Captain Cook monument on the Big Island

Hawaii’s top snorkeling spots!

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We list our 3 favorite snorkeling spots on the Big Island to help you make the best of your time in Hawaii. We think that if you put on your snorkeling gear and start swimming around the Big Island, you [a] will never get bored, but [b] will be busy for a long, long time.

Because you probably do not have enough time to explore all snorkeling spots on the Big Island we give you our favorite snorkeling spots.

We recommend the following 3 snorkeling spots because of their abundance of marine life and easy accessibility:

Green sea turtle
Snorkeling encounter with a Green sea turtle on Hawaii. Photograph by Steve Jurvetson on Flickr

You can find more places to snorkel in our list of 13 snorkeling spots close to Kona.

If you want to find out more about snorkeling safety and the best places to rent (or buy!) your snorkeling gear on Hawaii, check out our Big Island snorkeling guide. Also, if you have not done so already, please take 8 minutes and have a look at this informative video about Hawaiian Reef etiquette.

Another very exciting snorkeling adventure – at night – on the big island that you might want to consider is the Manta Ray Night Dive. Imagine floating in the dark ocean holding only a flashlight, looking down on giant Manta rays (up to 12 ft wide) swirling below you while they feed on plankton!!

Kahaluʻu Beach Park, Kailua Kona

Kahaluʻu Bay is a great place for people that are new to snorkeling. An unremarkable beach park close to Kona (±20 minutes drive south of the airport) hides one of the best places to snorkel on the big island. The easily accessible, sheltered, and shallow bay is home to one of the highest concentrations of fishes on Hawaii.  At low tide there are plenty of tide pools to explore that are teeming with tropical fish.

Kahaluʻu Beach is also famous for its Honu (sea turtles). On any given day you’ll be able to see quite a few of them feeding on seaweed and sunning themselves on the warm rocks.

There are also many surfers at this beach. Make sure to stay on the south (left when looking towards the ocean) side of the beach while snorkeling.

Kahaluʻu beach park is located off of Ali’i Drive in Kailua-Kona. There are restrooms, showers, picnic tables, and two large pavilions in the beach park.  This is also one of the few beaches with a lifeguard on duty.  The parking lot can get full quickly so the earlier you go the better.

its proximity to Kona makes this beach park an ideal place for a last-minute snorkel. Getting there and back from Kona plus an hour of leisure snorkeling will only cost you two hours!

kahalu;u beach park, snorkeling, big island, beach park
Kahalu’u beach park is one of the best places to go snorkeling on the Big Island. Close to Kona just off Ali’i drive. Image credit: google maps

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Kealakekua Bay, 17 miles south of Kona

Kealakekua bay is an underwater marine sanctuary where you often can find dolphins and sea turtles.  To get here you have to drive approximately 17 miles south of Kona along Highway 11. The bay is also know as “Captain Cook” after 27-foot tall monument commemorating the death of capt. Cook at this bay on February 14th, 1779.

The center of the bay is deep, and you can often find a pod of spinner dolphins playing around here. There are plenty of good spots for snorkeling in the bay, but the best snorkeling spot is on the opposite side of the bay from the parking area, close to the captain Cook monument.

Captain Cook monument on the Big Island
The best snorkeling in Kealakekua bay is around the Captain Cook monument, but getting there is difficult. The easiest (but expensive, ~$100) option is to book a snorkeling cruise.

The local ecosystem in Kealakekua Bay has recently suffered greatly under its own popularity, and getting to the other side of the bay on your own is difficult now.

To get there you either have to swim for about 1.5 miles (bad plan), hike to the opposite side of the bay, or rent a kayak and paddle out to the Captain Cook monument yourself. It is illegal to land your kayak at the monument without a permit, please see the instructions on obtaining a permit below.

You can also choose to go on a snorkeling boat tour that will take you to where you want to be in a half-day cruise (for example the fair-wind cruise, more tour operators).

kealakekua bay, snorkeling, big island, hawaii, captain cook
Mealakekua bay is a 1-mile wide bay close to the town of Captain Cook on the Big Island. The best snorkeling is on the north (left on the picture) side of the bay. Image credit: google maps

Permits and (illegal) kayak rentals at Captain Cook

As stated, the local ecosystem in Kealakekua Bay has recently suffered greatly under its own popularity. To prevent further damage to the shoreline and coral reef, the Division of State Parks now issues mandatory permits for people seeking to land vessels along the Ka‘awaloa shoreline or moor at the wharf adjacent to the Captain Cook Monument in the bay. For additional information on how to obtain a permit contact the State Parks office in Hilo at (808) 974-6200.

You are not required to get your own permit when renting a kayak if the vessel they rent possesses a valid permit for transiting the bay.

There will be people offering kayak rentals on the side of Hwy 11 – please ask for their permit since they also are required to obtain one. Only three companies have been issued permits by the Division of State Parks to lead guided commercial Kayak Tours to the Captain Cook Monument: Adventures in Paradise, Aloha Kayak Co, and Kona Boys, Inc.

Why Kealakekua Bay is also called “Captain Cook”

The answer to this question seems obvious because of the Captain Cook monument (the white obelisk) on the north side of the bay.  The reason why this monument is here is very interesting. Anyone with an interest in history who is planning to visiting the bay should have a deeper look into this for extra stories and local knowledge.

On February 14, 1779, Captain James Cook was killed in this bay during his 3rd visit to the Hawaiian islands. This happened in a conflict that could probably have easily been avoided with more knowledge of the Hawaiian culture.

You can find a well-written account of the events in an article on the coffeetimes website called “the demise of Captain Cook“.

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Honaunau Bay – the City of Refuge, 22 miles south of Kona

The famous snorkeling spot at Honaunau bay is called Pae’a, and is also know as “Two Step”.

Honaunau Bay is often referred to as the “City of Refuge”, after the Puuhonua O Honaunau National Historic Park (also know as – you guessed it – the City of Refuge). The Travel Channel named Honaunau Bay one of “America’s Best Beaches 2004”. A big reason for this is that due to a very advantageous layout of the bay, the water is almost always calm and the waters have exceptional visibility most of the year.

This spot is often rated the second best place on the Big Island for snorkeling after Captain Cook. The waters are usually clear and the average depth is about 20ft. Often you can see pods of dolphins swimming close to shore. There is a very easy place to enter the water called Pae’a or “Two Step”. It is at the end of a finger of lava and easy to find because you will see lots of people getting in the water.

Two step in Honaunau Bay
Two step (Pae’a) in Honaunau Bay is one of the best places to snorkel on the Big Island of Hawaii. Two step is named after two steps in the lava rocks that allow access to the ocean.

The north (right) and south (left) side of the bay are very different because of their difference in depths. We recommend swimming to both so you get the complete picture of the bay. The left-hand side is the shallower side and tends to be where you can see most turtles.  The depth averages from about 10 to 25 feet. The right-hand side starts out shallow and slowly descends to over 30 feet, and then again quickly to well over 100 feet.  This deeper part of the bay is where the spinner dolphins like to hang out.


To get to the city of refuge, drive 23 miles south of Kona over highway 11. There is no dedicated parking lot so you have to leave your car along the road. Because of this, and because the sky will often become cloudy later in the day, mornings are the best time to snorkel here. If you can make it early, we recommend that you get in the water no later than 10 A.M. There are no concession stands or showers.  Remember to bring your own food and water.  There are port-a-potty restrooms available.

two step, snorkeling, Honaunau bay, hawaii, pae'a
Two step is the name of the entrance to the water just left of the center of this image. This is one of the best snorkeling spots of the Big Island. Image credit: google maps.

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