I love everything about snorkelling on Hawaii’s Big Island; it’s wild, elemental, and home to unique and pristine spots that will spoil you for choice. Within the crystal clear tide pools, coral shelves and sandy bays you’ll see an immeasurable amount of coral and fish beyond anything you’d see on the more popular Oahu. The Big Island is home to some of the healthiest coral reefs in Hawaii, largely due to its smaller population and tourist numbers.
There are also some marine heavyweights to be found snorkelling on the Big Island, too; it’s one of the best places in Hawaii to see sea turtles (second to Maui) and has a resident population of manta rays, all of which are open for you to see. And just to make it even better, they’re all free with the exception of one, and I promise that this one is just too good to miss. So let’s get started…
Kapoho Tide pools (Wai-opae Tide pools Marine Life Conservation District)
The Kapoho Tide pools are a vast network of pools all different sizes and depths, some so shallow you’re almost crawling along them and others as large and deep as a house. I had so much fun here – it’s very easy to spend hours exploring them all, finding new coral and sea creatures with every new one you discover. Kapoho is one of the most diverse reefs in Hawaii, and the pools have more variety the further out you go. We even met a turtle, who was relaxing in one of the pools closer to the open ocean.
You won’t ever find yourself in open water here, and I wouldn’t advise snorkelling past the natural lava barrier at the edge of the tidepools as the waves and currents become quite strong – I got sucked right out of a pool in this area! Avoid going when the tides are strong, or if they are stay closer to the shore.
You’ve got to be a bit amphibious when exploring Kapoho, as to reach some of the pools you’ll have to clamber over lava rocks, whilst others you can swim between – and that’s what’s so fun and unique about this place. I’d recommend taking small fins or water shoes, as the lava rock can be pretty sharp.
How to get there
The Kaphoho tidepools are in a small residential area somewhat off the beaten track, a little hard to find but all the more quiet for it. It’s best to drive or hitch a lift from Pahoa, the closest town. Access is just off Kalapana-Kapoho Road (137): turn into Kapoho Kai Street where there’s a small car park lined with palm trees. From here you’re got a 10 minute walk past some houses down Waiopao Road. Don’t be tempted to park closer as locals have had problems in the past, and we don’t want access taken away! There are no facilities in the area.
Pae’a (also known as Two Step)
Walk across an old lava flow and jump into the deep end – literally! The water is very clear here, and the most beautiful shade of blue, with lots of nooks and crannies to explore between the folds of lava. You’ll see a good variety of coral and fish, turtles, and possibly dolphins too. The turtles like to hang out on the left side of the bay in the slightly deeper water, and the dolphins are most likely to be seen in the morning a bit further out to sea.
There’s a variety of water depths here, but close to shore it’s an average of 6ft or so. It gets deeper fairly quickly, but generally the water is calm with few currents, and there are lots of shallower rocky areas that are more enclosed. Most of Two Step is rocky, though further out to sea it gets sandy. Be careful of sea urchins that like to rest in between the cracks of the rocks!
It can get quite busy here, mainly because it’s so easy to access – just a stone’s throw away from Keala O Keawe Road (160), but it’s large enough to accommodate most people. Two Step is about 23 miles south of Kona.
Access and parking are both free on the public road. Make a day of it by visiting Pu-uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park, one of Hawaii’s most sacred sites, that’s just on the other side of the bay. This ancient Polynesian site was a place of refuge for anyone who broke the kapu (sacred laws), and visitors are able to explore most of its 420 acres.
Captain Cook is often said to be the best snorkelling spot in Hawaii and I can definitely vouch for that. There’s lots of coral, a huge variety of marine life, and the water is fabulously clear. In optimal conditions visibility is 30m!
I love the historical significance of this area, too – the explorer Captain Cook met his end here in 1779 when the Polynesians realised he and his crew were not gods as they had originally thought. The tiny piece of land where the monument stands is technically also British soil.
TIP: Most people take a snorkelling tour to Captain Cook because it’s in an isolated spot (you can’t reach it by car), but you can get there by foot via the Captain Cook Monument Trail. This way you get to spend as much time there as you like, avoid the crowds, and save a whole bunch of money. Turn it into full adventure and camp down there over night – there’s plenty of secluded and sheltered sandy spots to pitch on.
The trail starts from near the top of Napoopoo Road, almost as soon as you turn off Mamalahoa Bypass Road. It takes about an hour each way and has an elevation drop of about 450m. Given you’ll be bringing snorkelling gear and refreshments, some fitness is required to do this, but it’s nothing too taxing. It is also possible to hire kayaks to Captain Cook from the other side of the bay at Napo’opo’o Pier or Kealakekua Bay and paddle from there.
The water starts at about 6ft deep if you enter from the sea wall next to the monument, but the coral shelf drops off quite abruptly, and from here it gets very deep very quickly. Avoid going past it (there’s not so much to see here anyway) and just swim parallel to the shore in either direction from the Caption Cook Monument. The shelf gets a little wider in both directions and there’s lots of marine life to check out everywhere.
It’s best to snorkel here in the morning when the ocean is calmer.
Carlsmith Beach, Hilo
If you want to snorkel, swim, or even just paddle with turtles then Carlsmith Beach is the place for you; it’s teeming with them! Carlsmith is also the only place with a shallow and sandy seabed on this list, and with grassy banks and sheltered corners it’s a great place for families or to just chill out. Admittedly the only reason to snorkel here is for the turtles, but that’s reason enough, right?! Plus it’s also a beautiful area with amazing emerald coloured water.
Hilo in general is a great place to spot turtles – you’re more likely to see them here than almost anywhere else on the Big Island. I saw four in the space of a half an hour. One swam right up to my feet, I thought he was about to give my toes a nibble!
Turtles almost come onto land here, where they munch on the grass the grows along the edge. The ocean is fed by freshwater so it’s brackish in places and sometimes even cold. One more thing to remember: it’s illegal to touch or harass sea turtles. Enjoy hanging out with them but please be respectful 🙂
Carlsmith Beach is about 3 miles East of Hilo’s town centre, quite close to the International Airport. There’s a number of places to park in the area.
Manta ray night snorkelling, Kona
After 6 months of travelling I blew my very last $100 in the world on a night snorkel with manta rays, and I am so glad I did. Sure, I could barely afford to eat for the next three days before my flight back to the UK, so I passed those days with a very satisfied mind but a less-than-content stomach. Seriously, it was the most magical thing I have ever done, and one of my favourite travelling experiences of all; it’s right up there with skydiving in New Zealand and snorkelling in the Great Barrier Reef. For weeks and weeks after I’d just think back to that night in disbelief. So yes it’s a lot of money – given everything else on this list is next to free – but it’s worth it. There aren’t many places in the world where you can do it!
So a group of 12 of you will float on the surface holding on to what looks like a longboard that’s fitted with huge lights to attract plankton, which in turn attracts the rays. After a few minutes of nothing, you’ll see a silhouette emerge from the darkness, gliding up from the deep, mouth wide open, only to barrel roll inches beneath you. It’s truly magical.
My experience was slightly detracted by the screaming children opposite me who, understandably, were terrified. And the constant shouting from their poor parents trying to calm them down and get them to do the right things. Snorkelling in deep black water with 2-3m wide creatures gliding and rolling beneath you is pretty terrifying when you think about it. But when you’re in the middle of this display it’s just too magical (perhaps even surreal) to be scary, I promise. Even the kids loved it by the end, and the manta rays were beautiful enough to make me forget about them.
It’s easy to book a snorkelling tour with manta rays from anywhere in Kona – there’s a whole bunch of tours that have kiosks or shops in town and most depart close to the centre as well. It does get pretty crowded with boats in the area you go to, but as you’re just holding on to a board in the dark it doesn’t detract from the experience.
Apologies for the very blurry photos here – the Gopro couldn’t handle the lighting conditions (life goal: get underwater housing and for my Canon 5D3 and do it again). But hopefully they give you an idea of how beautiful and graceful these creatures are…. and big!
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