A favorite pastime on the Big Island, snorkeling is perhaps one of the easiest and most enjoyable water activities for visitors. By ducking underwater, you'll see lava rock formations, sea arches, sea caves, and coral reefs teeming with colorful tropical fish. While the Kona and Kohala coasts have more beaches, bays, and quiet coves to snorkel, the east side around Hilo and at Kapoho are also great places to get in the water.
If you don't bring your own equipment, you can easily rent all the gear needed from a beach activities vendor, who will happily provide directions to the best sites for snorkeling in the area. For access to deeper water and assistance from an experienced crew, you can opt for a snorkel cruise. Excursions generally range from two to five hours; be sure you know what equipment and food is included.
Kealakekua Bay (Bottom of Napoopoo Rd., south of Kailua-Kona) is, hands down, the best snorkel spot on the island, with fabulous coral reefs around the Captain Cook monument and generally calm waters. Besides, you'll probably get to swim with dolphins. Overland access is difficult, so you can opt for one of several guided snorkel cruises or kayak across the bay to get to the monument. Be on the lookout for kayakers who might not notice you swimming beneath them.
The snorkeling just north of the boat launch at Puuhonua O Honaunau (Place of Refuge, Rte. 160, about 20 mi south of Kailua-Kona. www.nps.gov/puho) is almost as good as Kealakekua Bay, and it's much easier to reach. It's also a popular scuba diving spot.
White Sands, Magic Sands, or Disappearing Sands Beach Park (Alii Dr., 4 1/2 mi south of Kailua-Kona) is a great place for beginning and intermediate snorkelers. In winter it's also a good place to see whales.
Since ancient times, the waters around Kahaluu Beach Park (Alii Dr., 5 1/2 mi south of Kailua-Kona) have been a traditional net fishing area. The swimming is good, and the snorkeling is even better. You'll see angelfish, parrotfish, needlefish, pufferfish, and a lot more. Stay inside the breakwater and don't stray too far, as dangerous and unpredictable currents swirl outside the bay.
Kapoho Tide Pools (End of Kapoho-Kai Rd., off Hwy. 137) has the best snorkeling on the Hilo side. Fingers of lava from the 1960 flow (that destroyed the town of Kapoho) jut into the sea to form a network of tide pools. Conditions near the shore are excellent for beginners, and challenging enough farther out for experienced snorkelers.
Cruises & Equipment Rentals
Captain Zodiac Raft Expedition. The exciting four-hour trip on an inflatable raft takes you along the Kona Coast to explore gaping lava-tube caves, search for dolphins and turtles, and snorkel around Kealakekua Bay. The captain often throws in Hawaiian folklore and Kona history; the company started up in 1974. The morning trip departs at 8:15 AM, the afternoon at 1 PM. Adults pay $93 and kids $77. A seasonal (Dec.-Apr.) three-hour whale watch cruise is adults $70, kids $60. Honokohau Harbor, Kailua-Kona. 808/329-3199. www.captainzodiac.com
Fair Wind Cruises. This outfit offers both a 4 1/2-hour morning and 3 1/2-hour afternoon snorkeling excursions to Kealakekua Bay, and a luxury cruise that sails into three different secret snorkeling spots a day. Snorkel gear is included (ask about prescription masks), but bring your own towel. On morning cruises you'll get a Continental breakfast and a barbecue lunch. These trips are great for families with small kids (lots of pint-size flotation equipment), and they provide underwater viewing devices for those who don't want to use a mask-snorkel setup. Morning cruises cost $105 for adults and $65 for kids; afternoon cruises are cheaper, but you're less likely to see dolphins in the bay. The spring-summer afternoon deluxe cruise includes a late barbecue lunch and snorkel time; adults $99, kids $59. 78-7130 Kaleiopapa St., Keauhou Bay, Kailua-Kona. 808/322-2788 or 800/677-9461. www.fair-wind.com
Snorkel Bob's. You're likely to see his wacky ads in your airline inflight magazine. The company actually delivers what it promises, and you can make reservations online before beginning your trip. Basic gear package of mask, fins, and snorkel rents for $9-$22 per week; children's equipment and prescription masks are available. 75-5831 Kahakai St., Kailua-Kona. 808/329-0770 or 800/262-7725. www.snorkelbob.com