Best Snorkeling in Oahu: 9 Not-to-Miss Places to Explore

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Oahu, Hawai’i is home to stunning stretches of white sand beaches and turquoise waters teeming with colorful marine life. And there’s no better way to get up close and personal with the island’s natural beauty and unique wildlife than snorkeling through its crystal clear waters. So put on your swimsuit and slip on those flippers- here’s 9 must-see spots with the best snorkeling in Oahu.

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Pssst… are you looking for other things to do on Oahu? If so, check out our other posts about Oahu:


Best Snorkeling in Oahu

Let’s dive right in (get it? snorkeling pun!) to the best snorkeling in Oahu, broken down by each area of the island.

Honolulu

1. Hanauma Bay Nature Reserve

Location: Located here, in Honolulu

It would be silly to write an article about snorkeling in Oahu and not mention Hanauma Bay. Every year, more than a MILLION visitors snorkel in this bay, located just 10 miles east of Honolulu. Once a former volcanic crater, it now is a marine reserve and home to over 400 colorful species of fish, Hawaiian sea turtles, and other marine life.

Snorkelers in Hanauma Bay Nature Reserve in Honolulu, Oahu

The good news? Given the protected nature of the bay, the waves are super calm and packed with sea creatures, offering the best snorkeling in Honolulu, especially for beginners. Plus, given its proximity to Waikiki, it’s an incredibly accessible spot, especially for families that want to dip their toes into snorkeling.

The not so good news? Visiting Hanauma Bay be a bit tricky- and surprisingly expensive- to visit. To protect the bay from overtourism, the park is only open Wednesdays through Sundays, with entry allowed from 6:45 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. To snorkel here, you are required to make a reservation, through the online system, and watch a short educational video about protecting the reef.

Tropical fish in Hanauma Bay Nature Reserve in Oahu

Reservations can be made two days in advance, starting at 7 AM HST. Because of the limited number of tickets, the reservations usually sell out in minutes.

If you don’t want to worry about the headache of snagging tickets, there’s a handful of Waikiki snorkeling tours, like this one, that will take care of your transportation, tickets, and rental gear, to make your experience visiting Hanauma Bay easier. Just be sure to read the fine print of any of these tours- you’ll still need to pay the tour company for your tickets and for any extras, like life jackets!

Yellow tang in a coral reef while snorkeling in Hawaii

Otherwise, despite the reservation system, Hanauma Bay can still get quite crowded, especially later on in the afternoon. Accordingly, I’d recommend showing up as early as possible to enjoy the bay in peace.

2. Queen’s Beach

Location: Located here, in Honolulu

Listen- you can definitely find better snorkeling at other beaches on the island. However, I’m including it in this article because Queen’s Beach inarguably offers the best snorkeling in Waikiki, the most popular place for travelers to base themselves on Oahu.

Boogie boarders and body boarders at Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, Oahu

Given the beach is actually a Marine Life Conservation District (i.e., a protected area where fishing and other consumptive activities are prohibited), this is a solid place to see a wide variety of tropical fish and, if you’re lucky, even some sea turtles. The best place to see wildlife here is along the jetty at the southern end of the beach, where fish like to hide out in the rock wall, and stretches all the way south to San Souci Beach, right in front of the Waikiki Aquarium.

While Queen’s Beach is a popular spot for snorkelers, it’s also well-known for its boogie boarding- meaning it’s not unusual for there to be some decent waves here, especially in the winter months. Accordingly, I’d recommend heading here when the water is calm; otherwise, the visibility will be poor and there can be strong (and possibly dangerous) currents to swim against.

North Shore

3. Kuilima Cove

Location: Located here, in Kahuku

If you’re looking for the best snorkeling for beginners in Oahu, I’d suggest adding Kuilima Cove to your Oahu bucket list.

Aerial view of the Turtle Bay Resort on Oahu

Located on the grounds of the swanky Turtle Bay Resort, this publicly accessible cove has a rock barrier that breaks most of the strongest waves and creates a calm environment akin to a very chill lagoon. Accordingly, unlike most of the beaches on the North Shore, you can generally snorkel in the calm waters of Kuilima all year round, even when the famed winter swells roll in.

Additionally, the water throughout the cove is rarely more than neck deep, making this a great spot to take beginner snorkelers. And, despite the cove’s shallowness, there’s still plenty of fish that hang out here and if you’re lucky, even sea turtles- that’s how the resort got its name, after all!

Sea turtle seen coming up for air while snorkeling in Oahu

While Kuilima offered the smallest variety and quantity of wildlife than any of the other spots we visited along the North Shore, its amenities, like snorkeling rentals and beachside bar (exclusively for drinks post-snorkeling, y’all!), and a beginner-friendly environment definitely make this a must-stop during your trip.

4. Waimea Bay Beach Park

Location: Located here, in Haleiwa

Waimea Bay is one of the most popular beaches on the North Shore- and for good reason. Featuring a beautiful stretch of white sand; sparkling, turquoise water; and a vibrant underwater world, Waimea Bay should absolutely be included on your Oahu itinerary!

Orchid in front of Waimea Bay Beach along the North Shore of Oahu

For the best snorkeling on this beach, I’d recommend heading past the southern part of the beach across the Waimea River (the southern portion of the beach tends to be filled with dozens of fishermen) and focusing your time, instead, on its north side. There’s some bits of coral reef there that are simply teeming with fish. There’s also allegedly a few monk seals that call this bay home, so keep your eyes peeled in the water for some cute new seal friends. 

While this is, hands down, one of my favorite spots on Oahu, the parking lot is comically tiny for how popular this beach is. Accordingly, I’d highly recommend showing up early to snag a spot.

Yellow tang, triggerfish, and Christmas wrasse seen while snorkeling in Oahu

It’s also worth noting that, while the beach is a snorkeling paradise May through September, it’s known for something else come winter… big wave surfing! As in, the waves here can reach up to 30 feet high.

So, needless to say, if you’re visiting Oahu to relax on the beach on Christmas or are simply just visiting Hawaii in winter, I’d recommend skipping the snorkeling here and, instead, watching some of the world’s best surfers catch these enormous waves.

5. Shark’s Cove

Location: Located here, in Haleiwa

If the name freaks you out a bit, not to worry- it’s highly unlikely you’ll find any sharks in Shark’s Cove. Instead, the name comes from the shape of the cove, which sort of resembles the head of our toothy fish friends, rather than their actual presence. However, you will see a lot of other marine life here, including fish, crustaceans, and sea turtles.

Sea turtle seen while snorkeling in Hawaii

The cove consists of a small rocky bay, with a shallow eastern side, offering excellent tide pools, and a deeper western portion, that provides awesome snorkeling opportunities. The marine life is so good here, in fact, Scuba Diving Magazine named it one of the “Top Twelve Shore Dives in the World”!

Given Shark’s Cove doesn’t have a beach and is rather a rocky outcropping of stabby lava rock, this may not be the best spot for individuals looking to alternate between chilling on the beach and jumping in the water.

Woman holding a snorkeling mask while walking on a volcanic beach in Hawaii

And, while Shark’s Cove doesn’t see quite the killer waves that Waimea does, it still gets pretty choppy in the wintertime and is best enjoyed in the summer.

 6. Three Tables

Location: Located here, in Haleiwa

Three Tables is a sandy little beach on the North Shore, located right between Waimea Bay and Shark’s Cove, and is named for three coral formations that protrude from the water during low tide.

Man snorkeling at Three Tables on the North Shore of Oahu

The entire area in front of the tables is covered with dense coral reef and SO many fish. In terms of sheer volume of tropical fish, this is definitely the best snorkeling in Oahu that we’ve experienced!

Beyond just the marine life, there’s such cool and interesting underwater topography here as well- ledges, arches, and lava tubes for you to swim around and explore.

Christmas wrasse seen while snorkeling at Three Tables in Oahu

Unlike many of the other bays on this list, there’s no natural barriers, other than the tables, to offer protection from harsh waves. So to avoid being pulled out with the current, stay between the tables and the beach.

And just like all of the other North Shore spots (other than Kuilima), you won’t be able to enjoy this spot, come winter, due to the gnarly waves.

Leeward (western) side

7. Kahe Point Beach Park

Location: Located here, in Kapolei

Kahe Point Beach Park, also known as Electric Beach, is an unassuming small beach, next to (surprise!) a power plant. So while the backdrop to this beach may not exactly be the paradise of swaying palm trees you dream of, its underwater world arguably offers some of the very best snorkeling in Oahu.

Sea turtle seen while snorkeling in Oahu

Wildlife absolutely LOVE this place, in part, due to runoff from the power plant.

It’s slightly less depressing than it sounds- warm (and totally clean!) water, which is several degrees hotter than the surrounding seawater, is discharged from two cooling pipes from this plant into the ocean. This, in turn, attracts all kinds of sea life, from fish and sea turtles to monk seals and even other types of wildlife. In fact, while we arrived at Electric Beach, we ran into a group who had just snorkeled with a pod of dolphins here!

From the beach, it’s easy to see where the pipes stop offshore. For the best snorkeling, simply follow the pipeline out to where it ends and watch the sealife play in the warm water.

Tropical fish swimming underwater and seen while snorkeling in Hawaii

One other significant benefit of Electric Beach is that, perhaps because of its less than idyllic setting, it’s generally a lot less crowded than most of the other best snorkeling spots in Oahu.

I do have one caveat to this dreamy scene of just you and a pod of dolphins swimming through electrical runoff water, though- the waves here can get QUITE intense, especially during high tide or anytime from October through April. If you haven’t snorkeled very much previously or are not a very confident swimmer, this isn’t the best place to get your feet wet (quite literally!). 

8. Ko Olina Lagoons

Location: Located here, in Kapolei

I’m going to be honest with you- the Ko Olina lagoons are definitely not where you should go to see an abundance of underwater wildlife on the island. However, if you’re simply looking for an excellent place for beginners to try snorkeling in Oahu, it’s one of the best and safest options on the island.

Aerial view of the Ko Olina lagoon in Ko Olina, Oahu

These four man-made shallow bays along the western shoreline are used by the swanky resorts in Ko Olina, like the Four Seasons or Marriot’s Ko Olina Beach Club (but still open to the public!). There are break walls separating the lagoons from the ocean, so, on most days, there are virtually no waves in these pools whatsoever.

So if you’re looking for a shallow and gentle place for beginners to dip their toes into snorkeling (more snorkeling puns!), this is one of the most accessible and approachable places on Oahu. My husband, Justin, actually headed to the Ko Olina Lagoons to practice a bit after feeling overwhelmed by the massive waves as a first time snorkeler at Electric Beach and it made him feel much more confident prior to heading to more challenging snorkeling spots.

Sea turtle seen while snorkeling in Ko Olina, Oahu

While Ko Olina’s calm waters are perfect for newbies, you should come in with appropriate expectations. There’s definitely less fish and wildlife here than any of the other locations on this list, although turtles have been reported here from time to time. Additionally, because the lagoons’ floors are all sand, with no coral reef whatsoever, the visibility here is generally not great.

Windward (eastern) side

9. Lanikai Beach

Location: Located here, in Kailua

Lanikai is inarguably one of the best beaches on Oahu, with powdery white sand, electric blue waters, and the Mokulua Islands off in the distance. In fact, it’s actually been named one of the 50 most beautiful beaches on the PLANET by the FlightNetwork.

Couple holding hands at sunrise at Lanikai Beach in Oahu

Besides being ridiculously beautiful, Lanikai is really the only reasonably good snorkeling on the east side of Oahu. There’s patches of live coral offshore, which you can easily spot through the crystal clear water, where small fish like to hang out. The most dense patch of coral is located slightly to the left of the beach’s public access point at Mokumanu Drive and Kaiolena Drive, about 500 feet or so offshore. There’s usually a decent variety of fish here and, occasionally, even some sea turtles.

Just keep an eye on the waves- due to the trade winds, the waves can definitely get a bit choppy at Lanikai, especially in the afternoon. For the calmest waves and best visibility, head here first thing in the morning.

Yellow tang and other tropical fish seen while snorkeling in Hawaii
Pssst... after you're done at the beach, you're just a few blocks from the trailhead for the Lanikai Pillbox hike, which provides jaw-dropping views of the turquoise water you just snorkeled through!

What Should I Know About Snorkeling in Oahu?

Before you head out to enjoy the best snorkeling in Oahu, there’s definitely a few things you should know.

1. Follow the Leave No Trace principles

Hawai’i is a super special place- not only for its natural beauty, but also because of the immense biodiversity it offers. In fact, due to its incredibly remote location, Hawai’i is home to many species of animals and plantlife that are found literally nowhere else on the planet.

Sea turtle seen while snorkeling in Hawaii

As such, it’s important that you care for and respect Hawai’i’s nature when you’re visiting. One of the easiest ways you can do so is by following the Leave No Trace principles.

In particular:

Respect wildlife.

Marine creatures are wild animals and are not there to act as your selfie prop- don’t chase after or touch them and be sure to observe them from a reasonable distance. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recommends staying 50 yards away from dolphins, sea turtles, and seals in the water and 100 yards away if you’re somehow lucky enough to sneak a peek of a whale.

Pod of spinner dolphins jumping out of the water in Hawaii

Also, please don’t feed any sea creatures- it’s shown to really mess up the natural ecosystem. Plus, if you go snorkeling where we suggest, you’ll see plenty of wildlife without needing to give out fish food!

Leave what you find.

This goes hand-in-hand with the last point, but don’t touch anything and leave everything, including shells, where you found it- not only to protect the ocean flora and fauna, but also you.

Did you know there are some snails that have a harpoon-like tooth filled with deadly venom (yes, even to humans)? So unless you want to go out of this world due to death-by-snail, leave the things you see in the ocean alone.

Dispose of waste properly.

Be mindful to clean up after yourself on the beach, collecting all wrappers, bottles, and other waste and throwing it away properly. Rubbish left on the beach will eventually get swept into the ocean by the rising tide, which is how you get those sad YouTube videos of sea turtles with their heads stuck in plastic six-pack rings.

Sea turtle on Laniakea Beach on Oahu at sunset

2. Protect the Coral Reef

Coral reefs are really important to so many facets of our world- they are a crucial part of the marine life ecosystem, provide protection to coastlines from storms and erosion, and act as a source for new medicines. Due to really depressing reasons, like global warming, coral reefs around the world are dying, but you can do your part to preserve it!

Do not touch, kick, or stand on the coral. While coral may look like a rock, it’s actually an animal, made up of millions of tiny microorganisms. Even simply touching coral can break off one of these microorganisms, which, in the best case scenario, will take years to grow back, and, in the worst case scenario, may kill the coral entirely.

Woman snorkeling underwater in Oahu

While my husband, Justin, and I were in Oahu, I saw a guy take a break from snorkeling by standing on a nearby reef. Don’t be that dude- if you’re that tired, swim to the beach or lie on your back to take a breather. Essentially, treat touching coral with the same severity as running over a puppy– it’s that serious, y’all.

Also, did you know your sunscreen can hurt the coral? Some chemicals found in common sunscreens can cause coral bleaching, damage the DNA of corals, and increase abnormal growth and deformities within reefs. 

Tropical fish in a branch of coral seen while snorkeling in Oahu

But, good news- there’s reef-safe sunscreen, like this one, which don’t include the nasty -enes and -ones chemicals (i.e., Oxybenzone, Benzophenone-1, Benzophenone-8, OD-PABA, 4-Methylbenzylidene camphor, 3-Benzylidene camphor, Octinoxate, and Octocrylene) that you should definitely make sure is included on your Hawaii packing list!

3. Snorkeling can be dangerous.

Snorkeling sounds like a chill activity, but it actually isn’t something that should be taken lightly. In fact, since 2009, over 200 people have died in Hawai’i while snorkeling. So before you don those flippers, make sure you can follow the tips below:

Snorkel with a buddy.

I’m including this one first because it’s, hands down, the most important rule– only go snorkeling with a buddy, so you’ll each have someone within arm’s reach if an emergency occurs.

Couple snorkeling together and smiling underwater in Oahu

If you’re traveling solo, there’s a TON of different Oahu snorkeling tours that you can choose from and join a group of other visitors. For example, Turtle Canyon is one of the most popular options, like this tour where you’ll head to a snorkeling spot that’s known to be popular with turtles. Alternatively, this tour to Turtle Canyon has incredible guides, who strike the perfect balance of making sure you have fun, while making sure the turtles are still protected.

Don’t go snorkeling if you’re not a confident swimmer.

Before you go snorkeling in the ocean, make sure you’re a confident swimmer. If you need an extra boost of confidence, consider wearing a snorkel vest (similar to a life vest but specifically designed to be used while snorkeling).

Woman snorkeling underwater in a coral reef in Hawaii

Have the proper snorkeling gear.

Make sure to get snorkel gear that fits properly before you get in the water. Also, steer clear of full face snorkel masks, which have been linked to snorkelers inhaling increased amounts of carbon dioxide (from rebreathing exhaled air), leading to dizziness, headaches, and unconsciousness- not what you want to do while at the open sea.

Listen to warning signs.

Pay attention to the weather and heed any warning signs or flags about rough waves or rip currents. It can be easy to be carried away from shore in a strong current, so if there’s any question about whether it’s safe for you to jump in the water, err on the side of caution.

Warning signs for rough waves at Makapuu Beach Park in Oahu

What to Pack for Snorkeling in Oahu

Now that you have ‘where to go’  nailed down, what do you need to add to your packing list for Hawaii to have an awesome time snorkeling?

Mask and fins

If you’re planning on snorkeling more than once or twice, it’s easier and cheaper to bring along your own mask and fins, as opposed to renting some on Oahu. Most of the beaches don’t actually have a snorkeling gear rental shop on site and nothing would be sadder than being ready to jump in the water and not having the right gear on hand. 

Woman snorkeling at Waimea Bay Beach on the North Shore in Oahu

Justin and I each brought along this snorkeling set to Oahu and it worked out great. The dry-top valve on the snorkel kept the water out when big waves rolled over us while we were swimming and the lower purge valve let me blow out any water in my snorkel from when I dove underwater. Plus the travel bag made it easy to schlep all of our snorkeling gear wherever we needed to carry it.

Reef safe sunscreen

I touched on this above, so I won’t go into too much detail, but don’t get burnt and don’t kill coral reefs- instead, bring along reef safe sunscreen.

Wetsuit shirt

The water temperature in Oahu is fairly pleasant year round, ranging from 76°F (24.4°C) to 81°F (27.2°C). But if you’re anything like me (i.e., a complete baby when it comes to coldness), this may still feel pretty chilly. I had goosebumps every time I jumped in the water after about 10 minutes.

Woman snorkeling underwater in Hawaii

After our Oahu trip, I bought this shirt to help keep me a bit warmer so I can stay in the water longer and it worked like a charm (here’s an option for men)!

GoPro

This little camera is perfect for capturing your snorkeling memories- not only is it waterproof (up to 33 feet), but it’s also small, incredibly lightweight, and versatile enough to capture both epic photos and your next TikTok.

Woman holding a GoPro next to a snorkeling mask

Reusable water bottle

Bring along plenty of water to keep on the beach- between the hot Hawaiian sun and swimming against the tide, snorkeling can be more tiring than you’d think! To be kind to the planet and to cut down on wasting money on bottled water, Justin and I both have giant Nalgene bottles that we take everywhere, from international vacations to RV trips around the Pacific Northwest and, yup, even snorkeling in Hawai’i!

Where to Stay While Snorkeling in Oahu

You may have noticed that four of my recommended snorkeling spots in Oahu are located along the famous North Shore. Given that the North Shore is slightly less touristed and it offers an abundance of coral reefs, this area also provides the highest concentration of the best places to snorkel in Oahu.

Woman standing on the Ehukai Pillbox, overlooking Ehukai Beach on Oahu

So, if you’re trying to figure out where to stay in Oahu to be close to awesome snorkeling and have more authentic experience than Waikiki, I’d highly recommend staying a few days in the North Shore to explore its beaches and get to know its quirky food trucks, plentiful acai bowls, and super chill vibes (seriously, I saw many people walk around a grocery store in totally bare feet- what’s more laidback than that?!).

Here’s some ideas for where to stay on the North Shore:

  • Beach side studio: This studio, perfect for a couple, is located in the surfer town of Haleiwa. Within walking distance to Ke Iki Beach- so close, in fact, you can literally hear the waves while you fall asleep.
  • 160 West: For something with a bit more amenities, consider this 2-bedroom condo, with an in-unit washer and dryer, pool, and private parking.
  • Turtle Bay Resort: For something a bit swankier, Turtle Bay, home to the above-mentioned Kuilima Cove, is the way to go, as the only luxury resort on the North Shore. Beyond its snorkeling offers, the resort has all the upscale amenities you can dream of, from an onsite spa to a renowned golf course, offering the perfect bougie juxtaposition to the area’s super laidback vibes.

Where’s the best place you went snorkeling while on Oahu? Are there any hidden gems I need to check out next time I’m in Oahu? Let me know in the comments below!

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4 thoughts on “Best Snorkeling in Oahu: 9 Not-to-Miss Places to Explore”

  1. Thank you! Your info will be most helpful in this coming week. Yes, I was wondering if there were other options besides Hanauma Bay!

    Reply
  2. Thank you! We are headed there next week, staying just down the road from the PCC, and it’s good to know Kuilima Cove won’t be as impacted by the waves as other north shore locations. Sounds like we’ll do some snorkeling, as well as watching surfers. Should be a good week.
    Any good places to eat? I like to eat with the locals, plate lunches, etc., rather than the spendy tourist stops.

    Reply
    • Fingers crossed you guys will get some nice, chill waves for your snorkeling! I LOVE the food trucks on the North Shore, like the Elephant Shack (about a ten minute drive from Kuilima Cove) or Aji Limo or Pupukea Grill trucks (about a 25-minute drive south).

      Hope you guys have a blast!

      Reply

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