Welcome to a real life aquarium! Kahalu’u is a wide protected bay on the Kona coast just a few miles south of Kailua-Kona town center and offers some of the island’s best and easily accessible snorkeling. Beneath the surface of Kahalu’u Bay’s crystal clear, brilliant blue waters, you will come face to face with sea turtles, coral heads, and a variety of brightly colored tropical fish.
Kahalu’u Beach Park in a nutshell
Listed on the National Register of Historical Places, Kahalu’u Bay has significant Hawaiian cultural history. The bay has been populated for at least the last 500 years with records of royal residences in the 18th and 19th centuries and several heiaus (Hawaiian temples) in the area. The heiau on the northern side of Kahalu’u Bay, Kuʻemanu Heiau, overlooks a surf break -- popular in ancient times and still to this day.
While you can go to this beach for sunbathing the main attractions here are the snorkeling and the surfing which we describe below.
Snorkeling at Kahalu’u Bay
Kahalu’u bay is one of our 3 favorite snorkeling spots on the whole island!
The reef at Kahalu’u Bay is a living, breathing ecosystem home to numerous aquatic creatures. The foundation of this habitat is the coral reef. As you venture beneath the surface, keep your eyes peeled for sea turtles, octopus, sea urchins, eels, and dozens of fish species including Yellow Tang, Bullethead Parrotfish, Racoon Butterflyfish, Moorish Idol, Orangespine Unicornfish, Hawaiian Spotted Boxfish, and more.
You can have a small preview of many of these fish in the 6 minute video below that shows YouTube user Kurtis Smith snorkeling Kahalu’u bay in 2015:
The best place for snorkeling, and where to get in the water
The South side of Kahalu’u Bay is the access point for entering the water for snorkeling. To get in the water, you’ll need to navigate over some lava rock, which can be slippery and tough on your feet. Some snorkelers choose to wear water shoes, neoprene surf socks, or tabis (a local style water slipper) to protect their feet.
To make entering the water easier, wait to put on your mask, snorkel, and fins and carry them in one hand, leaving the other hand free to prevent a fall as you walk slowly over the rocky entrance area. On the other side of the rocks is a sandy bottom area that is shallow enough to stand in and put on your snorkeling gear. When exiting the water, use this same pathway.
If you are a decent swimmer, head toward the middle of Kahalu’u Bay where some of the larger coral heads can be found. Go slowly as you swim over the coral heads, or simply stop and float. This will give you a chance to spot some of the shy critters living inside. You will see a second lifeguard tower as you approach the center of the bay. Don’t go beyond this tower, as you will be entering into the surf zone.
Snorkel gear rental @ Kahalu’u
The mobile Kahalu’u Bay Education Center at the beach park rents snorkel gear, with rental fees going to support their education efforts. Another rental option cross the street from the surf beach is Kahalu’u Surf and Sea , who offer gear rental at daily and weekly rates.
There is a current in Kahalu’u Bay that flows north and out to sea. Usually, it’s mild in the snorkeling area, however, it can pick up with big swell. As you snorkel, periodically lift your head above water to check your surroundings and adjust your position.
Always pay attention to lifeguard’s announcements about surf conditions. If you are in distress, raising one hand above your head is a signal for help which the lifeguards will understand. If lifeguards are not on duty, call 911 in an emergency and give your location as Kahalu’u Beach Park snorkel beach.
Please respect the reef!
The ocean life in Kahalu’u bay is already suffering under the popularity of the beach so please be mindful of the following tips that help preserve the corals.
Coral is alive and touching or stepping on coral can damage or kill it. When snorkeling, do not chase or touch any living creatures, including the coral with your body or fins. While the water is relatively shallow, do not put your feet down or walk on the reef.
Another way you can help protect the reef is to use reef-safe sunscreen. Most major sunscreen brands contain chemicals that are known to cause coral bleaching and are harmful to the reef. Reef-safe sunscreens are made with the active ingredients Zinc oxide or Titanium dioxide. The previously mentioned mobile Kahalu’u Bay Education Center is parked at the beach daily with information on how to protect the reef while snorkeling and swimming.
For a list of reef-safe sunscreen brands and local retailers where they can be purchased, visit their website.
Surfing at Kahalu’u bay
Since ancient times, the northern end of Kahalu’u Bay has been a special place for surfing. The stunning, crystal clear water makes it possible to view the reef beneath your board. Kuʻemanu Heiau, which overlooks the break, was used to pray for good surfing conditions and to observe surfers.
Today, surfers still love catching waves at Kahalu’u Bay. Waves break and reform on the reef, offering smaller waves for beginners. When there’s swell, waves breaking on the outside can reach decent height of 4-6 feet or more for advanced surfers. The break is primarily a right hand break, but it is possible to catch some lefts on the far north end.
Surf Lessons & Surfboard Rentals
If you’re interested in learning to surf, Kahalu’u Bay is an excellent place for a lesson. Several different surf schools operate out of the bay:
- Hawaii Lifeguard Surf Instructors offers surf lessons and snorkeling lessons
- Kona Town Surf Adventures offers surfing and stand up paddle boarding lessons, plus customized surf adventures.
- Located right across from the surf break in an orange house is Kahalu’u Bay Surf and Sea, offering surf lessons, board rentals, and much more.
If you don’t want to rent your gear at the bay you can for example visit Miller’s Surf (located in downtown Kailua-Kona) for surfboard and boogie board rentals.
The current at Kahalu’u Bay can be quite strong in the surfing area, especially when there is big surf. The current pulls you north and out to sea. When surfing at Kahalu’u Bay, be sure to pick out landmarks on shore and periodically check your alignment with them. Those who are not experienced surfers are advised to stay on the inside, and not paddle out to the outside break, especially in high surf conditions.
Take care entering and exiting the water. The common entrance point for surfing the bay is next to the little blue church, Saint Peters by the Sea, which dates to 1880. This entrance point served as an ancient canoe landing site, and provides a relatively flat rock surface to gradually ease into the water. Take your time and walk slowly as the rocks can be slippery. Once out in the bay, avoid touching your feet to the reef, as it can damage the corals and/or cut you.
Please be respectful of locals who surf at Kahalu’u everyday. A simple friendly good morning can go a long way. Be courteous and take turns on waves. Never ‘drop in’ on a wave another surfer is already riding, or cut them off. Always keep a firm hold on your board, so you don’t hit another surfer with it.
Kahalu’u Beach Park Facilities
For surfers, bathrooms and an outdoor shower are located next door to the surfing area on the other side of the small black sand beach and lifeguard stand. There are some picnic tables on this side of the bay with a good view of the surf break.
For snorkelers, bathrooms and outdoor showers are located right next to the snorkeling beach and first lifeguard tower. There is a large covered picnic pavilion with a BBQ adjacent to the bathrooms which can be rented for special events. Additional picnic tables and BBQs are available on the far side of the beach in a palm grove.
A food truck serving up standard fare like burgers and hot dogs, cold drinks and ice cream is parked next to the picnic pavilion. For BBQ supplies, the KTA grocery store in the Keauhou Shopping Center is just a two minute drive south on Ali’i Drive.
Storage lockers for valuables
The food truck mentioned above also offers lock box rental for valuables. these lockers can only be taken out before 15:30.
Getting to the Kahalu’u Beach Park
Kahalu’u Bay is about 5 miles south of Kailua-Kona town center. Most people access it by car, but it can also be reached by the Kona Trolley, bike, or simply walking along scenic Ali’i Drive, depending on how far away you are staying.
You can find the current ocean conditions at the Kahalu’u beach park on the Hawaii Beach Safety website.
Parking is free at Kahalu’u Bay.
For snorkeling, the best place to park is in the parking lot on the south side of the bay, next to the bathrooms.
For surfing, parking is generally along the makai (ocean) side of the road on the northern end of the bay. Overflow parking on busy days can be found up Makolea St. directly across from the parking lot entrance, or along the mauka (mountain) side of the road.