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If you’ve got a list of “must dos” for visiting the Big Island, I bet that snorkeling is ear the top of it. There’s nothing like getting a glimpse of a whole other world under the sea of intricate reefs and colorful fish. Well good news! The Big Island is home to some truly magnificent snorkeling spots and a fun variety of aquatic life to make your time in the water truly worth it. In this post, I’m going to give you a run down of the best snorkeling spots on the Big Island, where to find sea turtles on land, where to get snorkeling gear, and two tours you’ve GOT to do if you’re into snorkeling.
Best snorkeling spots on the Big Island
Kealakekua Bay: If you’ve done any research about things to do on the Big Island, you’ve come across Kealakekua Bay. It’s widely regarded as the best snorkeling in Hawaii. It’s a very deep but well protected bay, which makes it a safe haven for larger marine life (whale and dolphin sightings are common) as well as plenty of tropical fish. This is also the spot where Captain Cook first landed in Hawaii and his monument stands at the north end of the bay where the best snorkeling is. This spot isn’t the easiest to reach through. You can hike down to the monument, but it’s a 3.8-mile round trip hike in direct sunlight. Of course, the hike back up from the monument is much harder than the hike down. Most people reach the bay by boat, either on small vessels or large snorkeling “party boats.” Boats can’t land at the monument so you’re just snorkeling off the boat. Also, the boats all start rolling in by about 9:30-10AM and there are HUNDREDS of snorkelers in the bay at this point. In my opinion, the best way to snorkel Kealakekua Bay is as part of a kayak excursion. You can rent kayaks from a couple of companies that have permits to land then, but the launching and landing process from the pier is kind of tricky so that’s why I recommend a tour. More on that in a bit.
Two Step: If you’re looking for excellent snorkeling that’s easily accessible by land, this is your spot. Located just north of Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park, Two Step is a great spot to swim among bright coral reefs and tropical fish as well as possibly dolphins and turtles. To get here, turn into the entrance of the national park but instead of actually driving all the way in, take a right turn. Hang right until you reach the parking lot. The entry point is all smooth lava rock but you’ll still want to take your shoes right to the edge with you. The best entry point is the farthest point of lava rock jutting out into the ocean. There are two natural little steps formed here (hence the name) that makes for easy access. If you can’t find it, just hang back and watch where everybody else is going.
Kahalu’u Beach Park: This is a great (and very popular) spot for beginners, because the water is very calm. It’s also always nice when you can enter the water from a sandy beach! It’s super common to see turtles here and there’s nothing more magical than snorkeling with sea turtles. Just be careful to keep at least 10 feet away as they’re protected by law. This place does tend to get pretty crowded by 10AM though (it’s a stop with some snorkeling boats) so go early.
Makaiwa Bay: This spot is definitely worth checking out especially if you’re staying at the Mauna Lani Resort. To the left of the resort’s little beach is an ancient fishpond with metal gates that allow small fish into the protected cove while keeping out…”others.”
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Pau’oa Bay: A popular snorkeling spot for guests at the Fairmont Orchid, but of course open to the public, this sandy beach has easy entry and the waters are pretty calm and protected. It’s very close to a popular sea turtle resting ground, so chances you’ll find some in the water are usually pretty good.
Kauna’oa (Mauna Kea) Beach: This is a great all around spot if you’re looking for a place to spend the day lounging, swimming, beach combing, and snorkeling. This golden sandy beach is one of the island’s prettiest and the two smallish reefs on either side of it offer decent snorkeling.
Lapakahi State Historical Park: In addition to being an interesting historical site (you’ll find the ruins of an ancient fishing village dating back to the 1300s), Lapakahi is also a marine conservation area so you’ll find good snorkeling!
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Where to Find Sea Turtles on the Big Island
While I commented above about spots where it’s common to snorkel with sea turtles, there are spots where it’s usually possible to see them on land “resting.” Please remember that the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles are protected by law and that you’re required to stay at least 10 feet away from them!
Two Step: If you’re visiting Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park, you can usually spot them just to the right of the park nestled up sunning themselves on the smooth lava formations.
Fairmont Orchid: The rocky beach right in front of the Fairmont Orchid is a popular resting ground. There’s even a little fence constructed to protect them. The whole time I stayed here there was at least one turtle on the beach but usually 5-6 closer to sunset.
Punalu’u Beach: The Big Island’s most beautiful black sand beach is one of the most dramatic spots for turtle watching. They can be hard to spot since they blend in with the sand so well!
Anaeho’omalu Bay: Have a meal at Lava Lava Beach Club and do a little turtle watching while you wait for sunset (one of the best on the island). The turtles will usually be barricaded off with cones if they’re beached.
Carlsmith Beach Park: If you’re looking for turtles on Hilo side this is your best bet. It’s more of a park like setting than a beach, but there are a couple of turtles that are known to frequent the area.
Where to Get Snorkeling Gear
Snorkeling excursions will supply you with gear (mask, snorkel, and fins) but you’ll need to bring sunscreen and a towel.
If you’re staying in a vacation rental (condo or home), they will often have some snorkeling gear for you to use.
If you’re interested in buying a set, Costco using has pretty nice sets at a reasonable price.
If you’re looking to rent gear for the duration of your trip, try Boss Frog’s, Snorkel Bob’s or Kona Boys. Rentals usually start as cheap as a couple of dollars a day but go up for nicer gear.
If you’re staying at a resort, most will rent gear by the hour or half hour. This is a good option if you’re staying at a beach where the snorkeling is good. Try this at the Fairmont or Mauna Lani Resort.
Best Big Island Snorkeling Tours
If you’re a snorkeling aficionado (or just wanting to get a peak at the Big Island’s underwater magic), there are two tours that I think are a must do:
Kealakekua Bay Kayak & Snorkel Tour: I mentioned above that my recommended way to snorkel Kealakekua Bay is with a kayak tour. There are only a few companies with permits to land kayaks at the monument (others just have to float in the bay and snorkel out of the kayak).
I recommend booking with Adventures in Paradise as they have permits to land and have a much better price than the most popular tour operator, Kona Boys. Kona Boys is the most popular tour provider but their four hour tour runs $200/person while Adventures in Paradise is just $100 for the exact same tour. What do you get for an extra $100? As far as I can tell, you meet at their shop and then they take you to the launch point instead of you having to find it yourself (we were provided with precise directions and had no problems finding it) and you get a sandwich.
Now a bit about my experience with Adventures in Paradise…we met at the launch point (which is the other side of the bay from Captain Cook’s monument), got outfitted with our snorkel gear and double seater kayaks and then loaded up to paddle across the bay. It’s about a mile across the bay and it took us about an hour with stops to watch a manta ray and take a rest/listen to the guide talk about the bay.
We landed at the monument (again, there are only 2-3 companies with permits to do this) and got in to snorkel. We were the only people there besides about half a dozen hikers (12 people in our group plus two guides). We had about 90 minutes in the water and at the monument to have snacks, swim, and snorkel. By the time we were getting out to dry off and have snacks quite a few boats were pulling up with snorkelers and by the time we left to paddle back across the bay (about 10AM) there were HUNDREDS of snorkelers in the water.
Our tour ran 7AM-11AM and it took about an hour and 15 minutes to get there from Waikoloa, but having the bay all to ourselves was definitely worth the early wake up call. The kayaking was not strenuous at all and our two guides had the launch and unload process at the meet up site and the monument down very smooth.
If a 7AM meet up time sounds a bit harsh on vacation, I suggest doing it the first morning of your trip. You won’t be adjusted to the time change so it really won’t seem all that early. You can book the kayak/snorkel excursion here.
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Manta Ray Night Snorkel & Scuba Tour: Swimming with manta rays is a truly unique experience on the Big Island. While many places in the world have manta ray dives at “cleaning” sites, the ones on the Big Island are at “feeding” sites, which is why they happen at night. The mantas feed on plankton, which are attracted to bright lights. Years ago this phenomenon began occurring near resorts that would shine bright lights out into the water and now there are two spots on the Big Island which have over 90% success rate of seeing mantas every night. One spot is in front of the Sheraton Resort south of Kona and the other is near the airport.
While it’s sometimes possible to see them from the Sheraton at night, seeing them in the water is something you shouldn’t miss. I recommend going out with Big Island Divers, as they’ll accommodate both snorkelers and divers. You can choose from a 6 PM and 9PM departure. The 6 PM departure includes sunset, but the 9 PM departure is usually much less crowded. A fear of being in the ocean after dark is natural, but the tours are very safe and all of the snorkelers stay huddled together while floating on boards while you observe the mantas.
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SUNSCREEN: The last thing I’ll mention in regards to snorkeling in Hawaii is sunscreen. On May 1, 2018 Hawaii passed a bill banning the sale of sunscreen containing chemicals believed to be harmful to reefs. The new rules go into effect January 1, 2021, but for the sake of the environment it’s wise to start making changes ASAP (it’s estimated that over 400 pounds of sunscreen are deposited at Hanauma Bay on Oahu every day!!!). Besides purchasing reef safe sunscreen, I’ve found that the simplest thing to do is just not wear sunscreen while snorkeling. Choose a swim shirt instead and just lather up once you get out of the ocean. I’m not super convinced that sunscreen is all that waterproof anyways…
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