Extensive coral reefs, and some of the best spots in the main Hawaiian Islands to see monk seals

Kauai, boasting the dramatic landscapes of the Napali Coast, is one of the most beautiful islands in the world. Underwater, snorkeling is okay, but not as spectacular as in Maui and Big Island in particular.

Kauai is Hawaii’s oldest island; extensive reefs have had time to develop there. They allow the practice of snorkeling in good safety conditions, although you should be aware of the cut currents in the small “lagoons”.

Kee Beach lagoon
Small Ke’e Beach reef, at the foot of the Napali Coast, might be Kauai’s most visited snorkeling spot.

Around 15 snorkeling spots can be explored around Kauai, most of which are located in two regions: the North Shore, around Hanalei, and the coastline which stretches west of Poipu, on the south coast of the island.

Elsewhere, the possibilities of getting into the water can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The Hanalei region is the most famous area for snorkeling in Kauai. This is where some of the most beautiful spots on the island are located. In winter, however, this part of the coast is exposed to swells and huge waves that make most of the locations dangerous to snorkel.

Hawaiian monk seal
Encounters with Hawaiian monk seals are frequent along Kauai’s shore, particularly in Tunnels Beach.

A few minutes drive east of Hanalei, you will find several snorkeling spots that follow one another along the shore. Puu Poa Beach, Hideaway Beach, Anini Beach, and neighboring Kahilikai Beach and Kahiliwai Beach are good options when the ocean conditions allow.

But for the best spots on the North Shore, take the road that runs along the coast heading west from Hanalei. You will reach Kepuhi Point, which is quite exposed and to be snorkeled only when the ocean is perfectly calm.

Tunnels Beach (aka Makua Beach) is undoubtedly the best spot in Kauai to encounter monk seals.  Finally,  Ke’e Beach, at the very end of the road, is the gateway to the Napali Coast.

Tunnels Beach reef
Tunnels (Makua) Beach coral reef, on the North Shore.

On the other side of the island, several good snorkeling spots are found within 3 miles of the coastline around Koloa. In this area, we particularly recommend the twin beaches of Poipu Beach Park (especially for beginners), Koloa Landing where you get into the water from an old boat ramp. We also recommend Lawai Beach.

A 30-minute drive further west is Salt Pond Beach Park, where you can explore a lagoon protected by a reef.

The Napali Coast, the northwest coast of Kauai, is totally wild and can’t be accessed by road. You’ll find in Kauai a large choice of boat tours to the Napali Coast. Tours will allow you to discover one of the most beautiful landscapes of the Hawaiian archipelago. With a tour, you will also be able to snorkel on the coral reefs that have grown along this remote part of the coast.

Arc-eye hawkfish
The arc-eye hawkfish is easy to spot at reef in Kauai. They spend most of their time perched on corals, waiting for prey to approach too close. Photographed in Tunnels Beach.

Some of the most popular spots for boat tours on the Napali Coast include Nualolo Kai Beach and the reef just out of Kauhao Valley. Several Kauai tour operators also offer boat trips to the neighboring island of Niihau. Most of these tours include snorkeling stops, especially at Lehua Crater.

450 species of fish and 70 species of corals inhabit Kauai’s reefs, nearly a quarter of which being endemic to the archipelago. Green sea turtles are less common on Kauai than on Oahu, Big Island, or Maui, but they are seen quite easily on the North Shore.

Scrawled filefish
A scrawled filefish and -in the background- a convict tang, encountered at Ke’e Beach reef flat.

On the other hand, it is in Kauai that you are most likely to encounter Hawaiian monk seals on the beach or at sea. This endemic and endangered species, most of whose individuals inhabit the isolated northwestern islands, regularly frequents the Kauai and Niihau coasts. The best chances to see them are at Tunnels Beach, Poipu Beach, Ke’e Beach and Lehua Crater.

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 in Hawaii only) and Reef Fish Identification Tropical Pacific (including marine fishes ranging from Thailand to Tahiti, including Hawaii) are the two main references.

When to go snorkeling Kauai

As elsewhere in the archipelago, there are two main seasons in Kauai. 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°F/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 with intermittent tropical rains and sunny spells. The air is cooler (an average of 75°F/24°C, with maximum temperatures of 78°F/25.5°C).

The water temperature can fall to 73°F/23°C in winter, which is still a good temperature for snorkeling, and reach a peak of 82-84°F/28-29°C in the heart of the summer (June to September).

Lastly, you should remember that winter is the surfing season in Hawaii, and it is sometimes hard for snorkelers to access the northern coast of Kauai (North Shore) during this period.

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