Hawaii is one of the most beautiful places on earth and everybody who vacations there says—out loud—to at least one other person, “I should move here”. The clear blue waters, lush greenery and the excitement of an active volcano are all pulls on your tropical heartstrings. We’re not all lucky enough to move to the islands, but when you visit, Hawaii snorkeling is an absolute must.
What Is Hawaii Snorkeling?
Hawaii snorkeling is a great introduction to the underwater world that exists around Hawaii. The marine areas surrounding the islands are protected, so much of Hawaii's water landscape is untouched.
You put on a mask, pop in a mouthpiece and a world of color and is, at once, exhilarating and calming. There’s a reason locals snorkel as much as visitors—it’s amazing. It’s easy to do if you have the right gear.
If you go snorkeling with a tour, they’ll provide you with all the gear you need. Hawaii snorkeling tours can get pricey: $60 and over per 4-hour tour. So if you want to snorkel every day for a week, it might be worth it to look into weekly gear rentals, and they’re everywhere. You can also pick up an inexpensive mask and snorkel just about anywhere.
The mask creates a suction to your face when you put it on. It covers your nose, so if you’re a nose breather, this will be a change. Make sure it fits tight around your head, you don’t want any water to get in.
The mask comes with the snorkel, and it’s attached so you don’t lose the snorkel
While unnecessary, fins are helpful for Hawaii snorkeling. You want to move around as much as possible without wearing yourself out. Make sure they fit you snuggly. Fins also help with traversing rough or rocky terrain getting in and out of the water. Spiny urchins hid in the crevasses and some rocks are razor sharp.
Where to Snorkel in Hawaii
Hawaii snorkeling is so good you can almost plop in anywhere and see something exciting. There are “hot spots” that offer something unusual or just beat other spots in visibility, a variety of sea life, or ease of navigation. Here are our favorite places for Hawaii snorkeling:
Um, the name says it all: turtles people, turtles. This is on the southern coastline of Maui where a series of underwater lava eruptions left formations that provide a perfect place for sea turtles to live. You’ll want to touch them, but it’s illegal. These magical creatures are endangered, so take some underwater pictures and just enjoy swimming with them.
You may just glimpse an octopus or an eel while you’re under. Tons of fish swim around the lava formations, making this a favorite spot. Turtle town is near Maluaka Beach and is suitable for all snorkeling levels.
Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park—Big Island
The waters here are calm and that makes for perfect Hawaii snorkeling. Spinner dolphins love to make appearances here. You’ll also swim alongside turtles, eels, reef sharks and a rainbow of fish. You can even eat a picnic lunch at the monument for Captain James Cook, so you might learn history while you’re there. Suitable for all levels of experience.
Take a boat tour or sea kayak to this spot from Maui. This is the longest fringing reef in Hawaii so it attracts just about everything. For a remarkable trip come during whale-watching season (December-March). The whales will serenade you and you’ll be able to see them breach the water—it’ll take your breath away. Fringing Reef is perfect for all levels of snorkelers.
North Shore- Oahu
You’ve heard that name before. North Shore is a famous surfing beach but there’s a lot more going on here. Ocean Ramsey does research in North Shore so you can bet you’ll see sharks. Galapagos, tiger, sandbar, hammerhead and even whale sharks are spotted in these waters. You’re not on their list as far as snacks go, so get in and enjoy yourself. Suitable for all levels of experience.
Mauna Kea Beach- The Big Island
This beach was featured on the Travel Channel’s “The World’s Best Beaches”. It’s a little out of the way, but the best things usually are. The beach is rarely crowded, and the water is calm, so this is a great spot to get the younger kids involved. Snap on your fins and wade right in.
Around the sides of the cove is where the coral and the rocks provide cover and food for all the fish you’ll see. Keep your eye out for parrot fish, turtles, peacock bass and goat fish- just to name a few. The further out you get, the bigger the fish and sea life will get. Every level of snorkeler will have fun here.
Bonus—at night, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel shines spotlights into the water. Why? The light attracts plankton, and the plankton brings in one of Hawaii snorkeling’s biggest finds—the manta rays. There’s even a lookout set up by the hotel, so these beauties are pretty reliable in showing up.
Molokini is a small island about three miles off the coast of Maui. The waters here are said to be the clearest in Hawaii. Water visibility is usually around 100 feet but often goes up to 200 feet allowing you an expansive view of the ancient volcano’s crater. This is a popular spot so there will be a lot of snorkeling tours out there with you but there’s plenty of water to go around.
Because visibility is so clear you’ll be able to see an amazing amount of detail the minute you tilt your head down. It’s breathtaking. You can expect to see hundreds of different fish and eels, crustaceans and reef sharks. There have been rare sightings of humpback whales and Hawaiian monk seals.
The island itself is a bird sanctuary so local law prohibits anyone from going onto the island. All your activities will start and end on the boat, but bring binoculars to glimpse native birds.
Tips for Snorkeling in Hawaii
Hawaii snorkeling is one of the best suited to beginners and old pros alike. There is a few tips to consider when heading out.
The weather in Hawaii can change on a dime. Check out the forecast and believe it. If the waters will be choppy or a storm is expected, go another day. Anybody can get into a dangerous situation quickly if you’re facing swells or inclement weather. If you’re going with a tour guide, they’ll update you on cancelations and rescheduling. They don’t take chances.
If you’re going out without a tour, look around you. Hawaiians know their territory and they post warnings when conditions are unsafe. Look for the posted warnings and heed them.
2. Personal Safety
Know your limits. If you’re not a strong swimmer, be honest with yourself. Most tours will give you some flotation device to help you stay afloat and feel more comfortable. Don’t venture too far from the boat. Remember, everyone will have their heads down in the water so you’ll want to be close by if you get nervous.
Never snorkel alone. Yes, yes, you’re a great swimmer and you’ve gone snorkeling a million times—it doesn’t matter, it’s a bad idea.
Keep your bearings. Look up every few minutes to see where you are in relation to the boat, people you know and landmarks. Even though you’re on top of the water, there’s a current and you can travel farther than you think you are.
3. Sun Protection
Sun plus water equals a nasty burn and skin damage. You need waterproof sunscreen of 30 SPF or higher, preferably broad spectrum. Check the label and apply as often as it says. Better yet, most shops in Hawaii sell UV protection clothing perfect for Hawaii snorkeling. Don’t forget your sunglasses for the boat.
4. Respect the Environment
The ocean is a wonder that needs to be protected, so respect it. Don’t stand on coral, it’s alive and needs to be treated like any other sea animal. Never, ever litter. As close as marine life gets to you, don’t touch it. Some people take human food into the ocean to lure fish close to them. Don’t, this disrupts the natural balance of that creature’s life.
If we all respect the ocean, it will stay beautiful and healthy.
No matter what your skill level is, we recommend Hawaii snorkeling for everyone that wants to see the beauty of Hawaii. The beaches are beautiful and are what get most people there in the first place. Whether you’re going out on a tour or just wading out in front of your hotel, Hawaii snorkeling is what you’ll dream about when you get back.
Once the underwater world opens up for you, you’ll never want to leave. Just remember, you may leave one spot but there is always another great spot just around the corner. Aloha!