What Makes Hawaii Ocean Water SO Blue?

Maui, Hawaii

Hawaii is recognized worldwide for having beautiful beaches with brilliantly blue, crystal-clear ocean water. Have you ever wondered what makes Hawaii's ocean water SO blue compared to other beaches around the world?

There are several factors that affect the color of ocean water and Hawaii has the perfect balance of these factors to create some of the most memorable and beautiful ocean blues.

Factors That Affect the Color of Ocean Water

It’s a common misconception that the ocean is blue because it reflects the blue color of the sky. Sometimes the ocean looks green or teal or brown which are not the colors of the sky. Even when the sky is cloudy the ocean still looks blue, right? So let’s take a closer look at the factors that actually affect the colors of the sea:

  • Light absorption
  • Presence of algae
  • Sediment in the water

When the sunlight hits the ocean, some of the photons from the light are absorbed by the water. Colors with long wavelengths are absorbed first, like red, orange, and yellow. The photons with short wavelengths, colors like blue and indigo, aren't absorbed. These are the colors we see reflected in the water.

In shallow bodies of water where the light penetrates completely (imagine a glass of water), photons aren’t absorbed at all and the water appears colorless. The deeper the water, the more colors are absorbed, and therefore we see darker and darker shades of blue.

an abstract blue panoramic image of the beautiful pacific ocean photographed off the coast of Maui, Hawaii.  Abstract photography by Andrew Shoemaker

In Hawaii we have an absence of nutrients in the water which creates the most blue water that I've ever seen. If you've ever been on a boat off of Maui, you'll see exactly what I'm describing. I was drawn to this abstract panoramic scene while on a boat chasing whales off the coast of Maui.

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But the ocean isn’t always blue. Sometimes it appears green. This is due to a high presence of phytoplankton in the water. Phytoplankton is a microscopic algae and a source of food for a wide range of ocean animals. Phytoplankton absorbs red and blue light as part of its photosynthesis and reflects green light. The more phytoplankton the greener the water appears, the less phytoplankton, the bluer it is.

Sediment and floating particles like sand, silt, algae, and even corals affect the water clarity and how much light is absorbed. This changes the color of the water we see and can make it look green or even brown.

So Why is Hawaii's Ocean So Blue and Clear?

Hawaii is famous for stunning beaches with brilliantly blue and clear ocean water. There are several reasons, based on the three factors above, why Hawaii's water appears more blue than other coastlines around the world.

  • The coral reefs that surround Hawaii protect the coastline from strong waves and water currents that would otherwise stir up sand and sediment. This helps to keep Hawaii’s ocean water clear.
  • The sediment in Hawaii’s oceans is made up of volcanic rock, coral, and shells which are heavy and not easily stirred up. The sediment quickly settles on the ocean floor, keeping the water clear.
  • Hawaii’s ocean water is nutrient deficient. This is common in tropical areas with warm surface water temperatures. A lack of nutrients means there are fewer phytoplankton and algae in Hawaii’s water, which makes it more blue.

For these reasons, Hawaii’s ocean water is able to absorb and reflect light better and without interference, making it clear and beautifully blue.

an aerial photograph of a breaching humpback whale off of Maui, Hawaii captured from a helicopter by famous Hawaii photographer Andrew Shoemaker

While on a helicopter flight crossing from Maui to Molokai, there were an incredible amount of humpback whales to be seen from the sky! This one was breaching over and over and was certainly fun to photograph from this vantage point.

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3 Water Photography Tips

The clarity and vibrant blue color of the ocean make it a popular subject for photography. Here are three water photography tips to help you capture the best images of Hawaii’s ocean.

  1. Use a polarizing filter. This will reduce glare from the water, boost color intensity, and highlight the water’s texture and details.
  2. Try different shutter speeds. A fast shutter speed will freeze the water movement, a good strategy for capturing the power of ocean waves. Use a slow shutter speed to create a flowy, silky effect and convey the motion of the water.
  3. Experiment with intentional camera movement. This technique is great for creating abstract water photography. With your camera set to a slower shutter speed, move the camera while the image is being taken to create a blurred effect.
A blue water abstract photography image featuring interesting patterns of the reflections on the surface of the water off the coast of Maui, Hawaii.

Water has always been something that has relaxed me for some reason. Photographing water also has the same effect on me and it's something I'm just drawn to with my camera. I captured this on a whale watch off the coast of Maui and while I was supposed to be looking for whales, I found myself mesmerized by the movement and reflections in the water and had to capture this.

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Don’t have a DSLR camera? That’s okay! They make polarizing filters for camera phones and these effects can be achieved by using the manual or “pro” setting on your phone’s camera to adjust the shutter speed.

The clarity of the ocean also creates ideal conditions for underwater photography. You can get a mesmerizing view of life under the ocean including coral reefs, tropical fish, turtles, and even whales!

Fine art photography prints offer a unique and stunning visual representation of Hawaii's most prominent natural feature, capturing the beauty and serenity of its waters. Decorating your home or office with ocean images is a great way to incorporate natural features and imbue your space with the calming serenity of Hawaii’s oceans.

Browse the Andrew Shoemaker Photography online gallery for a variety of fine art ocean photography including underwater images, wave photos, abstract prints, and more. See what your favorite images would look like in your space using our free wall art visualizer.

Discover the Galleries

an abstract image of the molokini reef showing through the surface of the water from above.  Abstract ocean and coastal art from Andrew Shoemaker

With over 100 feet of visibility year round, Molokini crater is some of the best snorkeling and diving in Maui. While on the boat before jumping in, I found the reflections of the reef on the ocean's surface to make a beautiful scene and had to capture it.

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a blue ocean abstract image featuring the beauty of the pacific ocean off the coast of Maui.  Abstract Landscape Ocean Photography by Andrew Shoemaker

When the ocean is calm off of Maui, the shades of blue and the water patterns can be just mesmerizing. If you're focusing on this, beautiful abstract scenes can be found around you. Image is also available as a 3 panel triptych here.

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