Hawaii is a popular place for snorkelling and for good reason. Sea turtles, bright coral and colourful fishes abound. Every island offers something unique and memorable, so get your snorkel gear ready. Here’s a list of the Top 5 Places to Snorkel in Hawaii.
Kealakekua Bay, (Captain Cook’s Bay), Big Island
When Tim and I went to the Big Island in 2009, we were treated with a nice surprise. Just 10 minutes down the road from the hostel we stayed at was Kealakekua Bay, which turned out to be one of our most favourite snorkelling experiences OF ALL TIME.
For all you history buffs, this area is very special to the islands. Captain James Cook was the first British explorer to establish contact with the Hawaiians in that very spot in 1778. A year later he was killed in the very same bay. Today lays a monument to honour him and his exploration.
After hearing about this hot spot from other travelers, we rented a kayak from our hostel for about $20-30, drove down to the loading dock and were on our way. It wasn’t the sunniest of days, but the water was calm inside the bay and we felt like adventurers. Very few people were out and about as it was fairly early and the Big Island is quite sleepy compared to the other islands. We were told the mornings were the best time to go as we would likely see dolphins swimming in the bay, but unfortunately we did not see any. By our standards we were early, but still not early enough!
Cruising along the turquoise sea for only 40 minutes, we arrived on the other side of the bay where the monument stands. There were just a few other kayaks parked up on the sand and rocks, but overall the area was pretty chill. Anytime we can have an adventure with minimal tourists around is a great time for us, so we were ecstatic. I’m sure most travellers would agree!
After taking some photos and getting suited up in our snorkels and fins, we hit the water. The snorkelling here is mostly shallow, so you will find you get up close and personal with the sea life, which is pretty awesome. The highlight here is that the water was CRYSTAL CLEAR. The coral was untouched and colourful. The fish were happy as could be, bright, cheery and full of life. I’m not one for shallow snorkelling (I’m scared of touching the fish), but even I was in awe of this spot.
Things around Kealakekua are a little different today, so we consider ourselves quite lucky to have had the experience we did. If you want to snorkel in the bay now, you can head out on any number of snorkelling tours from Kona for about $80-120 per person. In fact, we went on a snorkel trip via zodiac in 2015 with Tim’s parents and Captain Cook’s Bay was still a highlight. As you may know from our post, 3 Ways to Discover the Dramatic Napali Coast, we are big fans of the zodiac rides. They are faster and can take you places other boats can’t. Not only did we hit up Captain’s Cook bay in the zodiac tour, but we spent time at two other remote snorkel spots as well. More bang for your buck!
Shark’s Cove, Oahu
Don’t let the name intimidate you. Shark’s cove is named after it’s shape not its resident visitors. Sometimes on Oahu travellers have a difficult time imagining anything beyond Honolulu, but this island has so much more to offer than Waikiki. While Hanauma Bay is the more famous snorkel spot on Oahu, it is often packed to the brim, costs money to get in and is starting to show signs of wear from so many tourists. Shark’s cove is by no means a secret, but remains relatively quiet, untouched and free of charge. Though there is limited parking and some rocks to manoeuvre around when getting in, it is worth venturing away from Honolulu to see.
The area is actually great for every kind of snorkeler. There is a shallow area on the left for beginners, which provides places for people to put their feet down if need be. Always exercise caution though, as this area is frequented by sea urchins in the coral. The deeper section on the right is perfect for more advanced and adventurous snorkelers. This is where we notice the majority of the action is. Of the handful of times we have been there, we usually find a turtle or two, eels and tons of tropical fish. As a friendly reminder, Shark’s cove is part of a protected marine reserve, so please do not harass the beautiful sea creatures enjoying the area.
The other highlight of Shark’s cove is the interesting coral formations that make underwater exploration so interesting. The visuals are so cool in Shark’s cove that during our last visit in July 2017 we observed a fun “trash the dress” ritual occurring along one of the ridges.
Honolua Bay, Maui
We were lucky enough to spend two weeks on Maui for our honeymoon in 2015, which gave us lots of time to explore the island, Honolua Bay included. It is a remarkably beautiful spot with so much ground to cover and it’s 100% free!
Near the very end of the highway past the lovely beaches of Ka’anapali and Kapalua Bay, you’ll find Honolua Bay. Because of its more remote location, this is definitely a less frequented spot, but should definitely not be missed. Once you park along the side of the highway, take a 10-minute walk through tropical paradise until you get to the beach. We’re not kidding, it is lush and green, leafy and humid—all kinds of paradise! This little trek really makes it feel like an adventure too.
Arriving at the beach, you’ll see tall cliffs surrounding this protected marine reserve, which gives Honolua Bay that larger-than-life feel. The beach itself is rocky, but that’s not why you’re there. Simply get your snorkel gear on and have at ‘er! Honolua Bay is a huge area to explore, so you will want to spend a good chunk of time here.
We cannot stress enough the beauty of this snorkelling spot. The shapes and sizes of the coral there will astound you. The reef is so colourful and alive, providing homes for some of the most interesting fish we’ve seen in Hawaii. At one point early into our snorkel we came across two HUGE fish just hovering over a reef formation. We probably spent 10-15 minutes floating and diving down to observe them. Unfortunately we do not know the names of these fish, but it was very exciting. This is one place in Hawaii we will surely visit again!
Tunnels Beach, Kauai
We love this beach. We love it so much we chose to get married here in 2015. The lush, peaky mountains in the background are breathtaking. The water is the perfect shade of blue. And we’ve spotted turtles here, so of course it ranks high as one of our favourite beaches.
The really interesting feature of this snorkel spot is that it really doesn’t look like much from the beach. You get out there and swim towards the coral, yet nothing immediately jumps out at you. But as you get closer, you can see the reef taking shape.
Tunnels beach gets its name from the tunnels or crevices that were formed from ancient lava flows and as you swim you can see these lava flows frozen in time. Because of this, you are presented with some of the most fascinating snorkelling caves, tunnels and crevices in Hawaii. If you are experienced in free diving, you will see a lot of interesting sights. And as we mentioned before, turtles! Oh, and its free! Need we say more?
Molokini Crater, Maui
This has got to be our most favourite snorkelling spot EVER. Just a 40 minute boat ride off the south side of Maui’s coastline lies Molokini, a giant crescent-shaped volcanic crater partially submerged in the middle of the ocean. As we suited up, the spot really didn’t seem all that fantastic. The water was deep, somewhat wavy and we were literally in the middle of the ocean. How great can that be for snorkelling?!
Turns out, pretty fantastic! The water was SO blue! And yes, it was deep-water snorkelling, but we saw SO MUCH! One of the highlights was seeing black tip reef sharks casually swimming along the bottom of the coral. They were far enough away that we felt safe, but close enough to be like, “OMG, we’re swimming with a shark!”
We took a tour that stopped along what they call the “back” of Molokini crater and are we ever glad we did! Along the rock was essentially a giant wall of colourful, bustling coral waiting to be explored; look the other way and all you can see is deep blue ocean as far as the eye could see. The interesting part about this spot was the water along the “back side” would go up and down along the rock like a toilet being flushed over and over. That feeling alone made the experience so unique to us.
If you ever get a chance to snorkel Molokini crater, we highly recommend doing a tour that takes you along the front and back. Also important to note: Try and get the earliest tour possible out to Molokini as Maui is the windiest island of the Hawaiian Islands and the wind has a major effect on the calmness of the water. The calmer the water is, the better the visibility will be. There are lots of different tour groups going to this location. We went with Redline Rafting for about $135 per person and were treated to fresh fruit and homemade cinnamon buns in addition to all of the wonderful snorkelling opportunities.
The ritual of putting on a mask, snorkel and fins and observing the underwater world and wildlife is an fun-filled, must-do activity on most people’s travels, but the very act of interacting with the coral reefs and its life force is an important piece of the Hawaiian culture and it needs to be preserved. Please understand that under the water what looks like rock to you is probably coral. This is food for the fish that you have come so very far to see. Every time you touch the coral, it rubs off some of the vegetation. Please remain respectful to the underwater world, swim within your limits and if in doubt, don’t go out.
What are some of your favourite snorkel spots in Hawaii? Around the world? Tell us in the comments below!