maui ocean center: the hawaiian aquarium offers something for everyone

MOC_Dive_Open Ocean_credit Glenn FuentesQuestion: Where can you enjoy close-up encounters with coral reefs and other aquatic forms of life without getting wet? Answer: Maui Ocean Center—The Hawaiian Aquarium. Pssssssst…the aquarium isn’t just for keiki. On a recent visit, I discovered it’s possible to happily while away an entire afternoon at this three-acre marine park that faithfully replicates the natural ocean ecosystem.

Maui Ocean Center (MOC) was established in 1998 by Coral World International, which also owns three other marine parks around the globe: The Underwater Observatory in Eliat Israel; Palma Aquarium in Palma de Mallorca, Spain; and AQWA in Perth, Australia. MOC’s piece de resistance is the 750,000-gallon Open Ocean exhibit, which features one of the longest underwater acrylic tunnels in the world.

All animals exhibited at MOC have been collected under special permit with the Hawai‘i State Department of Land and Natural Resources, Division of Aquatic Resources. And, although a County of Maui ordinance prohibits the exhibit of cetaceans (whales and dolphins), interpretive displays in the Marine Mammal Discovery Center enable visitors to develop an understanding and appreciation for these captivating creatures.

MOC’s exhibits progress from shallow to deep. The first one, Surge Zone, is an outside exhibit illustrating how pounding waves provide shelter from predators for hearty marine life and juvenile fishes. In order to survive this harsh environment, animals like the ‘opihi (limpet) adapt by feeding when submerged, then clinging tightly to jagged lava rocks to resist the drying effects of the sun while they’re exposed.

Next, I step into the Living Reef exhibit, which represents Hawai‘i’s tropical fishes and living coral reefs. Residing in the Shallow Reef is a plethora of creatures such as thorny oysters, cauliflower and finger corals, and butterflyfishes which resemble the wings of their terrestrial namesakes. Butterflyfishes usually travel in pairs, and many have false eyespots on their bodies, as well as dark bars that hide their actual eyes, in order to fool predators as to their actual direction of travel. How cool is that!

In the Mid-Reef, sunlight and wave action decrease, and marine life abounds— surgeonfish, frogfish, and garden eels are examples of the creatures that occupy this portion of the ocean. In the Deep Reef’s darker realm, precious black coral and large predators are found: he‘e (octopus), camouflaged scorpionfish, and the always fascinating sharks. A huge wall display depicts the characteristics of the many different sharks that can be found in our waters, and a bench strategically placed in front of a sizeable aquarium containing these captivating creatures is a popular spot to observe them serenely gliding through the water. “I see a big one!” exclaims a young fan.

Outside at Turtle Lagoon, I’m just in time for a presentation by MOC naturalist Joe. He says that despite their nonchalant appearance, green sea turtles can swim at speeds up to 20 mph—four times as fast as humans! Joe says they dine on turtle pellets composed of forty percent protein and fifteen percent fat. They also eat algae, which causes them to turn green on the inside. The turtles are hatched at Sea Life Park Hawai‘i on O‘ahu and brought to MOC when they’re one to two months old, and only two inches long. The young turtles stay at MOC for two years, where they’re fed, cleaned, and cared for under the auspices of the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle Loan Program. The last grouping of six juvenile turtles was released into the ocean on August 29, 2013, on Ka‘anapali Beach.

Across from Turtle Lagoon is the Tide Pool area, which offers an up-close and personal look at Hawai‘i’s marine life. Dark, spiny collector sea urchins—so named because they “collect” debris that lands on them—and bright orange cushion sea stars patiently tolerate all the touching by humans that goes on at this fun, interactive exhibit.

I’ve always been captivated by hammerhead sharks and their bizarre appearance. MOC’s Hammerhead Harbor enables you to come eye to eye with the scalloped hammerhead. With a flat head that’s twice as wide as its body, the hammerhead swings that head from side to side as it swims along the bottom of the ocean searching for food. Special sensory organs located on the bottom of the scalloped head are used to detect living animals buried or camouflaged in the sand.

The largest building at MOC houses three exhibits: the Marine Mammal Discovery Center, where you can explore the world of monk seals, dolphins, and whales; Hawaiians and the Sea—a tribute to the legends and wisdom of native Hawaiians and their relationship with the sea; and the Open Ocean, which provides 240-degree views of approximately 2,000 fishes in a massive 750,000-gallon aquarium.

I’ve timed my arrival at the Open Ocean exhibit for the 3pm Dive Presentation hosted by naturalist Liz, who begins by pointing out an exquisite tiger shark. She shares an interesting fact: tiger sharks are born with spots rather than stripes. This specimen is the 24th one that has resided at MOC. Suddenly, diver Larissa appears before our eyes in a cloud of bubbles inside the gigantic fishbowl. Outfitted with a microphone, Larissa is on a mission to dispel the fear of tiger sharks. “They’re not interested in humans,” she says. “They prey on diseased animals and fish, which helps keep the ocean healthy.”

A little boy in the audience raises his hand and asks Larissa, “If you were bleeding, would the shark come after you?” Larissa answers with an emphatic “No.” Larissa puts things into perspective by sharing this statistic: “Only ten people in the world are killed by a shark each year. You’re more likely to be killed by a cow.” Even happy cows in California? Just kidding….

Next, I stop and sit for a moment on a bench in front of the round acrylic tank that contains MOC’s jellyfish collection. Their slow balletic movements are absolutely mesmerizing—you could easily spend a half hour watching their tranquil activity.

MOC’s colossal 54-foot acrylic tunnel is a sight to behold. As you walk though it, you’re surrounded on three sides by thousands of fishes. Just above my head, a sleek manta ray glides silently by, causing me to pause and admire its quiet gracefulness.

One of the most commendable aspects of MOC is how Hawaiian culture is interwoven into the exhibits and displays. It makes perfect sense, of course, since Hawaiians are taught from a very young age to respect the ocean and everything that lives in it. MOC’s Hawaiians and the Sea exhibit pays tribute to the legends and wisdom of native Hawaiians and their relationship with the sea. On Tuesdays at 11:45am, MOC’s Hawaiian Cultural Advisor Kahu Dane Maxwell and ‘ohana conduct a talk story session and hula lesson at the exhibit.

No visit to MOC would be complete without spending some time in the Maui Ocean Treasure shop, where you’ll be tempted by shell jewelry from a remote atoll in Tahiti; stunning blown glass by local artists Rick Strini, Chris Lowry, and Chris Richards; culinary delicacies such as Maui Fruit Jewels, Volcano Spices, MauiGrown Coffee, and Jeff’s Jams & Jellies; and jewelry by Maui designer Rhea Morrison, who crafts her one-of-a-kind pieces with unusual objects the tides deposit along our beaches. Good news: you can visit the gift shop any time you want—complimentary entry is available at the front gate.

–heidi pool



Maui Ocean Center, The Hawaiian Aquarium, whose mission is to foster understanding, wonder, and respect for Hawai‘i’s marine life. A one-day pass costs $25.95 for adults; $18.95 for keiki ages 3 to 12; and $22.95 for seniors age 65 and up. Week­­ and annual passes are also available.


Highway 30, 192 Ma‘alaea Rd., adjacent to the Ma‘alaea Harbor Shops. Free parking.


Open 365 days of the year from 9am to 5pm; July and August until 6pm.


For more information: call 270-7000; visit



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