If vibrant fish, brilliant coral, and crystal clear waters are up your alley, you’re going to LOVE snorkeling on the Big Island of Hawaii. In my opinion, this underrated island offers the best snorkeling in the entire state!
But if you want to narrow it down to the very best spots to explore Hawaii’s incredible underwater world and to see its abundant wildlife, here’s four Big Island snorkeling spots that you don’t want to miss.
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If you’re headed to the Big Island, you probably already know there’s some, like, REALLY cool snorkeling here. For example, you can snorkel with manta rays in Kona, on the west side of the island, like on this tour, or, if you’re lucky, even catch a glimpse of a spinner dolphin off in the wild.
It’s believed that the snorkeling on the Big Island is so good, thanks to its volcanic activity. Coral loves growing on lava rock that’s constantly being deposited by the active volcanoes on the island. Abundant coral means abundant fish, which like to nibble on and live in the reefs.
It’s also hypothesized that the Big Island has clearer water due to its youthful age—the Big Island is the baby of the Hawaiian Islands, at somewhere between a measly 400,000 to 800,000 years old. The newer coral reefs that have formed around the island have had less time to erode away into tiny grains of sand, leading to higher clarity and more snacking potential for our fish friends!
So where exactly should you go for the best Big Island snorkeling?
Best Big Island Snorkeling Spots
1. Honaunau Bay (or “Two Step”)
How to get there: Two Step is located here, approximately 40 minutes south of Kona in the town of Captain Cook.
There’s a couple places you can park here:
- a handful of free parking spots on the left hand side of the road when you initially pull into Honaunau Beach Road,
- directly across the street from the bay in a paid lot for around $5 per car (bring cash!), or
- in the lot for the neighboring (and very cool!) Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park, which is $20 per vehicle or, alternatively, FREEEEEE if you have your America the Beautiful Pass. This handy little pass costs just $80 for unlimited access to all of the U.S. National Parks, Historical Parks and more for a whole year!
Tell me about the beach: So here’s the thing—- Two Step doesn’t really have any beach to speak of and instead, offers a big ol’ solidified lava field.
While the lava field is gorgeous, especially with the sparkling turquoise bay alongside it, it’s probably not the best choice for you if you’re looking to mix a day of snorkeling with lounging on a soft sandy beach.
Good for: Intermediate snorkelers. The bay is quite deep and doesn’t have any places to stand up if you need a break (friendly reminder to never stand on or touch coral!). Additionally, there aren’t any natural barriers to break the waves here, so it can get a little choppy from time to time.
Accordingly, I probably wouldn’t recommend this one for really little kids or folks who otherwise aren’t confident with their swimming skills.
What to Expect Underwater: Two Step has some of the best snorkeling on the Big Island. In fact, it was the first place my husband, Justin, and I went snorkeling here and I could hardly believe what I saw. Crystal clear, turquoise waters, a vibrant coral reef, and SO. MANY. FISH. Parrotfish, yellow tang, and pufferfish—- oh my!
Beyond the fish, sea turtles occasionally hang out here, especially in the shallow reefs to the left of the black volcanic rock “steps” where most visitors enter the water.
If you’re lucky, you may spot spinner dolphins in the deep, central portion of the bay and if you’re, like, really, really lucky, you may even see an endangered monk seal, of which only 1,500 exist out in the wild.
While monk seals around these parts are quite rare, other humans are definitely not—- so expect to see a lot of ‘em! I’ve actually read reviews of people complaining about there being so many other people in the water that they were literally kicked in the head by other snorkelers’ fins.
That definitely wasn’t my experience, but be prepared to share the water—and the fish—with other humans!
2. Kahalu’u Beach
How to get there: Kahalu’u Beach is conveniently located here, just 15 minutes south of Kona, with plenty of free public parking (don’t you love it?!).
Tell me about the beach: The beach at Kahalu’u may be a bit on the smaller side and has coarse salt and pepper sand—but it’s certainly not without its charms. It’s an excellent spot for watching surfers beyond its breakwall, offers plenty of palm trees for shade, and has a ton of facilities, like bathrooms, outdoor showers, and a pavilion with picnic tables and grills.
Good for: If you’re looking for a great spot to go snorkeling on the Big Island with kids or beginner snorkelers, this should be at the top of your list.
Kahalu’u has been an important site in Hawaiian history, such as serving as the home to the royal residences in the 18th and 19th century and, more relevantly to you and me, the site of a breakwall constructed by ancient Hawaiians, stretching 3,900 feet long.
While many parts of the breakwall have crumbled or eroded at this point, many sections still stand strong, creating an incredibly calm and shallow bay for beginner snorkelers.
What to Expect Underwater: If you swim closer to shore here, you may think the water looks a bit murky, due to many underground freshwater springs.
Once you swim a bit further, though, it will clear up quite a bit—- and better yet, you’ll be treated to views of a whole host of tropical fish, in addition to other sea critters, like moray eels, sea urchins, octopuses, and sometimes even sea turtles!
Between its proximity to Kona, its approachability, and its variety of wildlife, Kahalu’u is a popular spot for families or other visitors on the island. But unfortunately, it’s one example of something in Hawaii that’s been loved to death.
Even though coral looks like a rock, it’s very much a living (and fragile) creature, with fragments easily breaking off everytime a snorkeler stands on, kicks, or even touches it. Given the fact it takes an entire year for coral to grow just 3 millimeters, just imagine how sad Kahalu’u’s coral would look if even a fraction of its 400,000 annual visitors didn’t treat it respectfully.
So, just like Captain Planet said, with our powers combined, we can keep Kahalu’u Beach beautiful by treating the coral like lava—don’t touch it. Seriously.
3. Kealakekua Bay
How to get there: Okay, so, in my opinion, Kealakekua Bay—sometimes called “Captain Cook” after the monument that’s situated on the bay’s shores—is hands down the best snorkeling in Hawaii. The catch?
Beyond its location in Captain Cook, approximately 40 minutes south of Kona, it’s quite challenging to get to, given that you can’t drive to it. In fact, the only way to reach it is by hiking down the challenging 4-mile (roundtrip) Captain Cook Monument Trail or taking a boat in.
If hiking two miles uphill, while sweating profusely under the hot Hawaiian sun, doesn’t sound like your idea of a tropical vacation, there’s tons of awesome snorkeling tours to Captain Cook that you can book, like this one, this one, or this one.
Tell me about the beach: You may have guessed it, given the atypical directions on how to get here, but Kealakekua Bay doesn’t have a typical beach. Rather, beyond the crystal clear bay you’ll find a rocky shore, with dirt patches, solidified lava, and of course, the eponymous Captain Cook Monument.
Mini-history lesson: Captain Cook, a famous British explorer, was the first European to land on the Hawaiian Islands in 1778. Cook and his men were at first welcomed here, but, after a mix of overstaying their welcome and pulling some shady shenanigans on the native Hawaiians, Cook was eventually stabbed to death on the shores of Kealakekua Bay in 1779.
The 27-foot Captain Cook Monument was erected by the British in 1874, just a few hundred yards from where Captain Cook took his last breaths; shortly thereafter, the land directly surrounding the monument was deeded to the Brits for $1. This land is technically still “owned” by the British embassy—so while you won’t find a picturesque beach here, you can take a real quick trip to a British territory!
Good for: Kealakekua is in a natural cove that has extremely calm waters, so it’s an accessible snorkeling spot for beginner snorkelers and kiddos. In fact, some of the snorkeling tours are the stuff that kids DREAM of, like this Fair Wind Cruise, which offers both a dive platform and two(!!) 15-foot water slides on its catamaran.
What to Expect Underwater: The snorkeling at Captain Cook is really nothing short of amazing.
This is for a variety of reasons—for one, Kealakekua Bay is the largest Marine Life Conservation District in the state of Hawaii. Not only does this result in a plentiful fish population, due to the lack of disruptive human activities, but the fish also wind up being pretty damn chill around snorkelers.
Another reason? Due to how challenging it is to get to the bay, the coral reef here, located along the sloping walls of the coastline, has left in its largely undisturbed, vibrant state, in stark comparison to the annihilated and bleached coral reef at Kahalu’u.
In addition to its brilliant coral and plentiful anemones, you’ll see soooo many fish here: triggerfish, butterflyfish, seemingly unlimited yellow tang… the list goes on! It’s also a good spot to see turtles—I spotted one happily gliding through the crystal clear water while snorkeling here.
Finally, it’s arguably the best place to see dolphins on the Big Island, who frequently visit the bay very early in the morning. I didn’t see any while I snorkeled here, but I distinctly heard some underwater!
4. Punalu’u Beach
How to get there: Punalu’u Beach, located here along the southeastern coastline of the island, is the only one on this list that’s a bit of a trek, regardless of whether you’re staying in Kona or Hilo—it’s almost an hour and 40 minutes away from Kona and an hour and 20 minutes away from Hilo.
That being said, there’s lots of cool stuff to see around Punalu’u Beach if you want to make a good ol’ Big Island road trip out of it, like Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, the Green Sand Beach (one of only four on the planet!), and the southernmost point of the United States!
Tell me about the beach: Listen–Punalu’u Beach is ABSOLUTELY stunning, with jet black sand and towering palm trees scattered along its shore. It also has quite a few facilities as compared to some of the other spots on this list, including restrooms, an outdoor shower, picnic tables, grills, and even a little souvenir shop.
Good for: The floor of Punalu’u’s little cove is quite rocky and the waves can be pretty gnarly. So I’d only recommend this location for confident swimmers and even then, please be extremely cautious of the surf.
What to expect underwater: The water around Punalu’u can be quite murky, due to the mixing of the salty ocean water with its underground freshwater springs. So between the long drive to get here, the choppy waves, and the not-so-clear water, why on Earth am I recommending this place?
Well, it’s because it’s one of the best places to see turtles on the Big Island! The cold-blooded turtles love to crawl up on its black sand beach, which radiates heat from the hot Hawaiian sun, and munch on red algae that grows in the bay’s shallow waters.
So if you visit from around 11 AM until dusk, there’s a preeeetty solid chance that you’ll see honu either basking on Punalu’u’s shores or, if not, in the little cove directly across from the lifeguard stand. I loved Punalu’u Beach so much that I visited twice during our visit to the Big Island—and saw turtles both times!
Plus, given that Punalu’u is a bit less crowded than most of the other popular places closer to Kona, you’ll have a higher likelihood of getting to snorkel with a turtle or two on your lonesome—Justin and I got to do just that while at Punalu’u and it was undoubtedly one of the highlights of our trip.
If there doesn’t happen to be any turtles during your visit, there are a handful of fish to see here, but, to be honest, the diversity of wildlife doesn’t hold a candle to the other spots on the list.
So, while this gorgeous black sand beach is worth visiting in and of itself, I’d definitely recommend grouping a visit to Punalu’u with some of the other cool sites, referenced above, along the island’s southern shore, on your Big Island itinerary, so the trek doesn’t feel all for naught if the turtles happen to be absent during your visit.
What to Know About Big Island Snorkeling
Hawaii is an incredibly special place and, if you’re going to partake in some of the best snorkeling on the Big Island, it’s your responsibility to follow some basic guidelines.
- Wear reef safe sunscreen. Some chemicals found in “normal” sunscreen that you find at your typical grocery store washes off your skin while you’re in the ocean and effectively causes the equivalent of coral cancer. And you don’t want to do that, do you?
Instead, use a reef-safe sunscreen, like this kind, and be a solid friend to the coral and the marine life that feed on it.
- Protect the coral. The harsh reality is that, due to a variety of depressing factors, like global warming, our coral reefs are dying. So let’s not be an active participant in this process—don’t kick, stand on, or otherwise touch our precious coral or other parts of the reef, which can irreversibly damage or even kill it.
- Respect wildlife. It’s all well and good to just observe fish or turtles while you’re snorkeling, but feeding, touching, or chasing any kind of wildlife is, like, mega uncool.
In fact, it’s actually illegal to touch a sea turtle or to even get within 50 yards of a spinner dolphin in the water. So observe and enjoy, but don’t get arrested for a federal crime or anything.
What to Pack for Big Island Snorkeling
If you’re reading this article, there’s a good chance you’re packing your bags for Hawaii. We actually have a full-blown Hawaii packing list for you, but if you’re looking for exactly what you need to go snorkeling on the Big Island, be sure to include:
- Snorkeling set: It’s easy enough to rent snorkeling gear while you’re on the island, but it’s SO convenient to already have them on hand wherever you go. Plus, if you plan on hitting up several tropical destinations in the next couple of years, it winds up being way cheaper in the long term to own them outright.
Justin and I each have this snorkeling set, which we bought for our first trip to Oahu and it’s worked out great for every tropical vacation we’ve taken since.
I love the dry-top snorkel, which prevents water from entering when we dive underwater to get a closer look at something or are hit with a larger-than-expected wave and the purge valve helps us easily clear the snorkel if any water happens to sneak in.
- Thermal rashguard: The average water temperature around the Big Island is 78°F. This may sound nice and cozy and whatnot, but when you’re actually in the water, it can feel downright chilly.
I bought this thermal rashguard (here’s an option for men) so I could keep snorkeling for as long as possible during our trips. And it totally worked—Justin had to drag me out of the water!
- Hiking sandals: The Big Island is full of volcanic rock, which is quite stabby and gets HOT in the midday sun. It’s a good idea to wear hiking sandals here, to protect your feet against the sand or rocks on the shore and to serve as water shoes, against the rocky floor in the water itself.
I have a cult-like love of my Tevas and Justin is quite fond of his as well.
- GoPro: But did you even see that turtle if you didn’t get it on video? GoPros are SO cool—they take pretty killer videos and photos up to 33 feet underwater; have neat features, like in-camera image stabilization; and quite literally fit into your pocket.
Now, go forth and enjoy the best snorkeling on the Big Island! Do you have any questions about any of these spots? If so, drop ‘em in the comments below!
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