One of the best things about Hawaii is exploring its incredible underwater world, teeming with brilliant coral reefs and ample wildlife. And if you’re visiting the Big Island, great news- arguably the best spot to snorkel on all of the Hawaiian Islands is located right along the Kona coast, in Kealakekua Bay, near the town of Captain Cook.
For the most extraordinary snorkeling in the bay, though, you’ll have to work a bit to get there- the most vibrant portion of the reef is only accessible via either a steep hike or boat. Up for the challenge? Here’s everything you need to know about snorkeling in Captain Cook.
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Pssst… visiting the Big Island? Check out our other posts on this incredible place: Kona vs. Hilo: Where Should You Stay? Green Sand Beach: The Big Island’s Most Unique Beach Mauna Kea Hike: Everything You Need to Know About Hiking the Tallest Mountain in the World
Kealakekua Bay, located near the village of Captain Cook, is seriously one of the best places to snorkel in the entire state of Hawaii and is an unmissable item to add to your Big Island itinerary. The edges of the reef are shallow, with a pretty steep drop-off to its deep center, allowing snorkelers to easily explore different depths of reefs in a short period of time.
Plus, due to its protected status and the difficulty of reaching its waters (more on those below!), the coral reef itself feels impossibly untouched, with colorful coral, thousands of fish, and other creatures, like sea turtles and even spinner dolphins!
Wait, back up a second- who is Captain Cook?
Technically, Captain Cook is a town located along the Big Island’s western coast, south of the resort town of Kona, and was named after the Captain Cook Coffee Co., located here in the early 1900s.
So who exactly is this Captain Cook dude? He was a famed English explorer, believed to be the first Westerner to land on the Hawaiian islands in 1778.
Initially, the relationship between the Hawaiians and Cook’s crew were friendly, but Cook overstayed his welcome and things had grown tense by early 1779. Cook and his men attempted to sail back to England in February 1779 but were forced to return to Kealakekua Bay to repair their boat just four days later.
The Hawaiians were not happy to see Cook return and wound up stealing a small cutter vessel from his crew. In retaliation, Cook attempted to kidnap the Hawaiians’ high chief, King Kalaniopuu, which turned out not to be a smart move. Cook was shortly thereafter stabbed to death in Kealakekua Bay by the Hawaiians, protecting their chief.
There’s all kinds of problematic language used to describe Cook in relation to Hawaii (e.g., his monument in Kealakekua Bay indicates that he “discovered these islands” even though Polynesians had been living on the islands for approximately 1600 years before Cook landed here, but WHO’S COUNTING?).
Unsurprisingly, the naming convention of the town is not super popular with locals- in fact, as of March 2022, there’s a resolution to rename the town “Kawa’aloa”, meaning “long landing place”.
Snorkeling in Captain Cook
Beyond having some pretty fascinating history, Captain Cook’s got some awesome stuff to offer- namely, being the most incredible Big Island snorkeling spot!
Kealakekua Bay is one of 11 Marine Life Conservation Districts instituted by the state of Hawaii- in fact, it’s the biggest- to protect and conserve its fish population (there’s over 400 species of fish that live here!). There’s stringent protections on fishing these waters or other types of activities that may disrupt the wildlife. Accordingly, the marine life that live here seem to be pretty chill and not terrified of humans, making this an awesome place to go snorkeling or scuba diving!
But where exactly can you go snorkeling in Captain Cook?
Snorkeling at Nāpō‘opo‘o Beach Park
Nāpō‘opo‘o Beach Park, along the bay’s eastern shore, is the only place you can reach the bay by car. You can park by the Nāpō’opo’o Pier, but the best place to snorkel is a 0.3 mile walk south of here at Manini Beach Point.
Most of the sand on this beach was eroded by Hurricane Iniki in 1992, leaving the beach covered in just broken white coral and lava rocks- not a particularly cozy place to lay out and soak up those Hawaiian vibes. Nevertheless, there is some very nice snorkeling- with underwater caves, crevices and colorful coral- awaiting you underwater, especially towards the right hand side of the beach.
While the snorkeling here is pleasant when the waves cooperate, this certainly is not the best snorkeling in Captain Cook- you’ll find that clear across the bay in front of the Ka’awaloa Flats, right in front of the Captain Cook Monument.
Snorkeling at Captain Cook Monument
Across the bay from Manini Beach Point, you’ll find the 27-foot tall Captain Cook Monument, which was erected by the British in 1874. Fun fact- the land immediately around the monument was deeded to the United Kingdom in 1877 for $1 and is still technically considered as sovereign non-embassy land owned by the British Embassy.
Beyond its quirky ownership and absolutely unparalleled snorkeling, the Captain Cook Monument is also unique in that it’s really difficult to access, only accessible via boat or by a challenging hike.
How to Reach the Captain Cook Monument for Snorkeling
You’ll have three options to reach this part of Kealakekua Bay.
1. You can hike in.
The cheapest option to reach the best snorkeling on the Big Island is to hike the 4 mile (round-trip) Captain Cook Monument Trail to the monument; the trailhead is located here. Parking is incredibly limited, only accommodating about six or so cars, so if you’re interested in trying this route, I’d highly recommend getting an early start.
The trail leads down a steep rocky hill, winding mostly through lush grasslands with views of the coastline with every step you take. You’ll also see lots of adorable feral goats on the path!
Besides its rocky nature, the hike to the monument is downhill, making this trail seem deceptively easy- once you have to make your return to the trailhead, though, this hike gets TOUGH. The climb uphill (about 1,200 vertical feet) is unrelenting, especially along the mostly unshaded trail in the steamy sun. We actually featured this hike in our recent YouTube video which you can check out below.
So be sure to save your energy for the hike back up, wear proper hiking shoes (my husband, Justin, and I both wore our Tevas hiking sandals- his and hers– and they worked great), and bring LOTS of water! We use these giant Nalgene bottles, which are fabulous- they both keep you plenty hydrated and have the benefit of being better for the planet than single-use plastic bottles and easier on the wallet. Win win!
When Justin and I recently visited the Big Island, we did the hike to and from the Captain Cook Monument- and I’d highly recommend it if you don’t mind a bit of a steep climb uphill. We hardly passed anyone on the trail, we could come and go from the bay when we pleased, and, by going this route as opposed to a tour, we easily saved at least $100 per person.
Just make sure to remember to bring your own snorkeling equipment. Justin and I each have this snorkeling set, which has come in handy on amany tropical vacations- we’ve got a ton of use of them!
2. You can go with a tour group.
Not about that hiking life? All good- just go out on a boat with a tour group instead!
There’s tons of tour options, most of which last from about three to five hours. All of these tours will provide you with snorkeling gear and most of them will provide snacks or refreshments and guides who are incredibly knowledgeable about the local history, culture, and wildlife.
I’d recommend only booking through tour companies who are certified through the Sustainable Tourism Association of Hawaiʻi, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting sustainable tourism programs on the islands. Some of these operators include Sea Paradise, like this morning tour or this afternoon tour (I took their manta ray snorkeling tour in Kona and absolutely loved it!) or Sea Quest, like this tour or this tour.
In fact, we wrote a whole articles about best Captain Cook snorkel tours to choose for eco-conscious travelers.
3. You can kayak here.
If you want something a bit more adventurous than taking out a sailboat or a Zodiac, you can alternatively kayak in (it’s usually about a 15-25 minute paddle (one-way) from most kayak outfitters’ launch sites to the bay), but there are a few things you need to know about this option first.
To help protect this special slice of heaven, the Division of State Parks requires that anyone taking a vessel into the bay must have a state-issued permit. You can access these permits in a couple of ways:
You can try to obtain one from the State Parks office by filling out the application here. This usually takes a few weeks to process, so be sure to give yourself enough time before you’ll be in Kona.
The easier route is to rent a kayak through an operator who already has a permit.
- You can take a guided tour via certain operators that have been granted a permit to stop in the bay– for example, consider going on a guided traditional outrigger canoe tour with Ehu and Kai Adventures, to experience snorkeling in the bay and get a bit of a Hawaiian cultural experience to boot!
The benefit of this option is that you’ll have a knowledgeable guide with you to help find the best spots in the bay to find wildlife, all the snorkel gear (and let’s be real, snacks) that you’ll need for your trip, and you’ll be able to legally land your kayak around the monument while you’re snorkeling.
- Alternatively, you can rent kayaks from other vendors, like Kona Kayaks, and head out without a guide. Whichever vendor you rent from, make sure there’s the mandatory State Parks issued decals affixed to both sides of your kayak’s bow to ensure you’re renting from a properly permitted business.
While this option is definitely cheaper than going with a tour, the big downside with this approach is that you won’t be permitted to land your kayak anywhere near the monument. So while you can theoretically go snorkeling directly from your kayak, you’d 1/ have to get in and out of the kayak while floating in the middle of the water, which takes much more physical coordination than I personally possess and 2/ either drag your kayak around with you while you’re snorkeling or leave it floating in the middle of the bay, neither of which sounds very fun or advisable.
If you somehow manage to figure out how to snorkel around while towing a kayak, be sure to also remember that you need to bring snorkel gear with you!
Tips for Snorkeling in Captain Cook
- Watch where you get in and out of the water from. If you’re snorkeling near the Captain Cook Monument, be super careful of where you get in and out of the water. There’s basically one corner to the right of the concrete wall directly in front of the Captain Cook Monument, with a foothold carved into it, that’s safe to get in and out of.
Otherwise, there’s pointy black sea urchins everywhere that you’re likely to step on, which hurt like a mofo and contain a poison that is likely to lead to an infection at the wound site. Plus you’re likely to step on coral, which leads me to my next point…
- Don’t step on, kick, or touch the coral and be respectful of wildlife. While coral may look like rock, did you know that it’s a living creature, made up of millions of tiny microorganisms? You can easily break off a piece of the coral by simply brushing against it, which can take up to 10 years to regenerate. So let’s all do our part and refrain from stepping on, kicking, or touching the coral, shall we?
In a similar vein, it’s super cool to see wildlife on the Big Island, like the turtles and dolphins you might see at Kealakekua Bay or manta rays during the famed Kona night snorkel– but there’s a fine line between observing them and harassing them. Per the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, sea turtles should be viewed from 10 feet away and dolphins, at least 50 yards away– so give this amazing wildlife room to breathe, swim, and well, be wild!
- Bring reef-safe sunscreen. Coral is incredibly important to our ecosystem, from preventing coastal erosion to providing shelter and food to over 25% of our planet’s marine life. Unfortunately, though, most types of common sunscreen contain chemicals that damage coral’s DNA, leading to coral bleaching and effectively coral cancer.
So be sure to bring along reef-friendly sunscreen- I am obsessed with this kind, which isn’t sticky or gluey and basically smells like a tropical vacation in a bottle.
What to Bring for Snorkeling in Captain Cook
Thankfully, there’s not really a ton you need to bring along to go snorkeling, but here are some other essentials that will likely make your experience better:
- Dry bag: Dry bags are awesome- they’re super affordable and versatile (we’ve used ours as everything from a bear bag when backcountry camping, to a makeshift beer cooler and a backpack), and most importantly, keep your electronics and other valuables dry while you’re playing in the water. I’d especially recommend bringing one along if you plan on boating to the bay.
- GoPro: I mean, did you even go to Kealakekua Bay if you don’t get the magical underwater world on video? GoPros are kind of the best travel camera- they shoot great video both above and underwater, they have really cool built-in functionalities, like in-camera stabilization, and it’s tiny enough to fit in your pocket. Amazing!
- Thermal rash guard: Water temperature here is usually somewhere in the high 70s to low 80s, which may sound positively balmy, but, if you’re a total baby like me, can feel downright chilly after being in it for a while.
After trips to Oahu and Maui, where I needed to get out of the water sooner than I wanted because I was so cold, I brought along this thermal rash guard (here’s a similar option for men) to help keep me a bit warmer while I’m in the water- and it totally worked! And bonus, it also provides extra protection from the sun while you’re snorkeling the day away.
Pssst… headed to Hawaii soon and not sure what to bring? Check out our ultimate Hawaii packing list!
Enjoy snorkeling in Captain Cook- it’s such an incredibly unique and special place. Do you have any questions about Kealakekua Bay? Let me know in the comments below!