keep an eye out for it in the exhibit. Reef fish play crucial roles in maintaining the health of coral reef ecosystems. Each fish has a specific task, and by observing their details, you can gain a deeper understanding of their importance.
As you explore the aquarium, take time to appreciate the intricate details of the fish. Learning to identify them by their physical characteristics and behaviors will enrich your future snorkeling trips or diving experiences.
The deep reef environment in Hawai’i is vastly different from the mid-reef and shallow reef environments you may have experienced earlier. This exhibit aims to replicate what you would see approximately 100 feet below the surface.
The lack of light at this depth makes it challenging for sunlight-dependent organisms like photosynthetic plants and coral to survive. Instead, the most prolific coral species at this depth obtain their nutrition through chemosynthesis, converting inorganic compounds into usable energy. These corals are rare, long and thin, and branch-like, unlike the sturdy structures of shallow water corals. Due to the absence of protective structures and primary food sources found in shallow coral reefs, the inhabitants of the deep reef tend to stay near the surface.
However, there are animals that can find shelter at this depth, such as juvenile sharks. In this exhibit, we currently have several juvenile blacktip reef sharks, also known as shark pups. At this stage, the shark pups are extremely fragile and vulnerable to predation by larger sharks. Unlike many other species, sharks do not provide long-term parental care, and once the pups are born, they will be on their own for the rest of their lives.
Blacktip reef sharks typically remain in deep reef environments throughout their lives, seeking protection from large predators. They have a smaller mouth and teeth, allowing them to feed on small fish, squid, and octopus found among the reef rocks. The blacktip reef shark pups in this exhibit were collected by our curatorial team under a special state permit. Each year, up to six pups are collected from Maui waters and reared at the Maui Ocean Center, providing guests with an opportunity to learn about shark species and address common misconceptions about sharks perpetuated by the media. By allowing the juvenile sharks to grow and feed in captivity away from predators, we increase their chances of survival.
At the end of their time here, our curatorial team will return the sharks to the ocean in the same location where they were originally collected. This exhibit exemplifies our commitment to conservation at the Maui Ocean Center, and we are proud to contribute to marine conservation efforts in Hawai’i.
While thousands of people swim in Hawai’i’s waters every day, it is rare for someone to see a shark in the wild. Unfortunately, when sharks are sighted, the typical response is unease or panic, largely due to the media’s misrepresentation of these incredible predators. This misrepresentation has created an overwhelming perception of fear in the general public. In reality, sharks are wary predators only interested in prey within their natural food chain. Most sharks will avoid human activity altogether.
Despite the prevalence of the blacktip reef shark on our reefs, infrequent sightings of sharks in our waters reflect a larger problem. Sharks around the world are in trouble, with an estimated 100 million sharks killed by humans each year. They are killed for various reasons, from intentional cullings near public beaches to satisfy fear, to the intentional collection and dismemberment of live sharks for products like shark fin soup, which represent affluence in certain cultures.
Sharks play a vital role in the ocean, and it is more important than ever for everyone to appreciate and protect this important apex predator. At the Maui Ocean Center, our mission is to foster wonder, respect, and understanding for these incredible animals. It takes action and everyone’s participation to save sharks from extinction.
Maui Ocean Center works closely with Sea Life Park on Oahu and with marine biologist George Blaz to bring these turtles to Maui. These turtles were born over at Sea Life Park on Oahu and are ambassadors of their species as part of the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle education outreach program.
Received as hatchlings, the Maui Ocean Center raises our turtles for roughly two years until they have grown large enough to be released into the wild. As part of the program, we monitor their feeding daily, measure their growth weekly and provide monthly veterinary checkups to ensure their progress before we release them. Upon release, a ceremony is performed by our Hawaiian cultural advisor and the turtles are fitted with a transponder tag for continued monitoring into adulthood.
The Hawaiian green sea turtle or honu in Hawaiian is the most common species of sea turtle found in Hawaii. Despite the name green sea turtle, closer inspection will reveal that their external shell, called their carapace and their extremities are all a brown color. This disparity is because Hawaiian green sea turtles are actually named after the color of their body fat, which is a bright green, stained from the chlorophyll from their herbivorous diet, comprised predominantly of underwater algae.
The Hawaiian green sea turtles will spend most of their lives in the southern Hawaiian islands. For the breeding season, however, sexually mature turtles will travel up to the northwestern Hawaiian islands and lay their eggs. Newborn sea turtles are extremely vulnerable. A newly hatched green sea turtle can fit into the palm of your hand and is easy prey for countless predators, including seabirds, crustaceans, and mammals like rats and mongoose, and roaming domestic pets.
Even humans threaten the survival of baby sea turtles. Although, most cultures don’t consume sea turtles or their eggs like they once did, humans are still one of the biggest threats to sea turtle survival. Coastal development produces light pollution on traditional nesting beaches that can confuse baby sea turtles looking for reflecting starlight on the ocean surface. If a street light behind the beach lures them in the opposite direction, they may get lost and die of exhaustion before reaching the water. On busy public beaches, turtle eggs can get trampled before hatching, or new hatchlings will get trapped in holes dug by beach visitors or trapped in the beach trash left behind.
Once the Hawaiian green sea turtle hatchlings have entered the ocean, they must immediately swim past the reefs and out into the open waters to avoid countless predators. Juvenile green sea turtles will drift on the ocean currents for a few years until they’re large enough to return and survive on the coral reefs. Not much is known about the drifting part of their life, researchers call this time the lost years. When the turtles reach 20 to 40 pounds, they can return to the reef to mature the rest of the way.
Green sea turtles will reach sexual maturity anywhere between 20 to 40 years of age. Fully grown, their shells will reach three to four feet long and they can weigh upwards of 250 pounds. Although it is estimated that Hawaiian green sea turtles live an estimated 60 to 70 years, not much is known about a turtle’s lifespan. It’s not uncommon to see a Hawaiian green sea turtle while you’re out for a snorkel. This is the perfect time to observe these incredible creatures from a distance. Sea turtles are air breathing reptiles that come up to the surface to breathe throughout the day. They can hold their breath while grazing on algae patches around the reef or while resting on the sea floor to preserve energy.
They have been known to stay down for several hours on one breath, with the longest recorded breath hold time of up to five hours. It is also not uncommon to see Hawaiian green sea turtles laying on the beaches here in Maui. Hawaiian greens are known to come up on the sand during the day to evade large ocean predators and to relax and warm up on the hot sand. If you see a Hawaiian green sea turtle in the wild, it’s very important that you maintain your distance from it. Do not approach, touch or grab a Hawaiian green sea turtle as it is against the law and may result in a fine of over $10,000 and a year in jail.
To help these magnificent reptiles, here’s a list of a few things to remember when you go for your next snorkel or your trip to the beach.
Avoid swimming over sea turtles while they feed on the sea floor. They may be looking for a safe place to surface and breathe. Your presence above them may make them feel uncomfortable and trapped. Never ever touch the sea turtles. In addition to scaring the animal, many of our turtles here suffer from tumors caused by a contagious virus called fibro papilloma. By touching the turtles, you could be spreading the lethal virus around. Always leave the beach the way that you found it. When building sandcastles and digging holes in the sand, remember that for everything smaller than you, it could be a death trap or an obstacle.
Pick up trash. Even if it isn’t your trash. Removing it from the beach or ocean can save, not just a turtle, but other animals like birds and fish. Lights can often be confusing signals for a hatching turtle. During hatching season, be careful of car headlights, property lights, and any other anthropogenic light source near nesting beaches.
The Hawaiian green sea turtles are incredible animals, and thanks to conservation efforts and enforced protection laws, the honu population that was once on the brink of extinction is now returning from the edge. Thanks to people like you, we can help them along on their recovery.
The Open Ocean Exhibit is the largest at our center and is home to a stunning variety of sharks and rays found in Hawaiian waters. Inside the exhibit, you’ll find over 50 different species of fish, totaling several hundred individuals. The population is ever-changing as our curatorial team brings in new animals and releases others. If you’ve visited us before, make sure to check with our naturalists to see what’s new since your last visit.
One fascinating creature in this exhibit is the Hawaiian Broad Stingray, also known as “lupe” in Hawaiian, meaning kite. This stingray species is unique to Hawai’i and can’t be found anywhere else on Earth. Unlike manta rays that swim in the water column, stingrays are bottom dwellers with a more rounded body shape. They use their fins to undulate and propel themselves across the sand. Their mouths are located on the underside of their bodies, allowing them to sift through sediment and find their prey. With distinct tooth plates, they shred food into smaller pieces. Their eyes, positioned on the top of their bodies, help them keep an eye out for predators above.
Stingrays breathe using two openings on the top of their bodies called spiracles. When these spiracles open and close, they pump oxygenated water over their gills and out through the gill slits on their undersides. One unique feature of stingrays is their barb, which gives them their name. The barb is filled with a toxin that can sting when it makes contact. Located on the top of their tail, it serves as their primary defense mechanism against predators. While encountering a stingray might sound intimidating, it’s important to remember that they are docile creatures. Most rays will try to swim away when threatened before resorting to using their barb. However, if they feel their life is in danger, they can sting their attacker, but this action leaves them defenseless as the barb typically breaks off and takes time to regrow.
The Hawaiian Broad Stingray is a deep-water species, making it rare to encounter while swimming or snorkeling in shallow waters. In addition to stingrays, the Open Ocean exhibit also features various species of sharks found in Hawaiian waters. Sharks and rays are closely related and share similarities in their internal structure, with a cartilaginous skeleton instead of bone. Both also possess an incredible sense of electroreception, using tiny pores called ampullae of Lorenzini on their snouts to pick up electromagnetic impulses emitted by their prey.
Within this exhibit, you’ll find several species of sharks, each with its unique markings on their bodies or fins. The Sandbar Shark, although lacking highly identifiable markings, has prominent dorsal fins. Gray Reef Sharks have a charcoal gray margin along the edge of their caudal fin, while Blacktip Reef Sharks have black tips on each of their fins. White Tip Reef Sharks, known for their bright white fin tips, can often be found resting on the seafloor during the day.
Occasionally, the Maui Ocean Center introduces other shark species, such as Tiger Sharks and Hammerheads, into the exhibit. Don’t forget to ask our naturalists about the current inhabitants on the day of your visit.
Sharks play a crucial role in maintaining the balance of our ocean ecosystems. As apex predators and scavengers, they target weak, injured, or dying animals, keeping the environment clean and the food chain in check. Without sharks regulating fish populations, the habitat and its dependents would suffer. Unfortunately, sharks face significant threats, partly due to the fear and misconceptions created by media representation, exemplified by the movie “Jaws.”
Retaliatory actions against sharks near popular public beaches have tragically led to the unnecessary slaughter of hundreds of thousands of these magnificent creatures. The fear instilled by such incidents still persists today, endangering numerous shark species. However, we are making progress in the right direction.
Through widespread education about the importance of sharks, we can shape our future opinions and decisions. Aquariums and education centers worldwide are actively working together to dispel irrational fears surrounding sharks. By simply being present and listening to this message, you are contributing to Maui’s efforts in turning the tide on shark recovery.