The Big Island has certainly earned its nickname. With an area of 4,028 mi2, it dwarfs all the other islands in the Hawaiian archipelago. In fact, it’s more than six times as large as Oahu!
Now, when it comes to snorkeling, the size of the Big Island becomes your advantage. You’ll find 265 miles of coastline on the Big Island—2.3 times as much as Oahu. In other words, there’s plenty of shoreline to explore.
To kickstart your Big Island snorkeling adventures, we’ve put together a list of the eight best spots to snorkel on the Orchid Isle. Whether you’re new to the Big Island, considering a move, or just looking for new ways to enjoy your island home, we’ll show you where to go, what to expect when you get there, and what amenities you’ll find.
First, we’ll start with a few snorkeling tips so you can make the most of your time in the water.
3 Tips for Snorkeling on the Big Island
Check the Conditions Before Going Out
Because of its isolated position in the Pacific, the Hawaiian Islands are subject to significant wind, waves, swells, and currents. If you want to have a calm and relaxing day of snorkeling—and who doesn’t?!?—make sure to look at the day’s conditions before choosing a destination. A big swell or high winds can make snorkeling difficult and downright unpleasant—as well as reduce visibility to practically nothing. Pick a calm bay, and you’ll have a clearer, more serene viewing experience.
Embrace That Island Pace
Everything in Hawaii moves at its own, unhurried speed. Embrace that pace while you’re snorkeling. Many of the wonders you’ll see in and around Hawaii’s coral reefs can only be spotted if you’re going slowly. (Plus, quick movements can scare away nearby marine life!) Take your time and look closely to spot some of Hawaii’s more interesting sea life—octopus that change colors to camouflage with their surroundings, eels peering out of their hiding spots in the reef, miniature shrimp crawling across the underwater landscape, and tiny cleaner fish zipping in and around the gills of larger fish. If you’re flying over the reef, you may miss these mesmerizing sights.
Help Protect the Reef
Like many of Hawaii’s ecosystems, coral reefs are fragile. If you’d like to help care for these underwater wonders so generations to come can enjoy them, there are a couple of things you can do. Don’t touch the reef or put your fins down on it. Coral is a living organism that’s easily damaged. Additionally, consider reef-safe sunscreen, which doesn’t contain certain chemicals that can damage reefs. If you need some advice on finding reef-safe sunscreen, check out this article from Hawaii magazine. Every little bit helps!
Now that you’re prepped for a day of snorkeling, let’s talk about where to go for the best snorkeling on the Big Island.
The 8 Best Snorkel Spots on the Big Island
Best for snorkeling with a side of history
Expect plenty of fish and coral at this spot, also known as “Two Step” for the two stair-like rocks that offer entry to the water at Honaunau Bay. Parking in the area can be a little tricky, but if you’re willing to pay ~$5, there are some options for parking on private land. Arrive early to get a good spot, then snorkel to your heart’s content.
Once you’ve gotten your fill of watersports, head next door to Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park. This park was formerly a place of refuge for those who had broken any of the kapu restrictions that once governed the Hawaiian people. Tour the park to get a deeper understanding of Hawaiian society before European arrivals and discover the beliefs and traditions that made this area so significant to Hawaii’s original inhabitants.
Best for snorkelers with a spirit of adventure
There’s so much to see at Kealakekua Bay. First, the area is a Marine Life Conservation District that’s a playground for tons of aquatic creatures, including numerous varieties of fish, turtles, and sometimes even dolphins. The bay is also a state historical park that features the Captain Cook Monument and the hikiau heiau, a Hawaiian religious site that remains sacred to the Hawaiian people.
To access the full reaches of the bay for the best snorkeling, you’ll need to 1) go on a boat charter or 2) kayak around, either on a guided tour or a self-guided expedition. If you’re really adventurous, you can also hike with your gear to the other side of the bay where the Captain Cook Monument sits and get in the water there. The hike is a pretty strenuous one, with an elevation change of about ~1300 feet. If you’re not up for that level of activity, stick to one of the boating options.
Note: The Division of State Parks requires any boats accessing Kealakekua Bay to maintain valid permits. (View the list of authorized tour companies.) If you rent a kayak, make sure to ask the operator whether their permits are current.
Kahalu’u Beach Park
Best for families with kids of all ages
Kahalu’u Beach Park has a ton to offer snorkelers: calm, protected waters; plentiful fish life; frequent turtle sightings; shallow tide pools for exploring; and lifeguards to keep an eye on everyone. It’s a great spot for a family with kids of all ages. The shallow waters at Kahalu’u are perfect for beginning snorkelers, and they contain plenty of marine life to entertain older kids. Plus, kids who might be more into land-based adventures will enjoy spotting crabs, urchins, tiny fish, and other inhabitants of the area’s tide pools. When there’s a swell at Kahalu’u, make sure to avoid the surfing zone (which isn’t great for visibility, anyway)!
Richardson Ocean Park
Best for a calm, quiet day of snorkeling
The eastern coast of the Big Island isn’t always the best place to snorkel. Hawaii’s tradewinds blow east-northeast, so the bays surrounding Hilo are often experience more wind and waves—in contrast to the more protected western coast, where you’ll find many of our other recommended snorkel spots.
However, the waters at Richardson Ocean Park are largely protected and shallow, creating one of the calmer swimming areas on the Hilo side of the Big Island. There are also plenty of shallow tide pools to explore. If you find yourself on the windward coast and you’re looking for a serene day of snorkeling, look no further than Richardson Ocean Park.
Finally, don’t miss the fascinating sand at Richardson, which is a mixture of black volcanic sand and green olivine crystals. Although Richardson appears less green than the Big Island’s famous Papakolea Beach, its unique sand mixture is still worth a close look!
Best for setting up to enjoy a day at the beach
You can’t go wrong with a trip to Kauna’oa Beach, also known as Mauna Kea Beach. This is the beach that Laurance Rockefeller fell in love with on his first trip to Hawaii, which inspired him to build the adjacent Mauna Kea Beach Hotel resort.
In addition to an incredible, postcard-perfect white sand beach, you’ll find excellent snorkeling in the bay. This wide beach also offers plenty of room for you to set up for the whole day so you can dip in and out of the water as you please. Parking is limited for visitors who aren’t staying at the resort, so make sure to arrive early!
Best for offering a little something for everyone
When the water is calm, snorkeling at Hapuna Beach can be rewarding. Pick a tranquil day, head to either end of the beach, and drift along the rocky edges to spot the wide variety of marine life in the bay. The farther you get from shore, the better the visibility tends to be. For this reason, it’s a spot best left to more experienced swimmers and snorkelers.
There’s a long, wide beach at Hapuna, so everyone else in your party can easily enjoy a relaxing day at this gorgeous beach. Or, if you’ve got some members of your party who aren’t “sit on the beach” people, there’s also the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail to explore. In other words, when you’re planning a day for a group with different priorities, Hapuna can make a great home base with options for snorkeling, sunning, hiking, and splashing in the warm Hawaii waters.
Best for an uncrowded snorkel
Also known as 49 Black Sand Beach, Honoka’ope Bay is accessed through the Mauna Lani Beach Resort. Perhaps because of the limited parking—or the competition from the surrounding white sand beaches—you’ll find fewer people on this small beach. However limited the shore-based action may be, you’ll find a ton of activity under the surface of the water. As you float along the pay’s pristine reef, you’ll find yourself surrounded by a busy population of colorful tropical fish. When the water is calm, you’ll also enjoy crystal-clear water to afford you an excellent view of the area’s fascinating underwater rock structures.
Bonus: Swim with Manta Rays
Best for an unforgettable, only-in-Hawaii experience
Just off the Kona Coast, manta rays gather at night to feed on plankton. Hop a boat with one of the Big Island’s local tour operators to snorkel with these majestic creatures. You’ll get to watch as they swoop and dive to collect their nightly dinner. Options are available for both snorkelers and divers. Facilities vary by boat, but most include a restroom and a freshwater shower. Whether you’re a die-hard snorkeling fan or just a casual enthusiast, don’t miss this unforgettable underwater experience.
There’s Plenty More to Explore on the Big Island
These eight snorkel spots are just the beginning of what you’ll find on the Big Island. If outdoor exploration is one of your passions, you’ll love the Orchid Isle. In addition to the underwater adventures off the coast, you’ll also find land-based adventures all around the island. Whether you’ve got a week, a few years, or a lifetime, the Big Island’s beaches, rainforests, volcanoes, waterfalls, farmland, and other incredible landscapes will deliver a multitude of unforgettable experiences.
Moving to the Big Island? We’d love to assist! With warehouses and teams in both Hilo and Kailua-Kona, we can help you move your belongings anywhere on the Big Island—safely, easily, and affordably. Just reach out to one of our experts to get started with a complimentary quote.