You might think that Hawaii is all about lying on the beach, surfing and enjoying the spectacular scenery. But some of the best things to explore in Hawaii are found under water. Beneath the stunning blue sea is a world of tropical fish, colourful coral reefs, friendly green sea turtles, rays, dolphins and many other species of marine life.
On our tropical getaway holidays, snorkelling is our favourite activity, and the Hawaiian islands have some of the best snorkelling in the world. That’s one of the many reasons why we love Hawaii so much. Having now visited each of Hawaii’s four main islands, here are the top ten snorkelling spots that we’ve discovered so far:
1- Kealakekua Bay or Captain Cook (Big Island)
This is an absolutely pristine marine life conservation district. It was here that Captain Cook first landed on the Big Island (hence its nickname). It was also where he was killed, during a clash with native Hawaiians.
Kealakekua Bay is full of beautiful coral gardens and vibrantly coloured schools of fish. The water visibility is fantastic, and you will often see eagle rays, turtles, eels and dolphins in the area.
However, Kealakekua is not easy to access. To get there you will either need to hike for a couple of hours, rent a kayak, or book one of the many snorkelling trips offered on the island. We decided on the final option and booked with Fair Wind tours. It made everything so much easier and we spent an amazing two and a half hours snorkelling in the bay. The highlight was being greeted by a pod of dolphins as we entered the bay. Definitely a day to remember!
2- Molokini Crater (Maui)
The Molokini Crater is found three miles off the coast of Maui. It can only be accessed by boat. This partially sunken volcanic crater has some of the clearest water in Hawaii with visibility to well over one hundred feet. The marine life is incredible! There are approximately two hundred and fifty species of fish in the crater. While snorkelling at Molokini you will also sometimes see turtles and reef sharks.
Tip: We used the boat operator Kai Kanani and took their express early morning tour. We were the first tourists at the crater and we avoided the crowds. It was a 6 am start but it was totally worth it.
3 – Hanauma Bay (Oahu)
The sheltered Hanauma Bay is the best snorkelling spot on the island of Oahu and also the most popular. This nature preserve and marine life conservation district attracts around three thousand visitors a day. Unfortunately, this makes it extremely touristy. But somehow it’s still an awesome snorkelling spot, with a large amount of coral and an estimated four hundred species of friendly fish. Just be sure to arrive super early to avoid the crowds (even more so if you are driving as the car park can be full by 9 am).
It costs $7.00 to enter the reserve, and no-one can swim until they’ve watched a brief safety video. Note that the bay is closed on Tuesdays to allow the fish to have a day off, and to feed without interruption.
4- Honaunau Bay or Two Steps (Big Island)
Another great snorkelling spot on the Big Island is the marine sanctuary of Honaunau Bay. It is also nicknamed Two Steps because the easiest way to enter the water is by two rocky steps.
Honaunau Bay has an abundance of coral gardens and some great topography to check out. With shallow and deep areas to explore, the diversity of fish life will keep you in the water for quite a while. On the right side of the entrance, you will also find a sandy area with the letters “Aloha” written using some cement blocks.
5- Poipu Beach (Kauai)
Poipu Beach is the best snorkelling spot on the south shore of Kauai. Because it is sheltered, it’s great for any level of snorkelling experience and enjoyable all year round. You will see many colourful schools of fish there, as well as green sea turtles who love to hang out around the beach. But the best part about this beach is the endangered Monk Seals. Yes, sometimes your snorkelling experience might turn from fish and turtle spotting into seal spotting! Quite often you’ll see Monk Seals lounging on the beach during the day, and sea turtles will commonly waddle up the sand at sunset to rest overnight. Remember, please give these animals plenty of space to relax. They’re probably rather tired from being out at sea foraging and they don’t need us bothering them during their time off!
6- Mauka Beach or Tunnels Beach (Kauai)
During the summer months, Tunnel’s beach on Kauai’s beautiful north shore is one of the best snorkelling spots. It’s not just the amazing fish and coral that make this beach so special, but the accompanying views of the Na Pali Coast. They are simply breathtaking!
However, this beach is best for snorkelling in the summer months. Winter brings very strong rip currents and waves that can make it very dangerous, especially for less experienced snorkelers.
7- Kahaluu Beach Park (Big Island)
Another great snorkelling spot on the Big Island (there are a few of them!) is Kahaluu Beach. It is very easy to access. Once in the water, you will be treated to a large array of colourful fish and lots of sea turtles. This beach is home to twenty-eight juvenile sea turtles! They love to hang around the rocks close to shore and feed on the sea grass.
8- Keawakapu Beach (Maui)
Visitors to Maui often overlook this spot and I’m not quite sure why. It’s easy to get to and we found it to have some excellent snorkelling. This one mile stretch of beach is not crowded and at both ends of the beach are rocky areas with some great snorkelling. What we loved the most was the abundance of friendly green sea turtles. The fish are also incredible and first thing in the morning the water clarity was spectacular. This beach is not only special for the snorkelling; it’s nice to just relax on its golden sand away from the crowds or to catch a famous Maui sunset.
9- Lawai Beach (Kauai)
This is a very small beach that pretty much disappears at high tide. While not great for relaxing on, it’s perfect for snorkelling. Plus it’s another great place for spotting sea turtles. I know, I know, I’m turtle crazy! The coral here isn’t very healthy but there is an abundance of fish and the fish are extremely friendly. Lawai Beach is also a great place for watching the sunset.
10 – Ahihi-Kina’u Natural Area Reserve (Maui)
This reserve is found one mile past Big Beach on the south shore of Maui. There is no beach to lie on, only volcanic rocks. The rocks make it a little tricky to enter the water, but once you’re in you will be glad you found this excellent snorkelling spot. Even while standing on the shore you can see a multitude of colourful fish, and as you swim out further you might even encounter a sea turtle or two.
Here are some tips for enjoying snorkelling in Hawaii while protecting the environment:
- We are only visitors to the ocean, so we must try our best to leave it exactly as we found it. Coral reefs are living creatures and they provide a home and food source for the fish around them. Please do not touch or step on the coral as this will damage them and affect the surrounding ecosystem. They are extremely delicate, so touch them only with your eyes!
- The same applies for endangered sea creatures such as the green sea turtles or the Hawaiian Monk seals which are frequently seen in the water or resting on the sandy beaches. Please do not disturb them. Give them their space and do not touch them. Failure to do so is a serious offence in Hawaii and you will be fined if caught.
- After you’ve finished enjoying a beach, take all of your litter away with you. Leave only your footsteps behind.
- Avoid the crowds by snorkelling in the early morning. You’ll also have clearer and calmer waters and you’ll get to enjoy the fish when they are more active.
- Always snorkel in pairs and try to maintain your bearing so that you always know where you are. Be mindful that Hawaii’s waters are unpredictable. Avoid snorkelling in rough and choppy conditions or where might be strong currents. Read any warning signs and if in doubt ask the locals, or a lifeguard if present.
- Never feed the fish or turtles! It makes them sick.
- Use a reef friendly sunscreen to avoid harming the coral and other marine life.
- To make sure you have all the snorkelling gear you need, see our detailed snorkelling packing list.
Have fun enjoying the beautiful under water world of Hawaii. Once you’re done, let us know your own favourite spots to snorkel. Mahalo for reading.
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