We’re just a few miles from Oahu’s west coast when we spot a pod of 200 spotted dolphins. They see our boat, and race alongside. “Looks like they want to play,” our boat captain says. He turns the boat in a circle, and I watch in amazement as the creatures surf our wake, jumping together in groups of four or five. Closer to shore, we come across some 50 spinner dolphins. They’re in a “resting state,” swimming together slowly. We don snorkels and slip in the water, swimming above them, then beside them. For just a minute, I feel like one of the gang. It’s hard not to smile in my snorkel mask.
As a diver and snorkeler, I’ve had a wealth of experiences in the Hawaiian waters, but the real experts are local snorkel and dive outfitters. They know the best places to go according to season and conditions—and provide a safe, fun experience doing it. Diving requires dive certification, while you can learn to snorkel in about 10 minutes. This easy water sport is good for all ages and abilities. You simply don a mask and fins, stick your head underwater and breathe through a tube. One tip: You might be more comfortable learning in protected shallow waters where you can stand up, rather than in open waters.
There are many protected bays in Hawaii where you can snorkel right off shore. Here are some of the best places to get your feet wet and experience Hawaii underwater.
Snorkeling on the Big Island
The Big Island is younger than the other Hawaiian Islands, so it has fewer beaches. But that youthful age means that the island’s reefs are young and healthy, and offer some of the best snorkeling and diving in the islands. Kealakekua Bay is one example. Back in 1779, world explorer Captain James Cook was killed here by Hawaiian natives.
Today, the bay is popular with divers and snorkelers. You’ll need a canoe or boat to get here, though. I went with local outfitter, Sea Quest and their insight was invaluable. The Sea Quest tour also stopped at Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historic Park. This historic “Place of Refuge” is where ancient Hawaiians found sanctuary. Adjacent to it is Honaunau Bay, another top snorkeling location. This site is also accessible from shore. One of my favorite shore snorkeling spots is Kahalu’u Beach Park. Reefs protect the bay, providing safe waters, abundant sea life and great snorkeling.
This is where I taught my children to snorkel. They were thrilled to find fish everywhere, even knee deep. We saw some of our favorites, a spotted boxfish with her big, doey eyes, comical bluespine unicornfish, yellow tang and more. The Big Island is a diver’s paradise. Popular sites vary according to the season and conditions, but most are found on the Kona and Kohala coasts. Popular off-shore sites include Golden Arches, Long Lava Tube and Sharkies Cove. Favorite shore diving spots are Suck ’em up (a lava tube with beautiful sky lights), Puhi Bay and Place of Refuge.
Snorkeling in Kauai
Only 33 miles long and 25 miles wide, Kauai is tiny, but mighty in all that this beautiful island offers visitors. There are dozens of ways to play in—or on—the water. If you want to see the scenery as well as the ocean’s bounty, go sailing along Kauai’s Napali Coast. The rugged coastline can only be viewed by boat or helicopter. One option is a sunset dinner cruise. The rugged cliff, lush valleys, waterfalls and sea caves are beautiful—and you’ll probably see dolphins, whales and sea turtles. Kauai Sea Tours (kauaiseatours.com) offers a great experience. Inland, the Garden Isle is lush and green, and covered with hidden pools and waterfalls. We took a zipline tour (outfitterskauai.com) that zipped us across lush valleys, and then let us swim in a secluded mountain pool with a scenic waterfall roaring nearby.
Snorkeling is popular on Kauai. Poipu Beach Park is good option for families. Its protected bay has nice snorkeling, and there are lifeguards, bathrooms and showers onsite. Anini Beach, which has the longest reef on Kauai, is another favorite. The near-shore water is shallow, and the underwater canyons at reef’s edge are brimming with life. Ke’e Beach is also a popular snorkeling spot, but visit it only in the summer. During the winter, high surf and powerful current make it dangerous.
In Kauai, swim and snorkel on the north shore during summer and on the southern shore during the winter. Even then, always be careful when visiting the north- and east-facing shores, even in the shallows, as there are dangerous riptides.
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