Is Snorkeling at Molokini Worth It? Yes, and Here’s My Favorite Way to Do It

After my mask was secured and my fins were strapped to my feet, I waded down the final few steps of the catamaran’s ladder and eased into the water. Sun rays cut through the deep blue water and made it practically sparkle…the tropical fish were dancing all around me.

I received two complimentary tour spots on the Sunrise Deluxe Snorkel after reaching out to Kai Kanani regarding media coverage. I had previously sailed with Kai Kanani (in my pre-blog days) and have recommended them to my readers since the beginning of my blog so as always, I only share my absolute favorite companies to you. Thank you for supporting the brands that make HulaLand possible.

Located three miles off Maui’s southern shore, Molokini Crater has long been Maui’s (and possibly Hawaii’s) most popular snorkeling and diving destination and it’s easy to see why.

The partially submerged volcanic crater with its famous crescent shape is not only home to an extensive coral reef with 250+ species of tropical fish, but it also has an incredible quality of water that boasts up to 150 feet of visibility.

There are some amazing snorkeling spots on Maui that can be accessed by beach or even by boat, but Molokini is completely unique. Because the crater is volcanic rock and it’s miles off shore, there’s not a trace of sand or soil in the water. This is what gives the incredible clarity that’s unprecedented in Hawaii.

Snorkeling at Molokini Crater

Sounds pretty great, right? So what’s the downside? The downside is the number of boats that take snorkelers out to the crater that can make it CROWDED, and many tour providers operate under conditions that can make the experience less than ideal. Not that it’s ever bad, but when you’re paying a premium, you want the best experience possible.

Showing up to Molokini mid morning with a dozen other boats (some with as many as 150 people!) after an hour boat ride just isn’t magical. But don’t worry-I’ve got the scoop on how to see Molokini the best way. Uncrowded.

Kai Kanani Sunrise Snorkel Tour

On my latest trip to Maui, I went to Molokini and Turtle Town with Kai Kanani on their Sunrise Deluxe Snorkel. I’ve done a lot of research on the best Maui snorkel tours (it’s literally my job), and because I know the island pretty well, it’s easy for me to cut through the pretty marketing and high ranking Google search results to pick a company based on what matters.

What it comes down to is reading a map. The majority of Molokini snorkel tours leave from Ma’alaea Harbor (some even from Lahaina), which is a long way from Molokini (at least nine miles through the water). Kai Kanani is the only catamaran tour that leaves from Makena, which is just three miles from the crater. 

They’re also one of the only companies to offer a sunrise tour (6:15 AM departure when I went in September). All of this means that the 40 people on our spacious catamaran were the only people snorkeling at Molokini. That’s pretty cool. 

Also, being the first boat there allows the crew to scope out the best spot for daily conditions. A random (and rare!) swarm of jellyfish hanging out in pockets at the west end of the crater? No problem! We’ll head to the east end and snorkel without the little devils (not easy to do when there are more than a dozen boats there all vying for a spot).

***Want to save major $$$ on your trip to Hawaii? I get asked ALL the time how I’m able to travel so often to Hawaii and stay at really nice resorts. Well, my favorite travel hack is cashing in points to score free airfare and free nights at some of Hawaii’s most high end resorts. Read my full guide on the exact system I use to max out credit card rewards here. Seriously, it’s going to save you soooo much money. 

Now that I’ve convinced you that Kai Kanani is the BEST company to snorkel Molokini with, here’s a rundown of how the morning went:

Our scheduled departure was 6:15, and we were supposed to check in about 30 minutes early. The rendezvous point in Makena is about 10 minutes from Wailea, and they also offer complimentary pick up from the Wailea resorts. 

We laid everything out the night before and set an alarm for 5 AM. Before I hear grumbles about waking up at 5 AM on vacation, I’ll point out that to my Midwest wired internal clock, that was 10 AM- a perfectly respectable wake up time on vacation. But I will say if you’re worried about the early start, plan this for early in your trip when you’re less acclimated to the time difference.

It was still dark as we waited for the valet to bring the Jeep (Wailea life), but by the time we got to the check in site, the sky was starting to lighten up. To set your expectations, this tour is called the “Sunrise” Deluxe Snorkel because of the time of day, but don’t expect to see a dramatic sunrise. Since the sun rises in the east and Haleakala looms high between there and Wailea, you won’t actually see the sunrise, it just won’t be dark anymore.

The check in site is easy to find with the directions in the confirmation email. It’s a small gravel parking lot (currently a lot of construction going on as the previous Makena Beach Resort is being turned into a private vacation club, but it’s a short walk from the check in site (water and coffee provided) to the beach where the catamaran loads.

This is another fun part of going with Kai Kanani. The catamaran loads from the beach instead of a dock. It’s a little wet (I’d suggest taking off your shorts and holding your bag up a bit), but the instructions are clear and it only took them a few minutes to get us all on the boat. 

I will say that I wasn’t looking forward to getting wet so early in the morning. The sand felt COLD on my feet as we waited on the beach to load, but as soon as I felt the water it was actually really warm and it wasn’t even shocking when I got in to snorkel about 7 AM.

After we loaded, we got a safety briefing by the captain and set off for the crater. There were cinnamon rolls and fruit set up in the galley as well as drinks. We arrived at Molokini in about 30 minutes. When we pulled up, there was a small dive boat near the crater in deep water, but otherwise we had the whole crater to ourselves.

We snorkeled in the crater for a good while (probably 45 minutes to an hour). Conditions were pretty magnificent. The water was relatively calm and sooooo blue. There were schools of fish everywhere and it was the perfect number of snorkelers (not so many that it felt crowded but enough that it felt secure-I believe in safety in numbers in the ocean haha). After snorkeling, we loaded back up into the boat and headed for Turtle Town.

Turtle Town is a stretch in Makena near the shore where turtles are quite prevalent due to the algae that they feed on growing there. While it’s possible to access it from the beach at Makena Landing, it’s just a bit far out for me to want to attempt by myself. The conditions at Turtle Town are night and day from Molokini. 

Remember when I said Molokini was so clear because of the volcanic rock from the crater not containing sand and soil? Well in addition to sand and soil stirred up from the nearby shore, the algae that attracts the turtles also makes the water here appear a little murky. But alas, it’s where the turtles are (you won’t find them out at Molokini!) and they’re such a site to behold. At least one crew member was in the water with us at all times and at Turtle Town she was able to find turtles and point them out to us. We saw 4-5 in the time we were there!

After we swam with the turtles, it was time for BRUNCH. The captain took the boat back offshore and we floated while we feasted on a pretty fair spread. The bar also opened after we left Turtle Town and mai tais and mimosas were plentiful. We had plenty of time to eat and soak up the sun before we headed back to the beach and unloaded.

We were unloaded by 9:45 and back at our hotel by 10! Besides the advantages of snorkeling with Kai Kanani that I’ve mentioned so far, I think having such a grand adventure (bucket list experience!) and being back at your hotel by 10 AM is a pretty big deal. Especially if you’re trying to take advantage of the pool and beach to relax.

Side Note: If you’re looking for a rental car for your trip, I LOVE Discount Hawaii Car Rentals. They’re seriously the only company I ever use. They’ll give you the very best prices, you don’t have to reserve with a credit card or pay until you show up, you can cancel and re-book anytime if you find a better rate, and they usually have a special that adds additional drivers for no fee. It’s a no brainer. Click here to check rates for your trip.

Nature Happens

While it feels silly to have to say this, comments I’ve read by others make me feel the need to point out the obvious. Anytime you’re participating in an excursion that involves nature, there’s always a chance that things won’t go as planned. 

Touring a museum or landmark is pretty constant, but nature can be anything but. The plan on all Kai Kanani snorkeling excursions (sunrise and mid morning) is to do a stop at Molokini and a stop at Turtle Town, but depending on conditions (weather, wildlife, etc.) sometimes the plan has to change. 

While seeing Molokini and Turtle Town is the goal, if weather/wind prohibits one and an alternate spot has to be selected for snorkeling. 

Or if you get stung by a fluke jellyfish (so rare!), you’ve still gone out on the boat and been hosted by the Kai Kanani crew for three hours. While it can be disappointing to not get what you expected, it’s not grounds for a refund. 

And on the flip side, sometimes rare conditions make for once in a lifetime experiences. On a previous trip with Kai Kanani, conditions that morning were so perfect that they were able to split our time inside the crater with a stop at the BACKSIDE of the crater which is apparently pretty rare.

Is Molokini Worth It?

If you’ve read this far, you can probably guess that my answer is YES. 

The conditions are unlike any other place you’ll likely experience. The water clarity/visibility alone is worth going to see. Is the reef what it used to be? Probably not. 

Unfortunately, sunscreen and pollution are taking a toll on reefs around the world and Hawaii is not exempt. However, recently I’ve been getting a surprising number of questions about whether Molokini is worth it since people have heard that it has “gone gray.” 

While the health of the ocean’s reefs is an increasing topic of concern (for very legitimate reasons), I think most of the misinformation about Molokini stems from reports/reviews from people who are unfamiliar with snorkeling in Hawaii and are comparing it to other places in the world. 

While spots in the Caribbean and South Pacific are known for brightly colored coral (even with fans and other incredible features), Hawaii is home to entirely different species of coral that just happen to look different. 

Species common to Hawaii tend towards gray, brown, and gold with pops of lavender. So it’s possible that some snorkelers just see the color difference and assume it’s dead, setting off a panic among vacation planners trying to see the “best” of Hawaii and hearing that Molokini isn’t it. 

Rest assured, it’s just as “worth it” as it’s ever been.

That being said, Hawaii’s reefs and the ocean DO need to be protected and the best way you can do that is by only using REEF SAFE SUNSCREEN. That’s mostly going to mean something that’s mineral based (no aerosols!). 

You don’t need to worry about this though if you’re going with Kai Kanani as they have PLENTY of reef safe sunscreen available at the check in point and on the boat for your use. I’d also recommend snorkeling in a sun shirt/rash guard which can alleviate the need for sunscreen while in the water entirely (especially on the early morning tour).

On Another Note: If you’re looking for a condo or vacation rental for your trip, I’ve put together a post about where to find condos on Maui. It breaks down different areas to look for condos depending on your budget and what you’re looking for. Seriously, don’t miss this post

Molokini vs Lanai

This is another question I’ve been getting a lot (and it stems from people thinking that Molokini isn’t worth it while simultaneously hearing that the snorkeling on Lanai is amazing). 

The snorkeling on Lanai is amazing, but it’s not really a case of which is better. It’s pretty apples and oranges. The visibility at Molokini is definitely best, but it’s possible on any given day you may find more fish elsewhere. 

What it comes down to is time. Kai Kanani’s excursions to Molokini and Turtle Town last about 3 to 3.5 hours. Trilogy’s excursions (the top rated) to Lanai are 8 hours. 

It just depends what kind of experience you’re looking for, but generally I recommend first time visitors to do Molokini and second time visitors to do Lanai. You just can’t do it all in one trip! And Molokini is definitely the classic Maui snorkeling experience.

Now that you’re ready to book ; ) here are some things you’ll want to remember:

What to Bring

  • Sun shirt/rash guard: These are great for anytime you’re in the ocean. They decrease the amount of sunscreen you need, and add an extra layer of protection from rogue jellies (so rare!). Also maybe I’m crazy, but I always feel a little warmer when I’m wearing one in the water.
  • Towels: If you’re staying at a hotel, you can grab them from the pool or if there’s a valet stand they’ll usually have towels there specifically for this purpose.
  • Dry clothes: If you’re anything like me, I get soooo chilly sitting in the wind after I’ve been in the water. In between snorkeling at Molokini and Turtle Town, not only was a wrapped up in my towel, but also my large beach blanket that I take everywhere. And after you’re done snorkeling (during brunch), it’s nice to have a dry shirt to put on.
  • Reef safe sunscreen: I mentioned that Kai Kanani provides plenty of sunscreen, but if you want your own make sure it’s reef safe.
  • Seasick medication: If you’re so inclined, make sure you have whatever you need with you.
  • Cash: Tip the crew! They work hard! There are also GoPro rentals available on board for $60. You get to use the GoPro and walk away with the memory card.
  • Waterproof pouch: A dry place to put your phone and keys is always good. You don’t need a fancy bag though, reusing a plastic baggie works fine.

You can book your sunrise snorkel trip with Kai Kanani here.

Want to read more posts about Maui? I’ve got plenty!

Things You Can ONLY Do on Maui // 4 Day Maui Itinerary // My Favorite Road to Hana Itinerary // Things to Do Upcountry // Tips for Sunrise at Haleakala National Park // Snorkeling Molokini Crater // Whale Watching

My Favorite Hotels on Maui // Where to Find Condos on Maui // Wailea vs Kaanapali // Every Resort in Wailea Ranked // Four Seasons Maui Review // Andaz Maui Review // Fairmont Kea Lani Review // Wailea Beach Resort Review // Four Seasons vs Andaz Maui // Andaz Maui vs Wailea Beach Resort

Best Restaurants in Wailea // Best Breakfast in Wailea & Kihei // Mama’s Fish House // Best Luaus in Wailea

My Favorite Things to Do in South Maui // Best Beaches in Wailea & Kihei // Road to Hana Tips // Driving the Backside of the Road to Hana // Where to See Turtles on Maui

Maui vs Kauai // Everything You Need to Know BEFORE you go to Maui

Here’s one more really important thing you need to know before your Hawaii trip…

Reservations You Need to Make BEFORE Your Hawaii Trip

You’ve got your airfare, hotel, rental car and your big activities booked, so you should be good to go, right? Wrong!

Travel is BOOMING in Hawaii so a lot of state and national parks used the closure and reopening to institute reservation systems at some of the island’s most popular spots to make things a little more sustainable.

That means that there are now over half a dozen sites (beaches, trailheads, etc.) that require advance reservations. And some sell out well before you arrive on the island so you really need to have some sort of a plan.

I recently saw somebody in a Hawaii travel group post in a panic that they didn’t know they had to make reservations for things in advance…they thought they could just show up and “go with the flow.” I was tempted to say, well, “as long as the flow doesn’t take you somewhere that requires reservations, you can!” ; )

But I don’t want YOU to be that person, so I’ve pulled together a list of all the places you need to reserve entry in advance (plus all the details on booking windows, price, links, etc.) and a handful of popular tourist hotspots that book out really far in advance too.

Haleakala National Park (Maui)

To visit Haleakala National Park for sunrise at the summit, you must make reservations in advance here.

Reservations are required to enter the park gates between 3AM and 7AM (sunrise hours).

Online reservations are $1 per reservation/vehicle PLUS you’ll pay the park entrance fee of $30/vehicle when you arrive (National Park annual passes are also accepted at the gate).

The reservation booking window opens 60 days in advance at 7AM HST. There are also a limited number of tickets released two days before.

You can make one reservation every three days with the same account. So if you want to make reservations for back to back days (in case of weather/conditions), you’ll need to do so with separate accounts (email addresses).

If you can’t get reservations for sunrise, you can enter the park anytime after 7AM without reservations. The summit is spectacular during the day and you don’t need reservations for sunset.

I strongly recommend creating an account before and making sure you’re logged in at 7AM HST because it’s not uncommon for reservations to sell out quickly.

Waianapanapa State Park (Maui)

To visit Maui’s famous black sand beach at Waianapanapa State Park on the Road to Hana, you must make reservations in advance here.

Reservations are required to visit the beach and are distributed in windows from 7AM-10AM, 10AM-12:30PM, 12:30PM-3PM, and 3PM-6PM. And they are pretty strict about exiting by the end of your window time (you can arrive anytime within your window).

It’s $5/person to enter plus $10/vehicle to park and those fees are paid when you book your time slot.

Reservations open up 30 days in advance.

Iao Valley State Park (Maui)

To visit the lush, green mountains and hike at Iao Valley State Park, you must make reservations in advance here.

Reservations are offered for 90 minute time slots beginning at 7AM and ending at 6PM. They ask that you arrive within the first 30 minutes of your time slot.

Entry is $5/person plus $10/vehicle to park.

Reservations open up 30 days in advance.

Diamond Head (Oahu)

To hike to the top of Waikiki’s famous Diamond Head, you must make reservations in advance here.

Reservations are offered in two hour increments beginning at 6AM (6AM-8AM, 8AM-10AM, etc.) and ending at 6PM. If you’re parking onsite, they ask that you arrive within the first 30 minutes of your reservation window.

Entry is $5/person plus $10/vehicle to park.

Reservations open up 30 days in advance.

Tip: I recommend booking one of the first two time slots because there isn’t much shade on this hike and it gets pretty hot.

Hanauma Bay (Oahu)

To snorkel at Oahu’s pristine Hanauma Bay, you must make reservations in advance here.

Entry times are staggered in 10 minute increments from 7AM to 1:20PM with roughly 1000 slots being assigned in advance every day.

Reservations can be made two days in advance and they open at 7AM HST. They’re usually gone in minutes (if not seconds).

If you’re unable to get an advanced reservation, you can try for a day of, walk in ticket. They open at 6:45AM and they only have a limited number available. Everyone in your group needs to be present when you purchase your tickets in person.

There are no reservations for parking and it’s first come, first serve. $3/vehicle.

It’s $25/person to snorkel at Hanauma Bay (12 and under, active military, and locals with HI ID are free).

The Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve is open Wednesday through Sunday (CLOSED MONDAY AND TUESDAY) from 6:45AM-4PM. Last entry is at 1:30PM, the beach is cleared at 3:15PM and you have to leave the facility by 4PM.

Jellyfish patterns can also affect whether or not the bay is open so double check the day before/day of.

USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor (Oahu)

If you want to take the boat tour at Pearl Harbor out to the USS Arizona, it’s recommended to make advance reservations here.

Online reservations are guaranteed a specific boarding time to go out to the USS Arizona. If you’re unable to get an advance reservation, you can wait standby when you arrive. The line could be short (15 minutes or so) or long (hours) and it just depends on the day (if they’re having problems with the loading dock sometimes they don’t take many from the standby line) and the time of day.

Reservations are supposed to open up 60 days in advance, but keep an eye on your exact dates, because lately they’ve actually been opening up about 57ish days in advance???

They also release a small batch of tickets the day before.

The boat ride out to the USS Arizona is free, but it’s $1 to make the reservations online.

They recently started charging $7/vehicle for parking at Pearl Harbor.

Haena State Park / Kalalau Trail (Kauai)

If you want to hike Kauai’s famous Kalalau Trail, you must make advance reservations here.
You’ve got three options here:

1) Parking & Entry: This is the most flexible option and also the most limited. THESE RESERVATIONS SELL OUT IN LESS THAN A MINUTE. There are three time slots available: 6:30AM-12:30PM, 12:30PM-5:30PM and 4:30PM to sunset. You can purchase multiple time slots if you want to stay longer. It’s $10/timeslot (parking) plus $5/person and you have to reserve every person when you initially book. Everybody has to arrive in the same car and your ID needs to match the reservation.

2) Shuttle & Entry: If you can’t get parking at the trailhead, there’s also a shuttle option. Shuttle reservations are $35/person (16+), $25/person (ages 4-15), 3 and under can ride free. The shuttle runs every 20 minutes 6:20AM to 6:40PM.

3) Entry Only: If you’re a Hawaiian resident (with HI ID) or someone WITH a Hawaiian resident, you can purchase entry only for $5/person with no advance reservations. Also, if you’re walking or biking to the trailhead you can do this option. But there is NOWHERE to park in the area to walk in. So this really only works for those with bikes or who are staying close enough to walk. They will tow your car if you park outside the designated areas.

The reservation window opens 30 days in advance at 12AM HST. The parking & entry option usually sells out in a minute, but the shuttle availability will last longer.

There are a TON of FAQs here including the possibility of snagging a canceled reservation.

Other Things to Book in Advance

Hawaii is a busy place these days! Besides the state and national parks above, here’s a handful of miscellaneous things you should make reservations for in advance (if they’re on your radar):

Mama’s Fish House (Maui): The iconic spot is the most popular restaurant in Hawaii and dinner reservations usually start filling up about 6 months in advance (they open up bookings 18 months in advance). Make reservations through their website and if the dates you want are already booked, you can join a waitlist. Most people have pretty good success getting in on the waitlist (even if it’s for lunch).

Old Lahaina Luau (Maui): Honestly, any luau you’re planning to attend you should book early, but most people are usually shocked how far out the Old Lahaina Luau books out. Book it as soon as you know your dates (I think they open at the six month window). They also have a waitlist.

Kualoa Ranch UTV Tour (Oahu): Everybody loves Jurassic Park so getting to ride UTVs where they filmed the movies is very popular. The ranch offers a lot of different tours but the UTV tours usually book out a couple of months in advance.

Spa Reservations: If you’re staying at a resort with a spa (or planning on visiting one), don’t wait until you arrive to make your reservations. I’d make them at least a month in advance.

Tee Times: Same for golf, reserve your tee times well in advance.

Dining Reservations: Any “fancy” or resort restaurant is likely to be booked up these days so if you like having a nice dinner every night, make your plans in advance.

P.S. Thanks for sticking around and reading this whole post! If you have ANY questions about planning your trip to Hawaii, you can join my free Facebook group here. I’m there answering questions every day and there are 7500+ other friends who have a ton of Hawaii information to share!

Also, if you want to follow along on my travel adventures in real time, you can follow me on Instagram (@caitylincoln). My post captions are full of travel tips and I have a ton of story highlights and videos with great info. And please share my account with your friends that are headed to Hawaii! Your support really helps me keep this blog running!