Kayaking Kealakekua Bay (& the Best Snorkeling Spots on the Big Island)

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If you’ve got a list of “must dos” for visiting the Big Island, I bet that snorkeling is near 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 the lowdown on my favorite way to go snorkeling at the best spot on the big island…kayaking Kealakekua Bay!

Plus I’ve rounded up some of the best snorkeling spots on the Big Island, where to find sea turtles on land, and where to get snorkeling gear.

Kayaking Kealakekua Bay

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.

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.

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.

Best Snorkeling Spots on the Big Island

Besides Kealakekua Bay (Captain Cooks), here are some more snorkeling spots on the Big Island that you may want to check out:

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.”

Big Island Kealakekua Bay Snorkeling

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.

Big Island Kealakekua Bay Snorkeling

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!

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!

Big Island Kealakekua Bay Snorkeling

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.

Big Island Kealakekua Bay Snorkeling

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!

Big Island Kealakekua Bay Snorkeling

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 are

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.

On Another Note: If you’re looking for a condo or vacation rental for your trip, I always book with Vrbo. They’ve got the largest selection of rentals you’ll find anywhere and you can easily filter to find exactly what you’re looking for. Need a specific number of bedrooms and bathrooms? Narrowed it down to a certain location? Want flexible cancellation terms? Need to stay under a fixed budget? Click here to search for Big Island vacation rentals for your trip.

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…

Still Looking for a Place to Stay?

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 they’ve been opening reservations (and selling out) 4-6 months in advance. You can call and get on the waitlist for one day or you can set notifications on OpenTable to alert you for cancellations every day of your trip. Most people have pretty good success on OpenTable. 

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. 

Want to read more? Don’t miss some of my most popular (and favorite) posts about the Big Island: 28 things to do on the Big Island (that you can’t do anywhere else in Hawaii), plus things to do in Kona and in Hilo, a breakdown of where to stay on the Big Island comparing Kona and Hilo, the Big Island’s best beach resorts ranked, my favorite places to eat on the Big Island, my perfect 7 day Big Island itinerary, one day in Hilo, one day in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, four National Parks on the Big Island, stargazing at Mauna Kea, snorkeling and kayaking at Kealakekua Bay, a roundup of the best condos on the Big Island, my best Big Island travel tips, and reviews of the Fairmont Orchid and the Hilton Waikoloa Village

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!

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