KAILUA, Hawaii — President Obama has never been one for the New Year's Eve blowout — and Tuesday appeared to be no exception. The first family spent the last day of 2013 snorkeling with parrotfish and green sea turtles at Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve, slipping into the waters of the famed reef on a day it was blissfully closed to other tourists.
The president has shown himself to be a creature of habit during his low-key vacation here on Oahu; the Obamas have snorkeled in the same spot on a number of other winter retreats here. The heavily visited reef draws visitors from all over the world because of its colonies of more than 60 species of coral and its green sea turtle population, which currently stands somewhere between 40 and 60. (About 300 turtles have been caught, tagged and released over the last decade by researchers at the preserve.)
During the last decade, government officials and marine biologists have been trying to restore the health of the reef, a flooded crater created by volcanic activity that began about 40,000 years ago. The area was once a favorite fishing spot of the Hawaiian royal family. But the reef was damaged by overharvesting and overuse by tourists, with visitors peaking at 3 million in 1988. Since the park was designated as a Marine Life Conservation District, visitors have been more limited, averaging 3,000 a day.
The Obamas had the sheltered Hanauma Bay to themselves — the area is routinely closed to the public on Tuesdays — and stayed far out of the range of cameras during their two-hour visit.
In 2011, when Obama was running for his second term, the first family released into the ocean four turtles that had been raised in captivity. The White House allowed photographers to capture the president and his two daughters leaving the nearby Sea Life Park, where they had stopped after their snorkeling excursion.
This year’s visit to the eastern side of Oahu, which is due to end Sunday, has been far more private. The president has golfed nearly every day with friends, and his visits to culinary hot spots such as Alan Wong’s, Morimoto and Nobu Waikiki have been largely out of the public eye.
As the president’s motorcade headed back toward Kailua along Kalanianaole Highway on the southern coast of the island, it slowed near Sandy Beach Park.
The glimpse of the president by Oahu’s locals and visitors was brief: A few surfers stood on top of their van to wave, and several girls in neon bikinis greeted the president from the shoreline with the “shaka” sign, the island’s greeting for “hang loose.”