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With its sheltered volcanic bays and crystal clear waters, the west coast of the Big Island boasts some of the best snorkeling sites in the Hawaiian Islands. Protected from the big waves that pound the island’s eastern side, the corals here flourish and support a vibrant array of reef fish and marine species.
The Big Island has something to offer snorkelers of all levels, whether you’re just starting out or want to dive deep to explore underwater ledges and caves. From being surrounded by tropical fish to coming face-to-face with gentle manta rays, here are five of the best places for snorkeling at the Big Island.
1. Kealakekua Bay
Marking the spot where Captain Cook made landfall (and was later killed) in Hawaii, Kealakekua Bay is also the island’s only underwater state park. There are plenty of impressive snorkeling spots around the bay, with the steeply sloping reef providing habitat for a huge diversity of fish.
As you approach the southern tip of Manini Beach Point, you’ll encounter several caves, crevices, and ledges that extend to a depth of around 30 feet. Shallower snorkeling can be founded in the northeastern part of the bay, although the best spots are near the Captain Cook Monument that lies on the opposite side of the bay from the parking area.
The snorkeling sites of Kealakekua Bay can be accessed on foot, by rental kayak or onboard one of the local boat tours, which offer scenic views of the coastline from the water. If you’re lucky, you may even catch sight of spinner dolphins playing in the deep waters of the central bay.
2. Manta Village/Manta Heaven
One of the biggest draws for snorkeling at the Big Island is its manta ray, which can be encountered at “Manta Village” or “Manta Heaven”. Boat tours leave Kona around sunset for this after-dark experience, with giant rafts and illuminating floodlights set up to attract plankton to the surface, which lures the manta rays for a nighttime feed.
Snorkelers can jump into the water and hold onto the sides of the rafts to watch these majestic creatures swim around them in what is an experience you won’t soon forget. Mobula alfredi (reef manta ray) is the species most frequently encountered in Hawaii, with some having a wingspan of up to 18 feet!
As the group of mantas living off the coast of Kona are non-migratory and live permanently in these waters, sightings are almost guaranteed. Included in the experience is a spectacular sunset reflected in the waters of the Pacific Ocean – what more could you want!
3. Honaunau Bay
Previously hailed as “America’s Best Beach”, Honaunau Bay is famed for its exceptional visibility (up to 100 feet) and as the site of the Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park. It’s long served as a sacred place of refuge for native Hawaiians, with its preserved, ancient village offering an insight into what would happen if one broke kapu (sacred laws).
Also known as “Two Step”, the snorkeling spot here is accessed at the end of a lava finger, with the rock “stepping” into the water. Beginner snorkelers can stay in the shallow waters close to the shore where an abundance of tropical fish can be seen while more experienced swimmers can head out deeper to where “ALOHA” has been created by cement blocks in the sand.
If you’re an advanced snorkeler, you can dive down to explore the coral reef canyons and 30-foot walls on the left-hand side of the bay where sea turtles are regularly spotted. Hawaiian spinner dolphins are also known to play in the bay, with early morning the best time to see them.
4. Kahalu’u Beach Park
If you’re new to snorkeling, head to Kahalu’u Beach Park, with its shallow and sheltered waters inhabited by a dense concentration of fish. The beach is patrolled by lifeguards for your peace of mind, as well as being frequented by sea turtles who come to feed on the seaweed and sun themselves on the warm rocks.
Aside from sea turtles, keep your eyes peeled for moorish idols, bullethead parrotfish, and Hawaiian spotted boxfish, not to mention octopus, eels, and sea urchins. Confident snorkelers can head towards the middle of the bay where larger coral heads and quirky critters can be found.
Kahalu’u Beach Park’s proximity to Kona makes it a great choice if you’re short on time and snorkeling gear can be rented from the on-site Kahalu’u Bay Education Center. But a word of warning, stick to snorkeling on the southern or left-hand side (when looking at the ocean), as surfers use the northern side when conditions are right.
5. Kauna’oa Bay
A 45-minute drive north of Kona will take you to Kauna’oa Bay, which can be accessed through the gates of the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. Its pristine white sands provide a stunning backdrop for swimming and snorkeling, with much of the bay sandy-bottomed and less than 10 feet deep.
The best snorkeling spots are found along the right-hand side ledge, which is adorned with coral heads and rocks where a variety of critters find refuge. Parrotfish, peacock bass, and butterflyfish can all be spotted here, alongside surgeonfish and leatherbacks.
But the real treat is after dark when manta rays come to feed on the plankton that are attracted by the hotel lights. You can opt to snorkel with these incredible marine creatures at Manta Ray Point or stay dry while observing them “flying” through the water from the hotel’s lookout.