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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
RELATED: Not very familiar with Maui? Read up on the lay of the is(land) and where to stay and my favorite condos, luxury resorts, and boutique hotels plus my area specific guides (including where to stay, eat, and things to do) for Wailea, Ka’anapali, the north shore, and upcountry and my review of staying at the Four Seasons Maui.
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 ways 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).
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 problems), 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.
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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 were 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.
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).
RELATED: 15 Things to Do on Maui
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.
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