A favorite pastime on the Big Island, snorkeling is perhaps one of the easiest and most enjoyable water activities for visitors. By floating on the surface, looking through your mask, and breathing through your snorkel, you can 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. Kona Boys lead combined kayaking, snorkeling, and hiking tours.
Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park. This a protected underwater marine reserve is hands-down one of the best snorkeling spots on the island, with clear visibility, fabulous coral reefs, and generally calm waters. Pods of dolphins are abundant. Overland access is difficult, so opt for one of the guided snorkel cruises permitted to moor there. Use caution and common sense during surf advisories and stay on the ocean side of the buoys near the cliffs. Napoopoo, at end of Beach Rd. and Hwy. 160, Kailua-Kona, HI, 96750. www.hawaiistateparks.org/parks/hawaii/index.cfm?park_id=46.
Puuhonua O Honaunau. There is no swimming inside the actual park, but just steps to the north is a boat launch where the snorkeling is almost as good as at Kealakekua Bay. Parking is very limited. Be respectful of local fishermen who use the area. Hwy. 160, 20 mi south of Kailua-Kona, HI, 96750.
White Sands, Magic Sands, or Disappearing Sands Beach Park. White Sands, Magic Sands, or Disappearing Sands Beach Park is a great place for beginning and intermediate snorkelers. In winter it's also a good place to see whales. Alii Dr., Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740.
Kahaluu Beach Park. Since ancient times, the waters around Kahaluu Beach have provided traditional throw net-fishing grounds. With super-easy access, the bay offers good swimming and outstanding snorkeling. You'll see turtles, angelfish, parrot fish, needlefish, puffer fish, and lots more. Stay inside the breakwater and don't stray too far, as dangerous and unpredictable currents swirl outside the bay. Alii Dr., Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740.
Kapoho Tide Pools. Here you'll find 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. End of Kapoho-Kai Rd., off Hwy. 137, Hilo, HI, 96778.
Equipment, Lessons and Tours
Body Glove Cruises. This operator is a good choice for families; kids love the waterslide and the high-dive platform, and parents appreciate the reasonable prices and good food. The 51-foot catamaran sets off for Red Hill from Kailua-Kona pier daily for a morning snorkel cruise that includes breakfast and a lunch buffet. Snorkelers pay $120 per person. A three-hour dinner cruise to Kealakekua Bay is a great way to relax, watch the sunset, and learn about Kona's history. Including a buffet and live music, it's $98 per person. Seasonal whale-watch cruises are $78. 75-5629 Kuakini Hwy., Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740. PHONE: 808/326-7122 or 800/551-8911. www.bodyglovehawaii.com.
Captain Zodiac Raft Expedition. A four-hour trip on a rigid-hull inflatable Zodiac raft takes you along the Kona Coast to explore gaping lava-tube caves, search for dolphins and turtles, and snorkel around Kealakekua Bay. Captains entertain you with Hawaiian folklore and Kona history. Priced at $99 per person, trips depart at 8:15 am, 10 am, and 1 pm. A seasonal three-hour whale-watching cruise is $74. All equipment, such as Rx masks and flotation devices, are included. Honokohau Harbor, 74-425 Kealakehe Pkwy., #16, Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740. PHONE: 808/329-3199. www.captainzodiac.com.
Fair Wind Cruises. In business since 1971, Fair Wind offers morning and afternoon snorkel trips. The company's custom-built 60-foot catamaran has two 15-foot waterslides, freshwater showers, and a staircase descending directly into the water for easy access. Snorkel gear is included (ask about prescription masks). These trips are great for families with small kids—there's lots of pint-size flotation equipment. Morning cruises are $129 per person; afternoon cruises (July and August only) are less, at $109 per person. They also run a 3½-hour snack cruise for $75.
For ages seven and older, the company also operates the Hula Kai snorkel cruise, a 55-foot luxury hydrofoil catamaran with theater-style seats for panoramic views. A five-hour morning snorkel cruise that includes a gourmet breakfast buffet and barbecue lunch is $149 for snorkelers. For divers without gear it is $195; $180 with gear. Keauhou Bay, 78-7130 Kaleiopapa St., Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740. PHONE: 808/322-2788 or 800/677-9461. www.fair-wind.com.