Snorkeling with sea turtles in Hawaii is an incredible experience and understandably at the top of the list for many visitors to our islands!
Here we share with you the best turtle snorkeling locations on each island in Hawaii and tips for how to fully enjoy them!
Sea turtles are known as honu in Hawaiian, and two species can be spotted near-shore: the Hawaiian green sea turtle and less frequently the Hawksbill sea turtle. There are fantastic sites to snorkel with sea turtles across the entire Hawaiian island chain, with sites appropriate for all snorkeling skill levels and experience. Some locations are accessible from the shore and others you will need to reach by boat via an organized snorkeling tour. The Hawaii Ecotourism Association is a great resource for sustainable tour operators that are active in their protection of these underwater marvels that we all seek to enjoy.
Best Turtle Snorkeling Locations on Maui
For the best location to snorkel with turtles on Maui, head to Turtle Town, aptly named for its dense population of Hawaiian green sea turtles here in their natural habitat. Located off the southern coastline of Maui, Turtle Town is best approached on a boat tour. Curious turtles are known to swim alongside snorkelers, allowing you to get a close view of these gentle creatures! Turtle Town is considered one of the best snorkeling sites on Maui due to its calm conditions, clear waters, and a gentle slope that allows snorkelers of all levels to feel comfortable in the water. Here you can find an intriguing natural phenomenon: a turtle cleaning station! Wrasse fish can commonly be seen eating algae and parasites off of the turtles’ shells, helping keep turtles healthy and the fish fed.
Located off the shore of West Maui, Coral Gardens is home to many marine species that take refuge in its gorgeous coral reef formations. Turtles can be spotted here, along with many different species of Hawaiian tropical fish, octopus, crabs, and more.
For snorkeling accessible from the shore, check out Honolua Bay twenty minutes north of Lahaina on the northwestern shore of Maui. This marine reserve can be accessed from a small, rocky beach, by kayak, or by boat. It’s a snorkeler’s paradise where many Hawaiian green sea turtles love to hang out!
While this may not be the best site for turtle spotting, Molokini Crater is a wonderfully unique snorkel location that you should not miss! Located about 2.5 miles off Maui’s south shore, it hosts one of the few underwater volcano islets on the planet! This submerged volcanic caldera is shaped like a crescent, creating a sheltered bay with incredible visibility of up to 150 feet. You can spot a wide array of marine life including manta rays, colorful corals, and over 250 species of endemic Hawaiian fish.
For a boat snorkeling tour that aims to get you in the water with sea turtles, check out the Turtle Snorkeling Tour by Pride of Maui for a snorkeling excursion that includes gear, amenities, a delicious BBQ lunch, and even an open bar! Maui Boat Tours also offers a half-day Maui snorkel tour to Turtle Town and Molokini Crater. Keep an eye out for dolphins, and during whale migration season, even humpback whales! This tour includes snorkel gear, breakfast, lunch, and an open bar as well.
Best Turtle Snorkeling Locations on Oahu
For one of the best turtle snorkeling locations on the island of Oahu, take a boat tour to Turtle Canyon in Maunalua Bay on the southeastern shore of the island. Turtles are very frequently seen here relaxing under the coral overhangs about 20 feet below on the ocean floor, feeding on the algae that grow on the reef.
On the north shore of the island, the Turtle Bay Resort property is filled with protected bays that you can access directly from the shore. Turtles are frequently spotted here in the shallow waters, feeding on seagrass and algae, and even relaxing in the sun on shore! Grab your snorkel gear and head to Kuilima Cove for sandy beach access, directly to the right of the hotel parking. For another quiet sheltered bay nearby, head to Kawela Bay just a few minutes down Kamehameha Highway heading west towards Haleiwa. Park on the road just across from the local fruit stands and walk to this beautiful cove, where you will find huge banyan trees, trees for refuge from the sun on the beach, and perpetually calm shallow water.
For experienced snorkelers only, Electric Beach is a fantastic site to spot turtles, spotted eagle rays, and a pod of dolphins that swim this side of the island daily! Drive past Koolina on the west side of the island, park at the beach park just across from the electric power plant, and discover this fantastic Oahu secret. For strong swimmers only, you can enter the water through the waves on the beach and swim left towards the reef that borders the shore to explore the shallows and spot turtles. When conditions are calm, and there is not a strong current, you can swim straight offshore for less than a quarter mile to explore the reef and warm water effluent pipes. Here, tropical fish and corals proliferate in the warm water, and you can spot some larger marine species. Keep in mind that there is not a lifeguard on duty at this site.
While not as common as the sites listed above, you can spot turtles in Waikiki as well on occasion. Any of the beaches east of Kapahulu Avenue (towards Diamond Head) offer opportunities to see turtles, especially Queen’s Beach.
This site is a bit of a tourist trap, as every guide book and tour operator will list Laniakea Beach as the spot to stop on the north shore of Oahu for a near-guarantee to see sea turtles on the shoreline. Parking is super crowded, and it’s not a great place to snorkel, but if you are pressed for time or haven’t been lucky in your turtle hunting, do stop here to marvel at these beauties!
Turtle Locations in Kauai
Na Pali Coast
The northern coastline of Kauai is one of the most stunningly picturesque landscapes on the planet. Where massive mountains meet the sea, there are many great locations to snorkel, best accessed on a boat snorkel tour. Holoholo Charters offers many options to explore and snorkel with sea turtles and all sorts of incredible marine life, all while enjoying the incredible views of the coastline from the sea. They also offer a deluxe tour combining a trip to the Na Pali Coast as well as the forbidden island of Niihau, where exotic marine life can be found offshore of this tiny, remote island.
On the south shore of Kauai, your best opportunity to swim with sea turtles from the shore is at Lawai Beach just west of Poipu. The snorkeling conditions are best during the winter months on the South Shore but make sure to stay within the inner reef area as currents can pick up where the reef shelf starts to drop off.
And finally… Big Island!
Located very close to Kailua-Kona, Kahaluu Beach is a fantastic place for kids and snorkelers of all skill levels to snorkel comfortably under the watch of a lifeguard on duty. Sea turtles are known to sun themselves on the rocks in the bay and feed on seaweed in the shallow reefs just off the shoreline. Keep an eye out for surfers towards the right (north) side of the bay, and stick to snorkeling towards the left!
Kealakekua Bay may be the winner of the “Best Turtle Snorkeling Locations in Hawaii” contest!
For what is regarded as the best snorkeling location in all of Hawaii, head to Kealakekua Bay (where Captain Cook landed in 1778) on a boat snorkel tour to explore the pristine waters that offer visibility up to 100 feet! Sea turtles and dolphins are often found in this protected volcanic bay alongside technicolor tropical fish and coral reefs. Fair Wind offers a fantastic morning snorkel tour that includes lots of historical, natural, and cultural information as you cruise down the coast of South Kona, stopping in the bay for snorkeling and a tasty BBQ lunch.
Honaunau Bay (“Two Steps”)
About 22 miles south of Kona is another great site for spotting and snorkeling with turtles: Honaunau Bay. This site translates to “city of refuge” and was a safe place for lawbreakers seeking refuge in ancient Hawaii. The name “Two Steps” comes from the two steps required to enter the water from the volcanic rocks in the center of the bay. Continue towards the left (south) side of the bay, where the water is a bit shallower, which turtles love! Keep an eye out on the north side of the bay where the water gets deep, as spinner dolphins may sometimes be spotted.
- Test out the fit of your mask before hopping in the water! Press the mask against your face and see if it “sticks”, creating a seal. This will prevent water from entering your mask in the water and make the experience much more enjoyable.
- Use reef-safe sunscreen! The use of this type of sunscreen is now legally enforced in the state of Hawaii to prevent damage to our sensitive reef ecosystems. It is sold in shops all over the state and often provided on snorkeling tours.
- PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH THE TURTLES! It is very illegal in Hawaii, and you may be fined up to $10,000 for turtle harassment. Stay at least 10 feet away when swimming near them so as to not scare and chase them away.
- The green sea turtles found here are suffering from a disease called fibropapillomatosis, a virus that causes large tumors to grow on and inside of their bodies. Research is being conducted to try to find the cause and cure for this horrible disease. Support their health by NOT touching them, as it is believed that the oils on our skin and chemicals from sunscreen are contributing to these tumors.
- Keep an eye on the shore and the reef below so as to not drift away from sites where it is safe to snorkel.