When it comes to snorkeling in the United States, Hawaii is top of the list. While I often wish I could live year-round in Hawaii, it is more likely that I will be there for only a limited amount of time. And while I love snorkeling, it is often not the ONLY activity I plan to do on my trip. This post provides information on three of the most popular snorkeling spots on Oahu (no boat tour required), hopefully it can help you to make the right decision to optimize your next Hawaiian vacation!
|Hanauma Bay||Turtle Bay (Kuilima Cove)||Shark’s Cove|
|Location||Southeastern tip of island||Northernmost tip of island||Northwest Coast (near Pipeline)|
|Distance from Honolulu (Waikiki)||25 – 40 min (10 miles)||1-2 hours (45 miles)||1-1.5 hours (37 miles)|
|Entrance Fee||$7.5 (free for locals, military, kids)||None||None|
|Parking||$1 fee to use the limited sized lot||Ample free parking||Street parking only|
|Hours of Operation
||6AM – 6 PM; Closed Tuesdays||9AM – 5PM||unlcear|
|Other Requirements||Watch 9 minute video||None||None|
|Fish life||Many colors, sizes and varieties||Schools of small colorful fish||Wide variety, but less quantity|
|Ocean Landscape||Mostly Live Coral||Coral, Sandy Bottom||Rocks, Coral|
|Water Depth||Neck deep||5-10 feet||Waist deep|
|Beach Amenities||Toilets||Chair and Umbrella rentals||Toilets|
|Food Options||Only at entrance||Beach Bar and Restaurant||Food Trucks|
Depending on which part of the island you are staying on and what type of experience you are looking for, you can’t go wrong with any of these three options. In general, if you think snorkeling may become a somewhat regular vacation activity, I highly recommend purchasing your own snorkel set. At $15 – $20 per rental for questionable quality snorkels that have seen more mouths and noses than you’d like to think about, you can easily justify the $65 investment in a high-quality set that is for your mouth only. I have been very pleased with my set from Leisure Pro.
See below for more detailed information on the three snorkeling locations:
Definitely a top tourist attraction on Oahu, Hanauma Bay is both a Nature Preserve and a Marine Life Conservation District. The former crater offers the opportunity to see a wide variety of marine life. Due to the popularity of the site it is prudent to plan in advance. If you hope to drive to the bay, plan to either arrive early in the morning or late in the afternoon as the limited parking lot is often full by mid-morning. There are also shuttle options from Honolulu and organized bus tours.
Once you arrive, everyone must pay an entrance fee and watch a 9 minute instructional video. If you plan to visit the bay more than once, or are a frequent traveler to Hawaii, fill out the video waiver after viewing and you are good for a year. Otherwise you will need to watch the video each time you come.
In order to get to the beach, you must walk a quarter mile downhill, there is a tram that can be taken instead for $2 round trip. Note that once you get to the beach there are no concessions available. If you are hungry, be sure to buy a snack at the park entrance. Also note that if you rent snorkel equipment they will make you return your equipment at 5PM, an hour before the park closes. If you arrive in late afternoon to avoid the crowds, it is best to bring your own equipment or rent from your hotel so that you can maximize your time in the water.
For first time snorkelers, Hanauma Bay is a great option. The water is calm and only waste – neck deep, you can see a variety of fish and coral and there are plenty of people around to keep an eye on you. The downside is that it gets very crowded and with the parking, video, and trek down the mountain, the whole experience is more of an excursion than leisurely activity.
If you are looking for a relaxed, pampered beach experience, Kuilima Cove is the choice for you. Located next to the Turtle Bay Resort, you get the best of both worlds – access to beach amenities like umbrellas and cabanas as well as a full Bar & Restaurant. There is also no entrance fee so this is a good spot if your party includes a mix of snorkelers, sun bathers and mai tai drinkers.
In terms of finding the beach, it is very important to note that Kuilima Cove is the snorkeling spot and it is to the east of the Turtle Bay Resort beach. The Turtle Bay beach is for guests and is not as suitable for swimming. You will enter the resort off the main highway and follow signs for “coastal access”. There is ample parking for beach visitors in the east side of the lot.
The water is deeper, especially at high-tide so this spot is better for those that are comfortable swimming. With the deeper water, you will see many schools of fish and even an occasional turtle! The water can get a bit cloudier and you won’t have the same up close and personal experience as Hanauma Bay. For those who prefer to keep a bit more distance between themselves and the coral and fish, this is the best bet.
Also, be sure to stop at the various fruit stands near Turtle Bay for a fun treat!
Shark’s Cove gets its name from the fact that from above, the outline of the cove looks like a shark. The location is pretty amazing in that is is a protected cove, surrounded by rocks, a short walk away from the famous Pipeline beach. This spot is the least “developed” tourist attraction, only street parking is available and gear can be rented at shops across the street. Given the high traffic location, if you are a fan of remaining the owner of your belongings, it is not advised to leave any valuables on the beach while snorkeling.
Most of the beach bottom is covered with sharp lava rocks and given the rather shallow water, this spot is best for more experienced snorkelers. Once you are in the water, you are pretty much committed as there are not many sandy spots to drop your feet and take a rest. In many cases, the rocks are only inches away from your chest. If you can get over the claustrophobia, the experience is worth it. The quantity of fish does not rival Hanauma Bay or Kuilima Cove, instead you get quality, variety and a genuine up-close and personal interaction with your new best friends of the sea.
For another review of Shark’s Cove, check out Katie’s blog!.
Once you are done snorkeling, satisfy your appetite at Pupukea Grill food truck, just across the street!