Last Updated: March 21, 2022
There are so many landscapes to explore in Hawaii—dormant volcanoes, rainforests, lava fields, and waterfalls, just to name a few. However, if you don’t dip beneath the surface of Hawaii’s waters, you’re missing out on one of the island chain’s most beautiful and unique environments.
There’s a whole different world in the waters of the Pacific Ocean, and it’s waiting for you at these top snorkel spots in Hawaii. Below, we’ll take you on a tour of our favorite areas for spotting colorful tropical fish (many of which you’ll only find in Hawaii!), vibrant corals, and fascinating sea creatures. Whether you’re headed for Oahu, the Big Island, Maui, or Kauai, we’ve got you covered with recommendations for each island.
First, though, we’ll offer you a few snorkel tips so you can get the most out of your time in the water.
4 Tips for Safe and Fun Snorkeling in Hawaii
Check the Conditions
Snorkeling is best done in calm waters, for a couple of reasons. Waves and wind kick up sand and make for poor visibility. Additionally, calm waters also mean that you’ll have an easier time getting in, around, and out of the water. Even experienced swimmers can find themselves stuck in rip currents or tossed around by the Pacific Ocean waves.
Before you head out, check the weather forecast. If waves and wind are predicted for one side of the island, head to the other side for a clearer and more relaxing snorkeling experience.
Go Slow—Really, Really Slow
(We mean it!) If you haven’t yet embraced the slower pace of life in the Hawaiian islands, you might feel like you need to swim quickly over the reef and take in as much as you can as quickly as possible. Instead, snorkel on island time. Move slowly over the reef and look closely. That’s the only way you’ll see some of Hawaii’s shier (and more spectacular!) reef creatures like octopus or colorful nudibranchs.
Beat the Fog
Sometimes, rental masks have a tendency to fog up. This can make for a frustrating snorkeling experience. If you plan on several snorkeling sessions, grab a travel-sized bottle of tear-free baby shampoo. Rub a tiny bit on each lens, rinse with a little water, and then put the mask on your face. You’ll enjoy fog-free snorkeling for hours.
Protect Our Reefs
Finally, as you’re applying sunscreen, make sure it’s reef safe. To reduce the impact of sunscreens on its coral reefs, in 2018, Hawaii banned the sale of sunscreen containing oxybenzone and octinoxate. Although no one will stop you from bringing non-reef-safe sunscreen into Hawaii, the more you can help us take care of our marine ecosystems, the better. If you need some advice on finding reef-safe sunscreen, check out this article from Hawaii magazine.
Now that you’re prepped and ready, let’s talk about where to go.
The Best Snorkeling on Oahu
By far the most popular and most crowded of all the snorkeling destinations in Hawaii, Hanauma Bay still has plenty of upsides—including a little something for everyone. Beginner snorkelers and those less comfortable in the water can paddle the bay’s crystal-clear nearshore waters and still enjoy its spectacular sights. Those more adventurous can explore the outer edges of the reef and its plentiful fish in just about every color.
The Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve is open to the public Wednesdays through Sundays. To protect this remarkable ecosystem, the City & County of Honolulu has instituted a reservation system to visit Hanauma Bay. Hawaii residents with valid identification may access the nature preserve without a reservation from 6:45 a.m. to 9:00 a.m.
Makaha Beach Park
Although Makaha is probably Oahu’s second-most popular snorkeling destination, it isn’t second by much. At Makaha, you’ll find dozens of underwater caves and tunnels to explore, some of which are over 40 feet in length. Add octopus, dolphins, and manta rays to the list of creatures to spot, and it’s easy to see why Makaha Beach might be your #1. When the waves are strong, Makaha can be better for surfing, so keep an eye on the forecast. Stay for the sunset, which is often spectacular.
A plentiful array of colorful fish and frequent turtle spottings await you at Shark’s Cove. The rocks in the area can be a bit sharp, so this isn’t a place you want to snorkel when it’s rough. Additionally, parking can be a bit tricky, but if you can score a spot, it’s definitely worth it. You might also consider bringing a pair of water shoes, since the shoreline can be tough on sensitive feet.
Waikiki: Queen’s Beach & Sans Souci Beach
Although Waikiki is one big, long beach, the best spots for snorkeling are between the Honolulu Zoo and the Natatorium. You’ll find good snorkeling at Queen’s Beach, as well as Sans Souci Beach. Additionally, you’ll find an easy entry point right in front of the Aquarium. Explore along this shoreline, and you’re sure to find a new favorite spot quickly.
The Best Snorkeling on the Big Island
This spot is also known as “Two Step” for the two stair-like rocks that act as the entry point to this snorkel area. Because free parking can be limited, you’ll find fewer people at Honaunau, as well as crystal-clear waters. However, if you’re willing to fork over ~$5, you’ll find some options to park on private land. If you’ve got a whole family in tow, it can be worth the price. Expect plenty of fish and plenty of coral!
This spot is a little trickier to get to, but that’s what makes it a bona fide adventure. This secluded snorkeling sanctuary plays host to dolphins, sea turtles, and plenty of other unique marine life. In order to access some of the best snorkeling areas, you’ll need to either 1) hike with your gear to the Captain Cook Monument located within the park, 2) rent a kayak, or 3) go with a tour operator. As we said, it may not be easy, but it’s an adventure you won’t soon forget.
Kahaluu Beach Park
You’ll find a large coral reef with plentiful fish at Kahaluu Beach park. In addition to the usual suspects—yellow tang, butterfly fish, sergeant majors, and black triggerfish—you’ll also spot turtles in this area, as well as octopus and sea urchins. Just make sure to stay out of the surfing zone (which isn’t great for visibility, anyway)!
Bonus: Swim with Manta Rays
If you’re a snorkeling or diving enthusiast, no visit to the Big Island is complete without seeing the manta rays that live off the Kona Coast. Sign up with a tour operator who can take you to one of the feeding stations off the coast. There, you’ll be able to watch these gentle giants swoop through the water as they feed during the evening hours. Options for both snorkelers and divers are available.
The Best Snorkeling on Maui
Arrive early to this little gem, located in beyond the busy resort areas of Kaanapali and Kapalua in West Maui. Off the rocky shore, you’ll find some of the best snorkeling that Maui has to offer. Unlike some of Hawaii’s other spots, there isn’t much beach at Honolua to speak of, since the shoreline is almost all rocks. However, the snorkeling alone is well worth the trip.
Located off the coast of Maui, Molokini is part of a sunken volcanic crater that’s accessible only by boat. Imagine a crescent moon floating in the ocean, and you’ll get the idea. Although the inner reef is relatively shallow, expect clear viewing of up to 150 feet down at the edges of the reef. You’ll also find tons of unique species in the waters inside the crater. During whale season, if you put your ears underwater, you may be treated to whale songs while explore Molokini Reef.
You’ll need to be a little flexible to get to this snorkel spot. There are no signs, and there’s no real parking lot to speak of. Instead, just pull off Honoapiilani Highway near mile marker 14, and head for the shoreline. Your reward? A huge reef to explore that’s rarely packed. However, if there’s a swell from the south or west, you’ll find this spot challenging to snorkel because it’s so exposed. Make sure to check the forecast before you head out, and swim with a buddy.
The Best Snorkeling on Kauai
The water here can be very shallow, but don’t let that fool you. Anini Beach has one of the largest reefs around Kauai. Take your time, go slow, and explore all the nooks and crannies in the reef. You never know what you’ll see! Currents can be strong at Anini, so make sure not to test your limits on this North Shore beach.
Salt Pond Beach Park
Especially during the winter months, it can be challenging to find a spot where younger snorkelers can build their skills. Enter Salt Pond Beach Park, which has plenty of protected swimming areas to give kids—or adults who are new to snorkeling—a chance to paddle calmly. Kids will also enjoy exploring the surrounding tide pools, where they can discover a whole different aspect of Hawaii’s marine ecosystem.
Although this spot involves a rocky entry, you’ll find abundant fish life, as well as regular opportunities to see turtles. You’ll also find a restroom and showers right across the street, so you can clean up and grab a meal in Poipu when you’re done.
Exploring All That Hawaii Has to Offer
Ask a group of Hawaii residents what drew them to the islands, and you’re likely to hear a common theme: being in and around warm, tropical water year-round. The Pacific Ocean makes an extraordinary playground for those lucky enough to live in Hawaii—and visit. Snorkeling offers you an easy, relaxing, and fun way to explore this aspect of Hawaii life and take in everything that happens under the sea.
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