Oahu, Hawaii is one of the most popular vacation destinations in the world with over half a million visitors each month. And, for good reason. It’s an excellent place to enjoy all of the the incredible beaches, weather and tropical vibes that Hawaii has to offer on its most developed, energetic and cosmopolitan island.
But, that can create a bit of a challenge for finding the best snorkeling in Oahu. With a lot of visitors comes a lot of people in the water. And I personally don’t love crowded snorkeling.
You’ll see a lot of other lists about the best snorkeling in Oahu out there with the same exact places copied from one another; Hanauma Bay, Shark’s Cove, Kuilima Cove, Queen’s Beach, etc. And, most for good reason since they certainly are nice spots.
But, I’m most focused on how awesome the experience is when ranking the best snorkeling spots in Oahu. Too many people in the water can really harsh the buzz of a cool spot, which makes it less cool in my opinion.
Where is the best snorkeling in Oahu? I take people to Kaneohe Sandbar, Turtle Canyon, Waimea Bay, Electric Beach (Kahe Point), and Hanauma Bay.
But let’s talk first about when to snorkel Oahu (there’s definitely a right time and a wrong time) and go into more detail on the best snorkeling in Oahu judged by how awesome a time you can have at each spot.
As I mentioned, there’s definitely a right time and a wrong time to snorkel the island, especially if you’re looking for the best snorkeling in Oahu.
The snorkeling season typically runs from mid-May to mid-September; essentially the summer months. During the summer, the winds and currents are much calmer and the water warmer, leading to much better snorkeling conditions.
In many of the fall, winter and spring months, however, bays that were once relatively placid in the summer can quite literally become home to 40-foot waves and are gnarly fodder for international surfing competitions.
So, your best bet is definitely to snorkel during the summer on Oahu. If you’re on the island in the snorkeling offseason, look into the Ko’olina Lagoons on the west coast of the island which can provide sheltered water throughout the year.
If you’re looking for good vibes only, Kaneohe Sandbar is definitely it. And because of that, it can be some of the best snorkeling in Oahu.
This unique “island” is a beautiful stretch of sand off of the east coast of Oahu which is only accessible during low tide. When it surfaces, it gives off a very Maldives vibe and is an awesome spot to chill, snorkel and have a really cool experience.
Since the sandbar is offshore, you’ll need to get there by some sort of boat. There are several catamaran excursions available that will take care of the details for you and even cover lunch on Kaneohe Sandbar. It’s not all that far, though (about a mile), and you can definitely rent a kayak nearby and paddle out there yourself in decent conditions. (You’ll need to time your trip with low tide, though, which you can check here and/or here.)
As far as tours go, Captain Bruce Private Yacht Charters does a really fun morning sail on a catamaran to and around the Kaneohe Sandbar area with plenty of stops for snorkeling and relaxing. If you’re feeling independently adventurous, you can also get set up with a kayak for a self-guided tour while still providing some conveniences like hotel pick-up and lunch.
Once you’ve made it to Kaneohe Sandbar and into its incredibly-blue water for some snorkeling, you’ll see plenty of tropical fish and likely a handful of sea turtles gliding about. If you’re wading in the shallows, make sure to shuffle your feet through the sand instead of taking big steps to avoid stepping on any rays burrowed in and hiding beneath the surface.
Something you absolutely must do while in Oahu is swim with the Honu and Honu’ea, the Hawaiian green sea turtle and hawksbill sea turtle. And, no “best snorkeling in Oahu” list would be complete without a great spot to do just that.
Enter Turtle Canyon, a reef spot just off the coast of the ever-popular Waikīkī Beach. Here, scores of turtles can typically be found relaxing, feeding and being nibbled on by cleaner fish. It’s kind of like a sea turtle spa.
It’s sometimes possible to track down a catamaran service on Waikīkī Beach that runs sea turtle enthusiasts out to Turtle Canyon, and you can also find plenty of organized snorkeling tours (via Viator) that will take you out to the reef and make sure that you have an excellent time. Our favorite is with Living Ocean, which makes the quick trek out to Turtle Canyon really easy and fun.
During Hawaii’s winter months, Waimea Bay gets blasted by huge waves and is understandably a favorite spot of expert surfers and international surf competitions. In the summertime, though, the waves chill, the bay is beautiful and its waters are home to some of the best snorkeling in Oahu.
(FYI, you can check the current Waimea Bay wave height at PacIOOS.)
If you aren’t necessarily a fan of trailblazing out in the boondocks but still want to find some excellent Oahu snorkeling, Waimea Bay is right up your alley. You’ll be able to find bathrooms, showers, changing areas, lifeguards and organized parking. You won’t be roughing it.
You’ll see plenty of beautiful and colorful tropical fish and occasional sea turtles any time during the day, but I like to go in the morning as early as possible.
The main reason: there’s often a pod of spinner dolphins that likes to hang out in Waimea Bay in the morning who are a blast to swim with.
Plus, the conditions are usually the best in the morning (the afternoons can get a little breezy and choppy), it’s not too crowded, and you might even find the occasional monk seal (the only seal native to Hawaii) preparing for its day of fishing in deeper waters. Incredible on all counts!
Your calmest snorkeling is typically going to be found when entering the bay from the center of the beach, while the edges of Waimea Bay can have stronger currents.
There’s a ton to do on Oahu’s North Shore in addition to snorkeling at Waimea Bay, so I really like doing a bigger North Shore tour like the excellent one that The Surf Bus puts on which hits up big surf beaches like Waimea, Pipeline and Sunset, and offers different things like snorkeling, waterfall trekking, stand-up paddleboarding (SUP), kayaking, surfing or just chilling on the beach depending on how you’re feeling.
Usually, human impact on snorkel sites doesn’t make for a very good time. But, Electric Beach (officially, Kahe Point) might be an interesting exception.
Here, the nearby electric Kahe Power Plant vents warm water into the ocean through huge pipes, which tends to attract some fascinating marine life along the lines of sea turtles, reef sharks, dolphins and plenty else.
It’s definitely an area for more advanced snorkelers due to more open exposure to the ocean and some of the turbulence created by the vent pipes, along with no lifeguards or services to be found. The pipes add an interesting factor to a unique snorkeling experience, but stay clear of swimming directly in their path lest you potentially be blasted out to sea.
Somewhat begrudgingly (alright, not really), I’m including Hanauma Bay on my “best snorkeling in Oahu” list. It’s probably Oahu’s most popular spot and the main one that’s listed everywhere, but it’s just too cool to leave off.
If you love swimming with tropical fish, you will see absolutely tons of gorgeous fish species at Hanauma Bay. Butteflyfish, parrotfish, wrasse, tang, snapper, sergeant; the list goes on. And, they’re relatively desensitized to humans, so it’s typical to be able to ease in for a really close shot with your GoPro.
(As an aside, definitely bring a GoPro when snorkeling in Hawaii! There are just too many incredible underwater memories to capture. If you don’t already have one and are curious, check out our articles, The Newest GoPro for Snorkeling: 3 Keys for Buying or Upgrading to the HERO 10 Black or The Best Underwater Action Cameras for Snorkeling: GoPro & More.)
Even though it is some of the best snorkeling in Oahu, the main drawback of Hanauma Bay for me is that it can get a bit crowded since over a million visitors come here every year, and parking can fill up quickly. But, I find that if you get there early (even as early as 6am when it opens), you can have much of the best snorkeling to yourself. And, the conditions are usually better the earlier you go, anyway.
If getting up with the sun doesn’t sound super appealing to you, Kaimana Tours runs an easy snorkel shuttle to Hanauma Bay (which also includes rental snorkel gear, if you need it) that lets you avoid the parking hassle.
The bay is in an established nature preserve (make sure to bring your biodegradable sunscreen) and it does require a $25/person entry fee (kids 12 and under are free). But, you’ll definitely get your money’s worth if you can get there early and score a ton of awesome GoPro shots of a Humuhumunukunukuapua’a, the Hawaii state fish, among countless others.
The Deep Dive
Oahu is incredibly well-liked with over half a million visitors vacationing on this most-popular Hawaiian island every month. With that popularity can come crowded snorkeling, which is a bummer and can definitely put a damper on some of the typical best snorkeling in Oahu.
There are still some amazing snorkel spots to be found on Oahu, though; you just need to know where to look and when to go. Maika’i pōmaika’i (good luck!) and let us know how epic your Oahu snorkeling experiences are!
Hawaii has outright banned traditional sunscreen, so make sure that you have the right sun protection (and other gear) in Oahu:
- The 2 Best Snorkeling Sunscreens (Reef Safe & Biodegradable)
- The Best Underwater Action Cameras for Snorkeling: GoPro & More
- What Snorkel Gear Should I Buy? The Full Guide to Getting Started Affordably
Curious about snorkeling on other Hawaiian islands?