Into the Blue: Favorite Snorkel Sites on the Island of Hawaii

On the Big Island, coral-encrusted lava shores and colorful tropical fish await snorkelers, whether they wade in or come by boat


If you are on the island of Hawaii and want to don mask and fins for a bit of fish watching, your best bet is to head west. The island’s central-west coast sits in the wind shadow of two towering volcanoes–Mauna Lao and Mauna Kea, so there’s no river runoff to cloud the water and the shore is also sheltered from the prevailing swells that wash the eastern side. With much of the coast covered in lava rock, entry points can be a bit more demanding than on sandy beaches. But there are a number of popular and very scenic reefs that can be reached safely and easily from shore, or by tour boat. Here are four of our favorites.

Kahaluu Beach Park

Located just south of the town of Kailua-Kona, this waterfront park provides not only great snorkeling, but also convenient access. The parking area is close to an entry point where snorkelers can wade in from a sandy area rather than over sharp rocks, and there are lifeguards on duty. The park also provides showers, bathrooms and picnic pavilions. The cove is surrounded by rocky shallows, and there are usually large numbers of tropical species to be seen. Depths are generally less than 10 feet, which means there is more color to the reefs when sunlight penetrates and more chance of getting up close to the sea life.

Kahaluu Beach Park, Favorite Snorkel Sites on the Island of Hawaii

When seas are calm, snorkelers can discover snorkel-worthy sites along many Big Island beaches with rock outcroppings. Corals grow on these hard surfaces, attracting fish life. Photo: iStock

Honaunau Bay

Some of the best snorkeling in Hawaii can be found in the waters of Honaunau Bay, adjacent to Puuhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park. Snorkeling is not allowed in the park itself, but just to the north, there is an access point where two flat rock ledges provide safe entry into the clear waters of the bay. These rocks give the site its local nickname “two-steps,” and it is also referred to as the Place of Refuge. Whatever it’s called, this site is not to be missed, as its coral formations and rocks hold a wealth of tropical fish, sea turtles and the chance of a swim-by from spinner dolphin. The site is popular, but there is usually ample parking. Several tour operators also offer water access aboard smaller, raft-life vessels.

Hawaii Snorkeling

The reefs and coastal waters of Hawaii are home to more than a thousand species of fish. Some are found throughout the Pacific, but more than 300 are native only to these islands. Photo: iStock

Kealakekua Bay

The waters of the Kealakekua Bay Marine Reserve are rich in fish life and colorful corals, and there are extensive shallow areas suitable for snorkeling. But if you are planning to wade into this marine preserve from shore, you’d better pack some sturdy shoes and extra drinking water, because reaching the entry point requires a hike of 45 minutes or more across loose lava rocks. A better option is to come by boat. Several tour companies are licensed to lead kayak tours into the reserve, and more provide half-day and full-day snorkeling and water-sports cruises aboard power launches and sailing catamarans. To enjoy some personal water space, book with one of the smaller operators, lest you find yourself in the water with 50 other swimmers.

An overhead view of Kealakekua Bay.

An overhead view of Kealakekua Bay. Reaching this rocky shore by foot requires a difficult hike, but fortunately, a number of tour operators provide boat charters. Photo: iStock

Mauna Kea Bay

The beach at Mauna Kea Bay is often cited as one of Hawaii’s most scenic. It is certainly one of the most serene. Public access is regulated by the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, which allows just 25 non-guest cars in the parking lot each day. The reward for arriving early is a spot on this quiet beach and a chance to snorkel in its sparkling waters. When swells are not present, the gently sloping sand shallows are ideal for youngsters just getting their sea legs. More serious fish watchers can follow the rocky shoreline out to the point beyond the hotel, where corals grow among the lava rocks, and fish flit in the sunlight.

Mauna Kea

Mauna Kea is one of the most beautiful snorkeling beaches in Hawaii. Come early to secure one of the limited number of parking spaces that guarantee beach access. Photo: Stephan Hoerold/iStock