Funny thing about islands. They are surrounded by water, on all sides even! In fact, said water along with the nice weather, is what attracts a lot of people to Key West and Maui. After all there are all kinds of fun things to do on, in, and under the water. It was main factor for me coming to these rocks in the middle of nowhere. I’ve always had an attraction to the sea, even growing up in Pa., a place far removed from anything even remotely resembling a tropical island. I haven’t grown tired of being around the sea yet, and doubt I ever will. There is just something about it which keeps me near the water.
While both Key West and Maui have lots of ocean surrounding them, there are some marked differences in the type of ocean doing said surroundings. Let’s look at Key West first.
Located at the end of the Overseas Highway, Key West sticks out in the middle of nowhere. To the south is the Atlantic Ocean, moving in the Florida Straits between the Keys and Cuba. To the north is the Gulf of Mexico, which shallows out to the east and becomes the Florida Bay. The waters close in are very shallow as oceans go.
Running along the south about 4 to 6 miles out following the Florida Keys is the largest coral reef system in North America. The reef frequently comes all the way to the surface and has been the cause of more than a few shipwrecks over the centuries. Between the reef and the Keys, the waters are relatively calm and shallow. The bottom is mostly mud, grass, rock, and some occasional coral heads. It can vary in depth but rarely gets much deeper than 30′ until you reach some of the reefs where the bottom really drops off. On the gulf side, close in it remains pretty shallow with a lot of grass flats and back country islands. As you get further out, the depth slowly gets deeper.
The result of this shallow water means calmer waters. When you hear a marine forecast, the waves are always distinguished as being beyond the reef or inside the reef, with the higher waves on the outside. It also means there is virtually no surf pounding on the beaches. Surf, over a long period of time is what forms sandy beaches. The constant waves crashing on shore slowly erode big stuff into little stuff, eventually forming sand. Since there is no surf in the Keys and Key West, the beaches are normally rocky, muddy, and grassy. When you see photos of sandy beaches in the Keys on the travel brochures, they are either taken at other places or the beach was manmade with said sand trucked in. The lack of surf also gives the beaches in the Keys it’s pungent smell of decaying seaweed.
The upside is with the relative calmness of the seas inside the reef and back country, along with the shallow waters, means there is lots of fun to had on, and in the water. Visibility is usually pretty good along the reefs and most anywhere else you go inshore, so diving and snorkeling are very popular. The winds are still strong enough for small sailboats to be able to go out and play. There are tons of channels, gunk holes, mangrove paths, old wrecks, and other places where one can explore by kayak, paddle board, or other aquatic means. The fishing remains pretty damn good despite the enormous pressure on fish population. And there is a ton of interesting wildlife to be seen all over the place.
A lot of the reef systems, back country, and grassy flats are heavily protected as wilderness reserves and parks. You can see the effect man has on the environment by all the scarring in the grass flats by props. These fertile waters are like a big nursery for many species and it’s a delicate balance between protecting nature and allowing people to utilize the waters. Make no mistake, the waters around Key West and the Keys are a major contributor to the economy. Tourism, fishing, science, exploration, all are dependent on said waters. Pollution is a big problem. Oil and fuel runoff from motors, storm drainage from the islands, but most of all, major pollution coming down from the middle of Florida through the everglades and into the bay all have a very adverse effect on the waters.
The waters of the Keys are quite beautiful, and well worth the adventure to come and explore, but said waters are in great danger as development in Florida and the islands continue unabated.
Maui, on the other hand, is quite different than the Keys. There are no barrier islands around Maui, just the Pacific Ocean, and it is big, deep, and unforgiving.
On the leeward side, which is the west side of Maui, the beaches are fine sand mixed with lava rock from the many volcanic eruptions over the years. The area right off the lee side is not too deep but can get down to 300 feet before dropping off into the true depths of the Pacific. Without the barrier reefs like in the Keys, there is surf pounding the shoreline all the time. The waves on the lee side are not huge but can be treacherous with tricky rip currents and powerful enough to knock a person down. There are warning signs up all over the place alerting swimmers to the dangers.
The winds are normally calm in the mornings but can pick up in the afternoon churning up the water pretty good. Kayaking, stand up paddle boarding, and of course surfing are very popular. Just be aware of the winds and currents when going out. There are some places, I haven’t learned them yet, where one can go scuba diving right off the beach and find some nice reefs in about 30′ of water with good visibility and plenty of sea life to look at. And of course, from December until May, humpback whales come in pretty close to shore and it’s pretty easy to see them from the beach as well as encounter them on the water.
One cool thing about Hawaii in general, there is no such thing as a private beach. Unlike the Keys where most of the shoreline is owned, controlled, and restricted by private owners and corporate warlords, in Hawaii, everyone has the right to access the beaches anywhere. Anyone who owns beachfront property, be it private or corporate, has to, by law, allow public access to said beachfront. It has to be driving the wealthy crazy and every once in a while some property owner will test the law by not allowing said access. So far, none have succeeded. Unlike Florida, Hawaii sees the shoreline as belonging to everyone and all have the right to access it.
While there are some nice waves on the lee side of Maui, the real wave action is on the windward side being the east and north side of the islands. Here, the trade winds have an unimpeded straight line for a couple thousand miles to hit the shoreline and hit it said winds do. When you see classic footage of surfers wiping out or catching huge waves on some program, chances are the footage was taken on the north shore of Maui. One such spot is know around the world in the surfing community as Jaws. With waves up to 80 feet high, you really gotta know how to surf to tackle this shit. I haven’t had a chance to go there as of yet, but I have seen some of the north shore and it looks really cool…as long as I am on shore and the waves are out there. No thanks, not at my delicate old age. But it is fun to watch.
The pounding surf around Maui produces some really nice beaches and not just in sandy colors. Maui has beaches in black, red, and green sand, take your pick. Many of the beaches are part of state or local parks and all are extremely clean and well maintained. There is a more better and stronger sense of environmental awareness out here then you will find in Florida where it seems every square inch of beachfront needs a condo put on it.
As for offshore, the fishing is very popular with a wide variety of species to chase. There are some dive spots like Molokini crater but for the most part, the vast majority of water activities seem to take place on or close to the beaches.
And if one were to go down to the Big Island, there are attractions like the lava fire hose, not recommended for surfing nor diving, along with many caves, cliffs, and other nooks and crannies to explore.
Both the Keys and Hawaii have many good things to do when it comes to enjoying the surrounding waters of said islands. Each is a little different from the other and well worth the experience. As far as my own personal experiences go, I have done just about everything water related in the Keys over the years. I’m just getting started here in Hawaii and I am looking forward to getting out there someday and get up close and personal with the Pacific. Put both island chains on your must do list. You’ll be glad you did.