5 Best Big Island Snorkeling Spots (plus how to swim with manta rays)
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The Big Island (Island of Hawaii) is world-renowned for crystal clear water for snorkeling. So make sure you know where to find the best snorkeling spots to visit.
Why is the Big Island so suitable for snorkeling? There is excellent visibility as the Island of Hawaii is a newer volcanic island so there is little stream run-off or beach sand to reduce visibility. The Big Island has many marine reserves, a strong culture of protecting the reefs (visitors will abide), and vibrant marine life.
We love snorkeling in Hawaii. And, while the Big Island isn’t our favorite place to snorkel in Hawaii, it is a close second. The beaches, the coves, the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles, and the gorgeous reefs are all reasons why we love to visit our five favorite snorkel spots below.
For those new to snorkeling, see our 5 Best Big Island Snorkeling Spots!
Read on for details on the best Big Island snorkel spots, directions, when to go snorkeling, and snorkel safety. We take Hawaii snorkel safety very seriously because we want you to come back to Hawaii!
5 Best Big Island Snorkel Locations
Here are our Big Island snorkel spots in order of our favorites.
- Captain Cook Monument at Kealakekua Bay (South Kona District)
- Two Step at Honaunau Bay (South Kona District)
- Kahalu’u Beach Park (Kailua-Kona)
- Richardson Ocean Park (Hilo)
- Waialea Bay (Beach 69) at Hapuna Recreation Area (South Kohola District)
This list ranges from beginner to advanced snorkeling spots. Regardless of how strong of a swimmer you are or the number of times you have been snorkeling, we always recommend checking ocean conditions before you head into the water.
Related snorkeling articles:
Big Island Snorkel Safety Tips
Here are some tips to keep you safe and also marine life safe for future generations.
- Always snorkel with a buddy
- Use a life preserver or noodle as a flotation device
- Check Big Island beach conditions before you head out
- Check lifeguard flags
- If in doubt, don’t go out!
The community on the Big Island loves to share the Island of Hawaii Pono Pledge. We highly recommend following the Pono Pledge to respect the culture, land, and traditions on the island.
Watch our Hawaii Snorkeling Guide video for more information on snorkeling in Hawaii.
To protect the marine life on the Big Island, never walk or touch the reef.
Stay 10 feet away from Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles when in the water and don’t swim over them. They appreciate some space when swimming and eating. Touching them is illegal as they are endangered.
Swimming with Hawaiian Spinner Dolphins is no longer legal due to a new NOAA law. Stay 50 yards away from Hawaiian Spinner Dolphins. The research found pursuing and swimming with dolphins disrupted their sleeping and reproduction behaviors causing a drop in their population by a third.
Two snorkel spots on our list are dolphin resting areas. You may see dolphins while snorkeling but do not approach them. Hawaiian Spinner Dolphins hunt at night in the deep waters off West Hawaii and return to the bays to sleep during the day.
Reef-Safe Sunscreen When Snorkeling
Figuring out what sunscreen is reef-safe or reef-friendly can get confusing. We like to share our favorite Hawaii sunscreen options, including local Hawaii companies, with visitors.
The best thing you can do to protect the reef, besides not walking on it, is to wear sun-protective clothing when out snorkeling. The less sunscreen you wear, the better. For your face and other uncovered spots, choose mineral-based sunscreen. That is what they believe is best for marine life.
Where to Snorkel on the Big Island Video
This article is way better than the video but if you want help deciding where to go, see our video with snorkeling footage of all our favorite Big Island snorkeling spots.
The Best Time to Snorkel on the Big Island
The best time to snorkel on the Big Island is the summertime, May through September. You can expect ocean temperatures from 75o to 80o degrees Fahrenheit. As the Big Island sits in the tropics, you can expect good weather all year but the wintertime experiences the largest swells (waves).
The winter in Hawaii has the largest probability of rain, storms, strong currents, and large swells. Those four items not only reduce visibility but also make for unsafe snorkeling conditions.
The best time of day to snorkel on the Big Island is in the morning. That doesn’t mean you can’t snorkel in the afternoon but as the day heats up, the tradewinds can become stronger. Higher winds make for choppy waves and reduced visibility.
Rain is more likely on the Kona Coast in the afternoon. To visit the best snorkel locations on the Big Island, plan your day around snorkeling in the morning. See our free Big Island Guide for when to visit.
The Best Place to Stay on the Big Island for Snorkeling
West Hawaii is the best place to stay for snorkeling on the Big Island. The Kona Coast and Kohala Coast are littered with the best snorkel beaches. Also, West Hawaii is on the leeward side of the island so there are less rain and weaker trade winds to reduce visibility.
Stay on the Kohola Coast or around Kailua-Kona to be close to the best snorkel spots on the Big Island.
Hilo, located in East Hawaii, is a rainforest climate so rain is typically in the forecast. Rain doesn’t make for the best snorkel conditions. See our Where to Stay on the Big Island for recommendations for your vacation.
The tradewinds from the northeast are consistent in Hawaii, usually becoming the strongest in the afternoon. As the best snorkeling locations are on the west side of Hawaii, you can minimize the tradewinds by staying in West Hawaii.
Snorkeling and the beaches for snorkeling make our list of our favorite 21 things to do on the Big Island. Let’s jump into the details on the 5 best snorkel spots on the Big Island.
#1 Captain Cook Monument at Kealakekua Bay
Located 16 miles south of Kailua-Kona is the Kealakekua Bay Marine Life Conservation District. The best place to snorkel is situated near the Captain Cook Monument on the north shore of the bay.
- Beginner to an intermediate snorkel spot
- A guided tour is recommended due to the location on the bay
- No lifeguards
- No bathroom facilities
- No shower facilities
- Directions to Captain Cook Monument Trailhead
- Directions to Kayak and Snorkeling Tour on the bay
This is our favorite place to snorkel on the Big Island for the abundant marine life, the calm waters of the bay, and the crystal clear water. The rumor is the creators of Finding Nemo used this snorkel spot as one of their inspiration points for designing the reef in the movie. I can see why.
As the bay is a protected marine preserve, the lack of fishing makes for abundant and large fish. We have even seen moray eels and white-tipped reef sharks (safe to swim with) here.
The best snorkeling is in front of the rocky shore near the Captain Cook Monument and to the right or cliff side. The water depth is 8 to 20 feet until it drops into the depths of the bay. Stay away from the left side or ocean side of the bay due to strong currents.
The bay reaches a depth of 200 feet hence Captain Cook anchored here when he visited the island in the winter of 1778. He was later killed where the Captain Cook Monument now sits.
Due to the wonderful visibility in the bay, coral can grow to 100 feet deep.
This is the one snorkel spot on our list that a guided tour is recommended. You can take the 4-mile out and back trail to the Captain Cook Monument (All-Trails Captain Cook Instructions) but it is a challenging route. You must descend into the bay on a steep and loose rock trail under the blazing sun. It isn’t our preferred way to go snorkeling.
We recommend the following ways to snorkel at the Captain Cook Monument:
- Self-guided kayak and snorkeling tour
- Guided kayak and snorkeling tour
- Power Raft snorkel tour leaving from Kailua-Kona
- Catamaran snorkel tour leaving from Kailua-Kona
See our experience taking a power rafting tour (exciting) to Kealakekua Bay (beautiful) for the best snorkeling footage (wow) I’ve ever gotten.
You can also watch our experience of kayaking across Kealakekua Bay and snorkeling too.
#2 Two Step at Honaunau Bay
Located 22 miles south of Kailua-Kona is the picturesque Honaunau Bay. On the lava rock are two steps that will take you into the water for epic snorkeling.
- Intermediate to advanced snorkel spot (strong currents possible and entering the water is challenging)
- No lifeguards
- Portapotties available
- No shower facilities
- Directions to Two Step Snorkeling
Also located on Honaunau Bay is Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park. In ancient Hawaii, this sacred location was a place of refuge for Hawaiians fleeing a grave offense. If they could swim or walk the treacherous journey here, their life would be saved. We share how to visit the historical park, go snorkeling, and the best places to eat in our Big Island Wayfinder Itinerary. Click below to learn more.
We also share where to park and the best time to visit each of these snorkel locations in our itinerary. Seamlessly incorporate these snorkel spots into your trip!
You will enter the water in the center of the bay on a lava rock shore. The two steps into the water are helpful but time your entry with the waves so the surge pulls you away from the lava rock.
You will find intermediate snorkeling on the right side of the bay. The water depth is 6 to 10 feet deep with interesting topography for exploring.
We like to head to the left side of the entrance as the water is deeper, up to 20 feet. Here you may come across sea turtles, a more vibrant reef, and large coral outcroppings.
Farther from shore you will find tour boats exploring the reef and the chance to see Hawaiian Spinner Dolphins. We do not recommend going out to find the dolphins because it is illegal and you will also find stronger currents out in the bay.
For the kids, there are wonderful tide pools to explore and there is a small beach with shallow water near the boat launch. Then check out our 12 things to do in Kona with kids.
#3 Kahalu’u Beach Park
This Big Island snorkel beach is more convenient than the previous two spots. Located 6 miles south of Kailua-Kona, Kahalu’u Beach Park is the most popular snorkel spot on the island for numerous reasons.
First, the beach is a great spot for beginner snorkelers. The sheltered cove further benefits from a seawall for calm conditions and good visibility. Plus a lifeguard on duty and shallow water make it a good spot for beginners. The deepest spot is about 10 feet!
The beach park also benefits from its proximity to Kailua-Kona and the facilities like restrooms and showers.
- Beginner snorkelers
- Lifeguard on duty
- Restroom facilities
- Picnic tables
- Directions to Kahalu’u Beach Park
- Check ocean conditions at Kahalu’u Beach Park
We recommend entering the water on the patches of sand instead of on the lava rock. You will also find large schools of fish at these sandy locations. The fish have learned there is food to be found when snorkelers kick up the sand. Enjoy saying hi to the fish but venture out into the cove for clearer water and more to see.
This is one of the most popular beaches in Kona. You will find a lot of family groups visit during the weekends and holidays. If you’re looking to avoid crowds (who isn’t?), then visit during the week.
#4 Richardson Ocean Park
Here is our one East Hawaii snorkeling spot. Located 5 miles east of Hilo is Richardson Ocean Park. The park has a well-protected, shallow cove that is frequented by Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles. If you’re staying in Hilo, this is the best place to go snorkeling.
The cove is mostly black lava with small black sand beaches around the shore. Enter from one of the sandy spots to explore the shallow cove with the family.
- Beginner to intermediate snorkelers
- Lifeguard on duty (most of the time)
- Restroom facilities
- Picnic tables
- Directions to Richardson Ocean Park
- Check ocean conditions at Richardsons here
We like the park and the surrounding area for the lava coves, fish ponds, and grass areas mixed in. It is a lush, tropical area worth exploring when you find yourself in Hilo.
As this snorkel spot is in East Hawaii, you should expect rain and strong currents throughout the year. While the cove can look calm in rough ocean conditions, beware of the currents near the exits of the cove.
#5. Waialea Bay (Beach 69) at Hapuna Recreation Area
Located 31 miles north of Kailua-Kona and 8 miles north of Waikoloa resorts, this is a favorite beach and snorkel spot for avoiding the crowds at Hapuna Beach. Beware though, this is a rugged location with a small beach so it isn’t the best for many.
Popularly known as Beach 69, Waialea Bay is located just south of the famous white sand beach of Hapuna Recreation Area. As Beach 69 has gotten more popular and as it is part of the state park, you will need to pay for parking. But, they have facilities for your snorkel trip.
- Intermediate snorkeling
- No lifeguard on duty
- Restroom facilities
- Directions to Waialea Bay (Beach 69)
You can snorkel all parts of the bay, the center, left, and right sides. We recommend finding the place that looks best for you (water depths, sunlight, and water conditions) and entering from a sandy spot.
The bay is relatively shallow, up to 15 feet, so it is good for snorkeling. The rocky shore makes for good spots to see sea turtles. The reef isn’t as abundant or vivid as other snorkel spots on our list.
To get to the bay, follow the short trail from the parking lot. Wear your slippers (flip-flops) as the thorns from the numerous kiawe trees will get you.
While this is a popular snorkeling spot, when we visit Hapuna Recreation Area for the day we have a hard time leaving Hapuna Beach!
Snorkeling with Manta Rays on the Big Island
One of our can’t-miss things to do on the Big Island is night snorkeling with manta rays. This is a snorkeling trip that requires a tour to keep you and the manta rays safe. Don’t miss out on the experience.
We share all our tips in our Manta Ray Night Snorkeling Guide: Read Before You Book. Then book a tour for manta ray snorkeling below.
Our two favorite tours are a beach entrance from Mauna Kea Resort on the Kohala Coast and exploring Manta Village with a boat tour from Kailua Kona. Click the links below to learn more about the tours.
Big Island Snorkeling Itinerary
We love snorkeling on the Big Island so no trip is complete without incorporating numerous snorkel spots. We are always updating where to go, where to eat, and our favorite places in our Big Island Wayfinder Itinerary. It is our favorite itinerary in our Hawaiian Islands itineraries. Click below to learn more.
Get The Big Island Itinerary
The step-by-step itinerary takes you to all the best beaches, snorkeling spots, restaurants, and sights. You’ll get six carefully planned excursion days to help you see the can’t miss stops no matter how limited your time is.
Get all the details on our itinerary and download it for a memorable and easily planned trip to Hawai’i (Big Island).
Have a wonderful trip to the Big Island and stay safe out there snorkeling!