Even though the Big Island of Hawaii is by far the largest of any of the islands that make up the state, it only accounts for a fraction of Hawaii’s population (13%). With all that space and relatively few people, that means nature lovers have an incredible opportunity to play in the outdoors without throngs of tourists harshing their buzz.
And, the Big Island definitely delivers in terms of nature. From the famed Kona Coast to the incredible Volcanoes National Park to the utterly-massive Mauna Kea, it’s easy to get your nature fix here.
That’s definitely true with snorkeling, too. Though snorkeling sometimes takes a back seat to some of the other aforementioned natural wonders on the Big Island, the Island of Hawaii has some sneaky-good snorkeling spots, many even rivaling the quality of the nearby snorkeling mecca of Maui. You just need to know where to look.
On such a big chunk of land, it can be tough to figure out the best snorkeling on the Big Island. Really tough. That’s why I’m writing this guide, so that my fellow nature-lovers can have these same epic experiences. Good vibes only!
Since it’s Hawaii, your best Big Island snorkeling is typically going to be found in the summer months (and in the mornings), but I’ve also picked the more western spots in this guide since they tend to be a little more protected. In any case, limit your snorkeling to calmer waters and conditions — it’s just safer, and easier to have a blast.
Let’s get to the best snorkeling on the Big Island!
Feeling adventurous? How about some night snorkeling with manta rays? It’s incredible!
The Kona Coast of Hawaii is home to hundreds of resident manta rays that routinely show up each night in Garden Eel Cove off of Makako Bay to gorge on the tiny plankton that surface. And, guess what? You can snorkel alongside.
If the idea of snorkeling with manta rays at night makes you a bit nervous, not to worry. Though these incredible animals are giant (they can often exceed 15 feet in wingspan and weigh close to a ton), they don’t have stingers or any sort of teeth and pose little risk to humans. Instead, they just glide gracefully through the water at Makako Bay as you watch and float alongside. And, tour guides bring plenty of lights, so you’ll be able to see what’s going on without a problem.
Nighttime manta ray snorkeling tours to Makako Bay typically depart from the Honokohau Marina or Keauhou Harbor around sunset, and tons of great guide companies offer tours. Many will even rebook you for free on another tour if you somehow fail to see any mantas.
My favorite Makako Bay night manta snorkel tour is with C Big Island (over on Viator) because their guides are both knowledgeable and a good time, they have a wonderful ability to make the whole trip excellent for both beginner and advanced snorkelers, and their group sizes are smaller than a lot of the other tours which makes the experience way, way better.
Needless to say, it’s an incredible experience all around and well-worthy of a “best snorkeling on the Big Island” top designation.
I’m actually quite partial to places that are tough to get to for snorkeling in general, and for sure when figuring out where to snorkel on the Big Island. I don’t mind a bit of work if it yields incredible, secluded, natural snorkeling. And the Captain Cook Monument area of Kealakekua Bay definitely fits that bill.
Since Kealakekua Bay is an underwater marine sanctuary protected by the state, and since it’s not the easiest spot to get to, “Captain Cook” (named so for the nearby monument that commemorates the native Hawai’ians stabbing the British explorer James Cook after he attempted to kidnap King Kalani’ōpu’u in 1779) makes for some of the best snorkeling on the Big Island.
There are there main ways to get here: hiking, kayaking or by boat.
If you want to hike, you can do so from the parking lot above the Captain Cook monument. The hike is fairly substantial (about 2 miles each way with a lot of elevation change) and you should definitely be in good shape for it. Make sure to bring plenty of water, food, sun protection, and be sure to save some energy for the challenging hike back up after snorkeling.
(FYI, usually the best spot to enter the water after you’ve hiked down to the bay from the monument is from the old concrete platform below the monument, with the sloping edges of the platform usually being a decent way to climb back out. Don’t try it in bad conditions, though.)
If kayaking sounds fun, there are only three kayak companies who have been granted licenses by the state to do kayak snorkeling tours to Kealakekua Bay (to keep it as protected as possible), which are outlined about halfway down on the Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park website.
Aloha Kayak Co. is one of those companies licensed to take kayaks into Kealakekua Bay, and they run awesome morning kayak and snorkel tours in a 5-hour version (via Viator), which is a little longer than the average tour (~3.5 hours). That means it leaves a little earlier in the morning, so it’s great for beating everyone else out into the bay. The paddle from Napo’opo’o Pier to Kealakekua Bay is as fun as it is beautiful, but it’s also a workout, so make sure that you’re in good shape for this option as well.
Lastly, you can take a good old-fashioned snorkel boat tour, which is definitely the most relaxing option (and the one that leaves you with the most energy for actually snorkeling). You can check out tons of options for Kealakekua Bay snorkel tours on Viator.
My favorite snorkel tour to Kealakekua Bay is definitely with Captain Zodiac, though. They have an excellent beat-the-crowd tour (on Viator) which, while it doesn’t leave especially early, times its tour between when the vast majority of morning and afternoon snorkel tours hit the bay so you end up with the place nearly to yourself (which is incredible). They also use Zodiac rafts which can get way closer to tighter reefs and other good snorkel spots, so they’re really able to put you in with the good stuff and definitely know where to go for the best snorkeling on the Big Island.
However you get there, Kealakekua Bay rewards you with gorgeous blue water, tons of fish and marine life, and good vibes. I recommend going as early as possible if you’re going independently for a better chance at seeing the pod of spinner dolphins who sometimes hang out in the shallower waters of the bay early in the morning, or Captain Zodiac’s beat-the-crowd tour from above to miss all of the other tourists.
My favorite part of snorkeling is always hanging out with majestic marine life, and Two Steps at Honaunau Bay is probably the best place in all of Hawaii to do exactly that. It’s absolutely packed with tropical fish, coral and even dolphins, reef sharks, eels, octopuses, sea turtles and more. It’s awesome.
Next door to the Pu’uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park is a big lava rock outcropping with two “steps” (hence the name) in the rock leading into the water. The steps are at the furthest-out point of the lava rock, slightly left of center as you face the ocean, and you’ll use these to enter and exit the water.
There are some boats which launch from this area, so make sure to keep a look-out for any and keep a safe distance. The waters here are also somewhat protected and tend to be more on the calm side, but if it’s windy and choppy, come back a different day (which is good advice for any site in this guide, or elsewhere).
In the water, the snorkel area is huge. If you head right, the water is a little shallower and great for newer snorkelers. To the left is deeper water with plenty of interesting topography, great for snorkelers with some experience. No matter where you go, though, you’re sure to see a vibrant and beautiful underwater world.
Whenever I’m in Hawaii, I always make it a point to swim with Honu and Honu’ea, the majestic (and endangered) Hawaiian green and hawksbill sea turtles. It’s just something you need to do when you’re figuring out where to snorkel on the Big Island.
And, Kahalu’u Beach Park is a known favorite for these beautiful species.
The water itself here is pretty chill and nicely-protected by some rock outcroppings, so it’s also an excellent place for beginners and usually a good fall-back plan if the conditions at other snorkeling sites are too dangerous.
In addition to the big population of sea turtles, you’ll also find a huge concentration of tropical fish that often rivals what you see in dedicated marine sanctuaries. These fish (and turtles) are fairly used to people, so it’s not uncommon to be able to hang out with them in relatively close quarters (but, keep a respectful distance as a courtesy to you and them) and get some fantastic shots with your GoPro.
(Also, definitely make sure that you bring a GoPro or other underwater action camera when you travel to Hawaii for snorkeling! There’s just too many memories to capture in the water, and it’s always been one of my favorite parts of snorkeling on the Big Island. Check out our guide, The Best Underwater Action Cameras for Snorkeling: GoPro & More if you don’t have one yet.)
Do you want to pair some excellent snorkeling with that relaxing, quintessential Hawaiian beach vibe? Mauna Kea Beach is probably going to be your best bet.
Mauna Kea Beach is located just behind Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, and they’re generous enough to let the public use it freely. The hotel does allow some parking for public beachgoers, but there are a limited number of spots so it’s best to come early (the snorkeling conditions are usually better early, anyway). When entering the hotel parking area, let them know that you’d like to head to the beach and they’ll direct you where to go.
The beach itself is expansive and full of gorgeous, powdery sand, perfect for Hawaiian beach relaxing before or after trips into the water. And, since the water here is on a beach and not on a rocky bay or lava rock formation, it’s super easy to get into the water and start snorkeling.
Once you’re in the water, the surroundings are pretty simple, but you’re almost guaranteed to see tons of fish; tangs, butterflyfish, pufferfish, unicornfish, and maybe even a Humuhumunukunukuapua’a (the Hawaiian state fish!)
The Deep Dive
The Big Island of Hawaii is sparsely populated for its size, and oftentimes an afterthought when it comes to planning a Hawaiian vacation. Those facts work fantastically for us, though, when we look at the best snorkeling on the Big Island. It’s possible to find some excellent spots without huge numbers of people.
Some of my best snorkeling experiences can easily be had on the Big Island; night snorkeling with manta rays, chilling with a big population of endangered green sea turtles, cruising through an underwater marine sanctuary beneath the site of a 18th-century Hawai’ian uprising against a king-kidnapper, and just good old-fashioned snorkeling with beautiful tropical fish in turquoise tropical waters.
Mana ‘i’o ka mana’o! (Best wishes!)
Make sure that you’re up to date on your snorkel gear before your Hawaiian vacation:
- Best Snorkel Gear for Travel: 7 Top Masks, Cameras & More
- The Best Underwater Action Cameras for Snorkeling: GoPro & More
- The Best Snorkel Gear for Kids: Masks, Fins, Snorkels & More
- The 2 Best Snorkeling Sunscreens (Reef Safe & Biodegradable)
Or, check out how the snorkeling is on other Hawaiian islands: