Pure Aloha Adventures: Guide to Snorkeling on Oahu
Guide to Snorkeling in Hawaii
The good, the bad, the ugly
Real advice from a real Hawaii snorkel guide
Everyone wants to know the Best Snorkeling Spots on Oahu and many people will tell you about the spots we are about to mention but in this blog we break it down spot by spot with the real nitty gritty. Everything you need to know about these iconic Oahu snorkel spots and what’s the real deal with them.
Oh Hawaii! Land where the palm trees sway, the shines warm each day, and the fish and wildlife are out to play!
Hawaii is known for it’s year round good weather, crystal clear waters and some of the best snorkeling in the world! With so many options to choose from it’s hard to pick just one favorite so here is a list of my favorite spots on each side of the island!
The best snorkeling on Oahu’s South Shore
It’s hard to set foot in Waikiki’s warm shallow waters without almost running into a turtle but there is one spot in particular that is known for it’s giant sea turtles which can be seen just below the surface while snorkeling or from the boat when they come up to breathe.
How to snorkel at Turtle Canyons
Just a short boat ride off the coast of Waikiki lies this hidden oasis. Turtle Canyons snorkel spot is only accessible by boat and we recommend Pure Aloha Adventures Swim and Snorkel with Turtles Tour that leaves daily from Kewalo Basin which is just on the outer edge of Waikiki. Here you will see the turtles in all their glory as they float around the natural “turtle car wash” Here turtles can be seen getting their shells cleaned by many different Hawaiian reef fish. It’s quite the sight to see. Home to many turtles, large and small, there’s never been a day that we haven’t seen them while on this tour.
Although turtles can hold their breath for many hours, they do have to breathe air just like us humans.
Guests on this tour don’teven have to snorkel to experience these gentle giants in their natural habitat. They can see them from the boat while soaking up the Hawaiian sun and taking in the views of the ocean, mountains, and city.
The best snorkeling on Oahu’s East Side
Although not technically the east side of the island, the next spot is east of Waikiki so we will list it as the east side location. It is our absolute FAVORITE place in the world and it’s a sight not to be missed.
Snorkeling in Hanauama Bay
The Hanauama Bay Nature Preserve is the best spot snorkel if you are looking for a wide variety of wildlife. We can’t get anywhere close to naming each fish you will see while snorkeling at Hanauama Bay but here are a few of our favorites:
- The State Fish of Hawaii The Humuhumunukunukuapua’a
- Butterfly fish
- Convict Tangs
- Parrot Fish
- Moray Eels
- Monk Seals
- Peacock Flounders
- Sea Turtles
Our next blog post will go into detail about these and the many other fish you will see while snorkeling in Hawaii.
Hanauma Bay is one of the most popular tourist attractions on the island for good reason. The waters are protected by a long line of reef keeping the inside of the bay calm and clear, while more experienced snorkelers can make their way to the outer reef at Hanauma Bay which has deeper waters, but less people. Currents can be strong getting to and from the outside and should only be attempted by strong swimmers with proper fins and gear. Please know that it is impossible at low tide to get directly to the shore from the outer reef. You will have to navigate back through the 2 channels on either side of the middle of the bay. These areas are known for their rip tides and can be quite challenging for even the best of swimmers. Please do not attempt to snorkel the outside reef at Hanauma Bay if you are not the strongest of swimmers and have proper fins on. If you get stuck out there and cannot find the channels you will not be able to walk over the sharp corals and get back in. You must find your way back to channels to get to swimmable waters.
Please never stand, sit, or walk on anything at Hanauma Bay that looks like rocks. The ‘rocks” here are actually living hard corals and have a variety of wildlife that live in them including moray eels which have been known to bite people on occasional. Never grab the reef with your hands either as it is sharp and will cut you, not to mention destroy our precious resource.
If you are a beginner snorkeler Pure Aloha Adventures offers a small group tour which focuses on snorkel safety, how to snorkel, shows you the best spots of the bay and can even find the ever elusive sea turtles in Hanauma Bay. They know the best spots to go and are highly recommended for their knowledge and patience. More advanced snorkelers also enjoy these tours in which many days get to go to the outside reef with a professional who knows the area like its their own backyard, because it is!!
Pure Aloha Adventures website also has updates on the current Hanauma Bay rules and Hawaii’s covid regulations.
Keep heading further east and you will eventually get to what used to be the quaint town of Kailua, now a bustling little “city” with awesome restuarants, breweries, and shopping. Once in Kailua head over to our next snorkeling spot.
Snorkeling Lanikai Beach
Not on the radar as a snorkeling destination, Lanikai is known for it’s Lanikai Pillbox hike and the setting off point for kayaking to the 2 off shore islands. we love this little beach and have seen tons of fish and wildlife snorkeling right off the beach here. The water can be murky lots of times but if you are headed here for beach day be sure to bring your snorkel gear.
Lanikai has soft powdery white sand that you dream of when you think of Hawaii. It’s picturesque landscape with the Mokulua Islands in the background and is sure to catch the eye of even the most well traveled Instagrammers. Here not only can you take famous instagrammaable photos but you can also swim just off shore and see all kinds of wildlife. Not every area is as good as others so follow the shoreline until you find a nice little reef. Don’t swim too far away from the shore line as there is a lot of boat traffic in the area and let’s just say not all of them pay attention when they should be. Once you find a good little reef section, dive down into the shallow waters and see what lies beneath. I’ve seen little white tip reef sharks, eels, and reef fish in a matter of a 2 minute swim.
Pro tip-Parking is just awful here and no parking is allowed on holiday weekends. I recommend visiting this beach during the week when there’s less people and you can find street parking.
The best snorkeling on the North Shore of Oahu (Surfer’s Paradise)
Oahu’s north shore is haven for surfers and in the winter is the home to the WSL (World Surfing League) contests and events so please do not expect to snorkel here in the winter months. Although snorkeling on the north shore is seasonal it must be mentioned. Snorkeling Oahu’s north shore can only take place in the summer months when the swells have died down and all the surfers leave for the year. During the winter months large swells, otherwise known as waves, generate off the coast of Oahu making snorkeling here impossible due to strong currents, dangerous surf, and not mention zero visibility. If you’re visiting in the summer months we do have a place you must check out.
Snorkeling Sharks Cove in Haleiwa.
Sharks cove is not named because it is filled with sharks, although we have seen the occasional white tip reef shark hanging out in some of the caves and caverns in this area. Caves, caverns and overhangs can only be seen while scuba diving and we recommend you go with a guide if you plan on checking out these areas. Although it is not like Florida cave diving with endless paths and ways to get lost, we recommend that anytime you are in an overhead environment, you go with a local guide so they can show you around and help you if anything were to go wrong.
Ok, back to snorkeling the area. The snorkeling here is more advanced than Hanauama Bay and I wouldn’t recommend it for beginners, especially those who haven’t had the opportunity to practice in a sandy shallow area or pool first.
Here’s how to snorkel Shark’s Cove
To enter: There is small parking lot here that fills up quick and early in the summer months. We recommend either arriving super early in the morning or later in the afternoons. Mid morning, spots will already be taken up by divers and snorkelers and you will have to wait on someone to leave in order to find parking there.
Once parked DO NOT LEAVE VALUABLES IN THE CAR IN PLAIN SITE AND ONLY TRAVEL WITH WHAT YOU ABSOLUETY NEED. `If you are planning to store anything in your trunk do so BEFORE you get there so you are not seen “hiding” purses and wallets throughout the car. Although this spot is right off the road and there are less break ins than our next location please be aware. Do not leave anything on the small “beach” either. There is really no beach here. Just a small sandy area and rocks that you can leave shoes and towels on. I do not recommend leaving rental car keys or backpacks here for two reasons. 1. Things will get stolen 2. Tides change and can wash away things left on the beach while you are out snorkeling.
Please invest in a GOOD waterproof pouch and cell phone case BEFORE arriving to the islands Trust me: it will save you a lot of time, money, and heartache in the long run. I recommend ProShot Case for cell phones which you can take up to 30 ft deep and can be used for all your vacation photos. Check out their website with this link and use code purealoha20 for a 20% off discount.
They also make amazing anti-fog masks which are a MUST HAVE in the hot Hawaiian weather! I have not used any other mask since getting this and I will never look back.
For car keys you can do a simple search on Amazon and find a quality one for around your neck to keep your keys in and on your person while in the water, sand, or on your wet muddy hikes.
Once parked and ready to go, follow the path and head down the steep cliff to the ocean. It’s short but steep, but most people can carefully walk down with no issues. Use the sandy area to walk SLOWLY into the water. I recommend having your mask ON so you don’t drop it, and hopefully you have a pair of waterproof booties to protect your feet. If you walk slowly you should be ok even if you hit a rock or coral, but if you go barreling in, good luck.
Try to follow the sand and not climb over rocks or step on coral. If the tide is high enough and water is deep enough go ahead and put your face in the water and skim yourself into the deeper waters. This is not a site for beginners as the water drops off quite quickly and there will be no place to put your feet down once you are out there. I recommend bringing some sort of floatation device with you even if it’s just a simple pool noodle and even if you are an expert swimmer.
WE PROMISE; you will look a lot cooler in a lifejacket than you will if a lifeguard has to come out and save you! ALSO NOTE: There are no lifeguards at Sharks Cove so swim and snorkel at your own risk!
Stay somewhat close and along the edges of the rock for the best wildlife as long as the water is calm. If you feel any surge or waves or see any whitewash or crashing waves, obviously move further away from the rocks.
If you get too far out or away from the “rocks” aka coral, there is nothing to see but sand and you run the risk of getting caught in a current and having a LOOOOONG swim back. It’s happened to the best of us and I do not recommend it.
You will see the same types of fish here as you will at Hanauma Bay although not as many and not as large. I almost always see turtles on the right side (if you’re facing the ocean) near the rocks.
Snorkeling Three Tables on Oahu
There’s another spot I like, called Three Tables which is just to the left (if you’re facing the ocean) of Sharks Cove. It is named this due to the 3 large reefs that stick out of the water here. Yes, they ARE coral, NOT rocks so PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE do not touch, sit or stand on them and if you see anyone doing this please share with them that they are destroying a living organism. If the corals die, the fish go away, and wont’ be there for you to enjoy next time you visit or when your children visit.
This spot has a better beach and in my opinion has more wildlife and is less crowded than Shark’s Cove. I’d say if you’re scuba diving, do sharks cove and if you’re snorkeling do Three Tables.
My last spot is on the west side and this is the most advanced of all and not recommended for anyone who is not a strong swimmer, expert snorkeler, and can handle swimming against strong currents and swimming in deep water for a long time. If you feel good about all that then this spot is awesome.
Snorkeling Kahe Point otherwise known as Electric Beach.
This spot is on some of Hawaii’s most rugged coastline. It is a favorite of locals from around the island and you will see many scuba divers taking classes, locals having bbqs, and people just chilling out and having a good time. This place has a reputation for being a little rough with car breakins and many rescues due to people overestimating their snorkeling skill level. If you choose to go here, just be aware of what you’re getting yourself into. One day you could go and everything be fine and calm and no issues and the next it could look calm with no waves but the currents can be ripping underwater.
I’m not going to give too much direction on this spot except to say that it does have a plethora of wildlife here. I have seen turtles, spotted eagle rays, tons of fish, and yes even a TIGER SHARK (pretty rare, but it happens).
Reef fish like to swim in the warm waters all around the “pipe” which pushes out hot water from the electrical plant across the street from the beach and makes for quite a lovely snorkel excursion.
Snorkeling here is for the experienced expert snorkeler only and you should not swim any further than the pipe. After that it just becomes deep sand with nothing to see.
If you plan on snorkeling Electric Beach in Hawaii, this is another spot where I recommend some sort of flotation device even as an expert and especially if you’re bringing someone less experienced than you out there with you.
LAST PROTIP- You should always take the time BEFORE getting into the water at ANY snorkel site to watch the waves, currents, and conditions and see how people are dealing with getting in and out, swimming, and if they’re having any issues. This will save you from getting into a situation that could have easily been avoided. Most advanced snorkelers or people going on their own watch the ocean for at least 15 minutes before getting into the water. Remember-Many beaches on Oahu do not have lifeguards so please be honest about your skill level and stick with safer locations if you are a newbie snorkeler or go on a guided tour. If you go snorkeling on your own in Hawaii, be sure to plan your snorkel, stay with your buddy, never snorkel alone and have a plan in case anything happens.