The best snorkeling spots in Big Island, a complete guide

Big Island (the island of Hawaii), with its active volcanoes, is the youngest and largest island in the Hawaiian chain. The coral reefs mainly developed along its western coast, sheltered from trade winds and the ocean swell. 

Although Big Island’s reefs are quite young, they are among the most beautiful and healthiest in the main Hawaiian Islands. Most snorkeling spots are accessible from the rocks and, in the absence of sandy beaches, the underwater visibility is often excellent.

Kahaulu reef
Kahalu’u lagoon, sheltered and shallow, is a perfect snorkeling location.

About fifteen snorkel spots are inventoried on Big Island, mostly concentrated in the Kailua-Kona region, on the west coast of the island. This side of the island generally offers perfect conditions for snorkeling.

In Kona city center, you’ll find decent snorkeling at Kamakahonu Beach, aka King Kam Beach. The area, very small and shallow, is sheltered by the harbor breakwater. Kids, in particular, will enjoy spotting colorful fish there.

Coral reef at Kahaluu
An ember parrotfish, terminal phase, at Kahalu’u Bay‘s reef flat.

Located about 6 miles south of Kailua-Kona, Kahalu’u Bay is one of the most famous spots on the island. Here the reef forms kind of a half-lagoon, and the Hawaiian reef life, including green sea turtles, can be observed up close in this area.

1 mile further south, Keauhou Bay is another good option for exploring the underwater world near Kona. At nightfall, manta rays come here to feed on the clouds of plankton attracted by the floodlights of the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa. If you want to witness this amazing experience, you will need to book a guided boat trip.

Going further down the coast, you’ll then reach the Captain Cook area, which is home to the two most beautiful snorkeling spots on the island.

Snorkeling with dolphins in Two Step
With its protected reef, its sea turtles, its colorful fish, and the regular visit of spinner dolphins, Two Step is a not-to-be-missed snorkeling spot in Big Island.

The first is Two Step, in Honaunau Bay, bordering Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park. Its superb coral reef, full of fish and open to the ocean, is regularly visited by green sea turtles, along with Hawaiian monk seals and spinner dolphins. This is a world-class spot and not to be missed if you are visiting the island.

The second, Captain Cook Monument, is located in Kealakekua Bay. Its reef drop off is pretty healthy and its setting is superb. This location can be reached by boat or by hiking the small path which goes down to the monument. On the other side of the bay, Napoopoo reef is also worth a visit.

Captain Cook Monument snorkeling spot
Aerial view of Captain Cook Monument snorkeling spot, fringed by a narrow coral reef.

On Big Island’s northwest coast, there are several good snorkeling spots around Waikoloa. Kaunaoa Beach, aka Mauna Kea Beach, is the most famous, but great underwater life awaits you at Waialea Bay (Beach 69) and Puako Bay. In these areas, you enter the water from the boat ramp. While Hapuna Beach is great to enjoy the Hawaiian sun, snorkeling here is just decent compared to neighboring spots.

Near the northern tip of Big Island, two other locations are recommended: Mahukona Beach Park and Kapa’a Beach Park. These places are more remote and you’ll sometimes enjoy the spots without any other snorkelers.

The Hilo area, the main town on the Big Island’s east coast, is quite unsuitable for snorkeling. If you are staying there, the most recommended spot is Richardson Beach Park, near the airport. This should only be considered when the ocean is perfectly calm.

School of raccoon butterflyfish
A group of raccoon butterflyfish at Captain Cook Monument‘s drop off.

Which sea life is likely to be spotted when snorkeling the Big Island?

Big Island’s underwater world is one of the most vibrant of the Hawaiian Islands. Protected areas, in particular, are home to healthy hard coral reefs, with many red pencil urchins. Just below the surface of the water, you may encounter schools of hundreds of yellow tangs, parrotfish, guineafowl puffers, bluefin trevally, and trumpetfish.

Several species of butterflyfish endemic to the archipelago, such as the millet butterflyfish, the pebbled butterflyfish and the bluestripe butterflyfish are easy to spot along the island shore. These species do not occur anywhere else on the planet.

School of yellow tang in Two Step
The yellow tang, abundant in Hawaii’s shallow waters, sometimes forms very large shoals (here, photographed in Two Step).

If Big Island is less famous than Maui for encounters with green sea turtles, it is still possible to spot them in many locations, particularly at Two Step and Kahalu’u Bay.

Two Step is also the spot where you are most likely to see spinner dolphins. Small pods often visit the bay, and seeing them offers lucky snorkelers one of their most unbelievable underwater memories.

Snorkeling in Hawaii soon? Take with you a Fish ID Book, an essential tool to help you identify the fish you see underwater. Hawaii’s Fishes : A Guide for Snorkelers and Divers (including fish species found only in Hawaii) and Reef Fish Identification Tropical Pacific (including marine fishes ranging from Thailand to Tahiti, and includes Hawaii) are the two essential reference guides every snorkeler should have.

What is the best time of the year to snorkel the Big Island?

There are two main seasons in Hawaii. The summer, from May to October, is the warmest, driest and sunniest season (with an average of 80°F/26.5°C, and maximum temperatures of 85°C/29.5°C). This is the hurricane season, but they are rare in the North Pacific.

In winter, from November to April, the weather is wetter and more changeable (intermittent tropical rains and sunny spells), and the air is cooler (an average of 75°F/24°C, with maximum temperatures of 78°F/25.5°C).

As so often in tropical islands, the climate is different on the windward side, more humid and windy (the east), and on the leeward side, where it is dryer and more sheltered (the west). The sea is generally calm on the western shore of Big Island, but swell or waves can occur in certain periods. Do not enter the water is the sea gets rough.

500+ spots have been featured on Snorkeling Report with the help of people like you. Share your favorite snorkeling spot and help us cover the world map. Your contribution will help the snorkeling community find sites and enjoy the underwater world!


Where to spot them?

Discover on which snorkeling spots you are most likely to see your favorite species