The best snorkeling spots in Oahu, a complete guide

Oahu, home to Honolulu and legendary Waikiki Beach, draws more visitors than any other Hawaiian island. Nearly a dozen snorkeling spots can be explored around the island.

Snorkeling in Oahu is just okay compared to other neighboring islands, especially Maui and the Big Island, but Oahu does offer some nice underwater experiences.

Threadfin butterflyfish
A threadfin butterflyfish, very common in Oahu, photographed in Hanauma Bay.

Most of Oahu’s snorkeling spots are located along the south and west coasts of the island. The ocean is pretty sheltered here on the leeward coasts, with low winds and swell.

On the North Shore, which is very exposed, the sea conditions are radically different. This part of the coast is world-famous with surfers for its huge waves, especially in winter. The North Shore generally can’t be snorkeled during this period, but the coast is less rough in summer.

In Honolulu, Queen Beach and Sans Souci Beach are often considered the closest snorkeling spots to Waikiki. These beaches can be reached on foot from the main resorts of the area, but the snorkeling here is just average, with little underwater life and unpredictable visibility.

Hanauma Bay
Hanauma Bay, some 10 miles east of Honolulu, is known as the world’s most visited snorkeling spot.

Instead, we advise you to head to Hanauma Bay, a superb lagoon with turquoise waters nestled in an old volcanic crater. This spot is located about a 20-minute drive from Waikiki, and if you don’t have a car, there are plenty of agencies in town that offer shuttle services. Keep in mind that there’s an entrance fee to access the beach.

Because it has a superb lagoon, Hanauma Bay is known as the busiest snorkeling spot in the world. With an average of 3,000 visitors a day, don’t expect to be alone in the water, but the views are great, and you can sometimes see green sea turtles on the reef.

Situated along the southwest coast of Oahu, Kahe Point/Electric Beach is considered the best snorkeling location on the island. The warm waters coming from the power station across the road attract many fish, green sea turtles, and sometimes even spinner dolphins. This spot, however, is pretty deep and only recommended for confident snorkelers.

Electric Beach
The warm water pipes at Electric Beach attract loads of fish.

Also on the west coast, Makaha Beach Park, where turtles are easy to see, is another great option. If you are new to snorkeling (or doing it with kids), you can also head for the Ko Olina Lagoons. These four small artificial lagoons, around which are located several resorts, offer calm and shallow waters even on windy days.

The North Shore is also home to some great spots, but only accessible when there are no waves. Between Waimea and Kuilima (a few miles north of Haleiwa surf spots), several beaches and coves follow one another along the coast.

From south to north, you can snorkel at Waimea Beach Park, Three Tables Beach and Sharks Cove, where you don’t see sharks, but lots of reef fish. Next is Sunset Beach and Turtle Bay (aka Kuilima Cove), which is a small, shallow bay visited daily by green sea turtles.

Kuilima Cove
Turtle Bay, aka Kuilima Cove (right, the Turtle Bay Resort) is a great location to swim with turtles in shallow waters.

Which sea life is likely to be spotted when snorkeling Oahu?

In Oahu, the coral reefs are not very healthy, even those in Hanauma Bay. The island’s snorkeling spots are, however, rather full of fish, especially at Sharks Cove and Hanauma Bay.

450 species of fish and 70 species of corals inhabit Oahu’s coral reefs, nearly a quarter of which being endemic to the archipelago. Butterflyfish, surgeonfish, wrasse, parrotfish, and triggerfish are some of the most common species that can be seen at reefs.

It is also quite easy to spot green sea turtles in Oahu: the most recommended spots to swim with these iconic Hawaiian creatures are Makaha Beach Park and Turtle Bay, but it is possible to encounter them occasionally on all other locations. Spinner dolphins may also be encountered occasionally while snorkeling in Oahu, particularly on the west coast.

Whitespotted surgeonfish
A whitespotted surgeonfish, photographed in Sharks Cove.

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 in Oahu?

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°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 (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 it often is in tropical islands, the climate is different on the windward side, more humid and windy (the east) and the leeward side, dryer and more sheltered (the west).

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 84°F/29°C at the heart of the summer (June to September).

Lastly, you should remember that winter is the surfing season in Hawaii, and the northern coast of Oahu boasts the famous North Shore, internationally known for its record-breaking waves. It becomes hard for snorkelers to access snorkeling spots during this time.

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