Hawaii is known for lush, tropical nature and beautiful sea life. Many consider Hawaii one of the best snorkeling destinations in the world for a variety of reasons. The best snorkeling in Hawaii has to do with crystal-clear visibility, turquoise blue waters, sandy beaches, gentle swimming conditions, and relatively docile marine life. Some of the more popular Hawaii-specific sea animals encountered by snorkelers including spinner dolphins, green sea turtles, and monk seals. Many snorkelers also have the good fortune of hearing whale song from the gentle giants miles away as they travel between the islands.

If you’re headed to Hawaii, then you’re probably wondering about the best snorkeling spots so you can plan them into your trip. To help, our top 10 snorkeling sites are outlined below, starting with the gentlest locations and progressing toward a night snorkel that will blow your mind. For me, Shark’s Cove, Oahu, is at the top of my list for the best snorkeling in Hawaii (it was the location of my first ever scuba dive and then subsequent adventures). Let us know down below if any of these sites make your Hawaii trip itinerary!

DIFFICULTY

Beginner

DEPTH

0ft to 40ft (0 to 12 meters)

VISIBILITY

Up to 60ft (18 meters)

ACCESSIBILITY

Sandy shore entry or boat

NOTABLE SEALIFE

Green sea turtles, moray eels, octopus

NOTABLE TERRAIN/LANDMARKS

Turtle reef, Maui

Just like the name says, Turtle Town is one of the best locations to spot honu, called Hawaiian green sea turtles. The turtles are protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and go up onto the shore to rest without worrying about being touched or harassed. Make sure not to touch a turtle, as it is illegal, and tourists have been fined for violating the ESA in the past. That being said, the site is well known for its amazing amount of turtles swimming or resting themselves on the beach. Since the shore is beautiful soft sand, visibility may be impacted in the shallows, so swim out a little bit to gain clearer visibility. Also, if you swim out around the point, there is another excellent snorkeling spot known as Five Caves. Parking can be limited, so make sure to show up early at this swim with turtles Hawaii spot.

turtle snorkeling hawaii

DIFFICULTY

Beginner

DEPTH

0ft to 100ft (0 to 30 meters)

VISIBILITY

80ft (24 meters)

ACCESSIBILITY

Sandy shore entry

NOTABLE SEALIFE

Spinner dolphins, turtles

NOTABLE TERRAIN/LANDMARKS

Shallow tide pools

Hulapoe Beach on Lanai is truly a place to bring the whole family. It has everything for a perfect outing — a beautiful white sand beach entry, gentle swimming conditions, public bathrooms, and picnic tables. The left side of the bay has more of the coral, with larger coral heads the deeper you swim. This snorkeling bay area is mostly known for the number of dolphins that tend to show up, with some snorkelers reporting 40-50 dolphins in a single day. The bay also has a lot of tide pools to explore as well. Make a day of it by bringing along a Hawaii fish guide and trying to spot the cutest puffer fish Hawaii has to offer, the longest trumpet fish Hawaii has ever seen or the shiniest barracuda Hawaii has waiting in the shallows.

under the sea hawaii

DIFFICULTY

Beginner

DEPTH

2ft to 45ft (1 to 9 meters) (within the cove)

VISIBILITY

80ft (24 meters)

ACCESSIBILITY

Rocky shore entry

NOTABLE SEALIFE

Big fish schools, turtle snorkeling Oahu, sea urchins

NOTABLE TERRAIN/LANDMARKS

Underwater rock formations, lava tubes and caves

Shark’s Cove is one of the most famous locations for snorkeling North Shore, Oahu. Half of the cove is open to the ocean, while the other half is protected by coral and rock formations, making it ideal for less confident or experienced swimmers. The entrance to Shark’s Cove is rocky, so wearing water shoes is recommended for wading in. Despite the name, there are not usually sharks at Shark’s Cove, as they prefer sandy bottoms not rocky. You’d be much more likely to snorkel with turtles Oahu style here than sharks. Swim here in summer, as winter swells can bring big waves into the cove which makes it dangerous. In summer, the water is usually calm, with snorkelers being able to easily explore the unique underwater rock formations caused by cooled lava and coral. This is some of the best snorkeling on Oahu due to its unique features. A small parking lot is nearby as well as food trucks.

snorkeling oahu turtles

DIFFICULTY

Beginner

DEPTH

10ft to 30ft (3 to 9 meters)

VISIBILITY

45ft (14 meters)

ACCESSIBILITY

Rocky shore entry

NOTABLE SEALIFE

Turtles, octopus, colorful reef fish

NOTABLE TERRAIN/LANDMARKS

Lava formations, corals

The Ahihi Kinau Natural Area Reserve is one of the best places to go with younger children who may not be strong snorkelers, as the area is very protected. Wear water shoes to make it across lava rock shoreline to enter the water. This area is known for being very gentle and calm. As such, pregnant sharks like to come here to give birth. During that time, the reserve will be closed and there will be signs up alerting you to not swim there, both for you and the sharks (such as in April 2019). Maui shark tracking is an important part of monitoring the sea life of the area and is nothing to be overly concerned with. For example, tiger shark tracking Maui has been ongoing since 2016 by the Pacific Islands Ocean Observing System. As a nature reserve, there are park rangers who monitor the area and can give you recommendations on entry points.

kauai reef fish

DIFFICULTY

Beginner/Intermediate

DEPTH

3ft to 40 ft (1 to 12 meters)

VISIBILITY

Up to 80ft (25 meters)

ACCESSIBILITY

Sandy shore entry

NOTABLE SEALIFE

Monk seals, schooling fish, big corals

NOTABLE TERRAIN/LANDMARKS

Undersea coral tunnels, lagoon

One of the most famous snorkeling locations on Kauai is Makua, also known as Tunnels Beach. This location is famous for its “tunnels,” holes through coral which snorkelers can carefully swim through if they’d like. Tunnels Beach snorkeling is known for being a turtle beach Kauai keeps stocked with plenty of turtles and monk seals sleeping on the sand. There are two different swimming locations, one for beginner and one for intermediate snorkelers and scuba divers. The reef running parallel along the shoreline on the left is excellent for beginners, with protection from currents and waves allowing schools of fish to swim gently among the corals. Beyond that reef is a horseshoe-shaped reef which created a protected lagoon inside of it, which requires an intermediate level of swimming skill to get to. When snorkeling North Shore, Kauai, swimming outside of that protected area is not recommended, or only so for advanced swimmers, as currents may be strong. Swim here in summer, as winter swells can make these Kauai snorkel spots dangerous.

DIFFICULTY

Intermediate

DEPTH

8ft to 20ft (2 to 6 meters)

VISIBILITY

60ft (19 meters)

ACCESSIBILITY

Rocky shore entry

NOTABLE SEALIFE

Spinner dolphins, turtles, eels

NOTABLE TERRAIN/LANDMARKS

Lava flow formations, “Two-Step”

Any Big Island snorkeling map is sure to have this site listed near the top. Honaunau Bay is nicknamed “Two-Steps” for a section of worn lava rock which looks like two giant steps leading from the lava flow shore down into the water. This is the entry point. While a line may form to enter here, it is worth it. Entering at Two-Steps is not only the safest for your legs, but also for the coral in the bay. Please note that the water is about 8ft deep upon entry — something to keep in mind if snorkeling with young or unsure swimmers. Big Island marine life in the bay ranges from coral to turtles to even spinner dolphins. If you’re looking for sea turtles Big Island style, then look no further.

DIFFICULTY

Intermediate

DEPTH

5ft to 150ft ( 2 to 45 meters)

VISIBILITY

Up to 100ft (30 meters)

ACCESSIBILITY

Kayak into the bay (or advanced steep hike in)

NOTABLE SEALIFE

Spinner dolphins, eels, octopus

NOTABLE TERRAIN/LANDMARKS

Beautiful corals

Kealakeua Bay near the Captain Cook monument is a marine reserve in near pristine condition. This site features gorgeous corals, schools of colorful fish and dolphins which often visit. Much of the coral is around the base of the monument, so make sure not to stand on the fragile coral. Instead, look for rocky or concrete footholds. You need a permit to explore the protected bay via kayak, so most snorkelers recommend renting kayaks or snorkeling with a local tour company. You can also hike in then snorkel (no permit needed), but the 2.5-mile path is long and steep — a fact many snorkelers have lamented having to complete post-snorkel. The bay park area also has public restrooms and a picnic area.

kids snorkeling maui

DIFFICULTY

Intermediate

DEPTH

16ft to 100ft (4 to 30 meters)

VISIBILITY

Up to 180ft (55 meters)

ACCESSIBILITY

Boat

NOTABLE SEALIFE

Spinner dolphins, monk seals, sea turtles

NOTABLE TERRAIN/LANDMARKS

Gorgeous reefs, under mountains

Nualolo Kai on the Na Pali Coast of Kauai is a snorkeling location out of a dream. Its location is remote, with the corals reaching up to the cliffs below a 2,300-foot mountain range. Snorkelers have commented on the crystal-clear visibility and healthy corals of this undisturbed site. The north side of the beach often has lounging monk seals sunbathing. The main draw of this location is that not many people can get there, and anchoring on the shore is prohibited, so snorkelers get an amazing view of what an undisturbed reef environment looks like. In fact, it is so remote that there is no wi-fi or cell network out there at all.

kauai versus maui

DIFFICULTY

Intermediate

DEPTH

0ft to 40ft (0 to 12 meters) (inside crater)

VISIBILITY

Up to 100ft (30 meters)

ACCESSIBILITY

Boat

NOTABLE SEALIFE

Manta ray, big oceanic fish, whale songs

NOTABLE TERRAIN/LANDMARKS

Submerged volcanic crater, corals

big 5 snorkel

Molokini Crater is a submerged crescent-shaped volcanic crater 2.5 miles off of Maui’s south shore. The crater is listed as a Marine Life Conservation District Seabird Sanctuary, which has allowed marine life to flourish. The site is only accessible by boat and the edges of the crescent are sheer cliffs which cannot be climbed. As such, there is no shore to stand on, which makes this an intermediate level snorkeling destination. However, the shape and location of Molokini means that the inside of the crescent is protected from waves, currents, and wind, which allows for amazing crystal-blue visibility, gentle swimming conditions, and phenomenal sea life. There are an estimated 250 species of tropical fish at this single crater. On the outside of the crater, is a “wall” which drops down, down, down into the deep. It’s an amazing view from the surface.

DIFFICULTY

Intermediate

DEPTH

N/A (You hold onto a floating board on the surface)

VISIBILITY

Up to 80ft (24 meters)

ACCESSIBILITY

Boat

NOTABLE SEALIFE

Manta rays

NOTABLE TERRAIN/LANDMARKS

N/A (At night)

where to go in hawaii in december

This snorkeling option is for the true snorkeling adventurists. If you’re an avid night diver, night snorkeler or love manta rays, then this is going to be the best snorkeling on the Big Island possible. During a manta ray night snorkel, you ride out in a boat to a location known for manta ray sightings, such as Manta Village (96% success rate) or Manta Heaven (90% success rate). At these locations, giant lights are submerged in the water, attracting and illuminating plankton, which attracts manta rays. When snorkelers get into the water, they hold onto floating boards which have lights on the bottoms, to attract more plankton. Snorkelers “hang” from these boards instead of free snorkeling because snorkeling fins can hurt the manta rays. Instead, snorkelers stay at the surface, watching manta rays swirl and glide as they feed on the tiny plankton all around them. This is not to be missed if you love night snorkeling or manta rays. It’s also something to consider if comparing Oahu or Big Island, Big Island or Kauai, as manta ray night snorkels are most popular on the Big Island.

BEST SNORKELING MONTHS

The absolute best snorkeling conditions occur in summer, between May, June, and July. During these summer months, there is warm water and warm air meaning you can snorkel for longer, smaller swells compared to winter, less rain to muddy water visibility and less severe currents. In August or September, tropical hurricanes may randomly cause heavy rains, flash floods, and unsafe swimming conditions.

RAINFALL

The three months with the most rainfall (averaged between the four major islands) include December (3.56 inches), January (2.84 inches) and March (2.82 inches). On the other hand, the average driest months are June (0.68 inches) and July (0.97 inches).

TIME ZONE: Hawaii-Aleutian Standard Time (GMT-10)

CURRENCY: US Dollar (USD)

CALLING CODE: +1

ELECTRIC VOLT: 120V

PLUG TYPE: A and B

MAIN AIRPORT: Hilo International Airport ITO

NOTABLE DIVING LANDMARKS: Arizona Memorial

1. Oahu vs. Maui

Both Oahu and Maui have stunning snorkeling locations. Oahu is more often visited, which can lead to crowds, but also easily-navigated public transportation and amenities for tourists. Meanwhile, Maui offers the less-beaten path but may have less help in getting you to those locations. Also, consider plans out of the water. Maui is known for its relaxing atmosphere and slow pace of daily life while Oahu is known for its nightlife and attractions.

2. Kauai vs. Big Island

The Big Island has better snorkeling compared to Kauai, which is known for its rainfall, which can damage visibility. However, Kauai is a lusher island, with the emerald beauty of plant life unmatched by the Big Island. Kauai is a small island, so can be explored within a few days. Meanwhile, the Big Island may take longer to properly explore, with volcanoes for the adventurous.

3. Big Island vs. Oahu

As of 2018, roughly 50% of all Hawaiian tourists go to Oahu, with around 15% going to the Big Island. Oahu is the visitor capital of Hawaii, with hotels, restaurants, shows, and nightlife to make sure people have a great time. However, this doesn’t always translate during snorkeling, where being with many others may be annoying. Those looking for a quieter Hawaiian experience would probably fare better on the Big Island, compared to Oahu.

4. What are the best places to snorkel on Kauai?

For the best taste of the “true Hawaii,” this recommendation needs to go to Nualolo Kai on the Na Pali Coast. It’s the best place to snorkel in Kauai because it is super remote, with crystal-clear visibility, near pristine sea life and towering mountains overhead. What’s not to love?

5. What are the best places to snorkel on Oahu?

Hanauma Bay is often listed as one of the best places to snorkel in the US. However, the reason Hanauma Bay didn’t make this top 10 list is that due to its popularity, it is often overcrowded with an average of 2,600 daily visitors. All of these visitors have led not only to reef damage by careless snorkelers but also from discarded trash and sunscreen runoff into the water (Hawaii banned certain sunscreens as a result).

6. Is Hawaii worth it?

Yes, Hawaii is worth it. Each island has its own unique characteristics, with something for everyone. Those looking for a more secluded and quieter time surrounded by lush nature may opt for Maui or Kauai, while the Big Island offers more space to explore and locations for adventure and Oahu has the biggest amount of nightlife and tourist attractions. All islands are beautiful in their own right, with gorgeous snorkeling and scuba diving locations of their own.

best hawaii snorkel spot 2020

If you enjoyed our article but would prefer snorkeling on the east coast instead, fret not, we have put together some great content on the best snorkeling spots in Florida as well. We also have a review that only covers Florida Keys snorkeling locations.

As always, we create our content with you – our fellow divers – in mind. So, how’d we do? Was this informative? Do you think our rankings are out of whack? Or perhaps you just have a few golden nugget tips you’d like to share with our happy ocean-loving community? We’d love to hear from you below.

Thanks for reading and we hope your next adventure is a great one – Keep Diving Blue!

Kate Blake

Kate is a product expert, a degreed marine biologist, and a fearless traveler originally from the west coast of America. Kate has been a PADI-certified Divemaster for over 15 years, during which time she has trained hundreds of Advanced divers. She has been scuba diving in over 15 countries worldwide and specializes in cold water diving, night diving, and navigation. Her key interests include teaching English, marine conservation, sampling foreign cuisines, and cenote diving.

One Comment

  • Michael J Botos says:

    Nice page. I assume that picture after each of the places described was supposed to be of that place. For #6, “Two Steps” the picture is of Hanauma Bay if I am not mistaken.

    The GoPro video later down would be a much better video/photo to show “Two Step”, particularly the water entry.

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