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By Donnie MacGowan

Coming to my island for a vacation? There are three things I always recommend the first-time visitor do. First, go on an air tour. Secondly–go to a luau. Finally, I advise people of every age to get in the water and go snorkeling. The “one-one-one, experiencing the world through the fishes’ eyes” magic of swimming in those bath-warm lagoons surrounded by clouds of tropical fish is an amazing, restful and restorative pursuit-you will find your mind going back to that experience over and over through the years much more so than many of your other travel experiences. Part I of this series discuses Snorkeling Gear; Part II of this series discusses Snorkeling Technique and Part III covers Snorkeling Etiquette; Part IV of the series covers Snorkeling Safety and Part V discusses Big Island Snorkel Spots and Part VI discusses Wilderness Snorkeling on the Big Island.

Let’s Chat About Snorkeling, Part V: Hawaii’s Best Snorkeling Beaches

Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Liz Maus Snorkeling at Honaunau: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Hawaii’s varied landscape and dynamic shoreline provides for an amazing array of snorkeling experiences, from broad, sandy beaches with placid and inviting turquoise water to broken glass-sharp cliffs where the swimmer leaps into surgey dark water. Everywhere I’ve snorkeled on Hawaii, from lazily paddling in calm waters at Kahalu’u to rappelling into the wild surf and open ocean currents at Pau’ekolu, the snorkeling is wonderful, beautiful, exhilarating. But many of the best places to snorkel are difficult or scary for the beginning snorkeler, some could be lethal. Here’s a list of the crown jewel snorkeling spots that are easy for the beginner, tantalizingly fascinating for the experienced.

Westside Beaches:

Hapuna Beach (turn off Highway 19 at mile marker 69): Always rated in the Top 10 of American beaches, Hapuna Beach is long, wide and phenomenally sandy. The center of the beach is tailor-made for wave play and boogie boarding, the north and south coves are quieter, better for snorkeling or gentle floating. Although most of the shore is relatively free of currents, only experienced snorkelers who are strong swimmers will want to snorkel around the south end of Hapuna, past a sea arch and to the reef and cove of Beach 69—a long, but rewarding swim with some of the most incredible underwater vistas available to the snorkeler in the word.

Anaeho’omalu Beach (turn off Highway 19 at mile marker 76): The most photographed sunset view on the Island of Hawai’i, Anaeho’omalu Bay is the icon of what most visitors envision Hawai’i to be like before they get here. Although the water tends toward being cloudy, this is an excellent beach for beginning snorkelers.

Kekahakai State Park, Kua Bay (turn off Highway 19, between mile markers 88 and 89): Kua Bay has a lovely white sand beach and full facilities although there is no shade to speak of. Swimming and boogie boarding in the crystalline waters is primo, though strong currents and large waves call for respect, here; if the surf is up, don’t go in. Also, sometime in winter, the surf removes the sand to offshore, leaving a rocky shelf that is less fun to frolic on than the sandy beach.

Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Bart Hunt Snorkeling at Kahalu'u Bay: Photo by Donnie MacGowan

Kahalu’u Beach (in Kailua Kona, along Ali’i Drive, between mile markers 4.5 and 5): This is the premiere snorkeling beach of the Island of Hawai’i; protected from the open sea by a jetty, the reef is also protected against commercial aquarium fishing. Thus, the snorkeling is in calm, shallow water. Also, there is an abundance of fish of an enormous variety…perhaps the best display on the island. Numerous freshwater springs and shallow water bathers make the near-shore snorkeling unpleasantly cloudy, but about 50 feet offshore the water turns crystal clear and the display of coral is nothing short of amazing. There is a fair current north out of the bay and along the coast. Incredible archeological sites abound in this area and make a fine after-snorkel exploration on foot; ask for details at the concierge desk at the adjacent Keauhou Beach Resort.

Two-Step Beach (adjacent to Pu’u Honua O Honaunau National Historic Park on Highway 160): Some of the finest, protected snorkeling on the Island is located at Two-Step Beach. A wonderland of turtles, coral and fish, with frequent morning visits by dolphins, this snorkeling experience shouldn’t be missed. No swimming is allowed within the Park out of respect for its sacredness; however, Two-Step Beach offers a convenient place to enter Honaunau bay. One can enter the bay either by the boat ramp, or by stepping off the short cliff into the water from near the center edge of the lava beach, where two ledges serve as steps down into the ocean. Getting in is a simple matter of stepping down these steps, “1-2-OCEAN!”–to get out, reverse the process.

Ho’okena Beach (turn off Highway 11 near mile marker 102): Brilliant snorkeling, decent boogie boarding, passable shell collecting and wonderful camping—it’s a wonder the large and warm stretch of sand at Ho’okena Beach is not more popular with visitors. Frequented by dolphin, stuffed full of pelagic and reef fish and turtles and boasting crystal clear, warm and calm waters, Ho’okena is a must-visit beach for avid snorkelers.

Southside Beaches:

Punalu’u Beach (turn off Highway 11 between mile markers 55 and 56): A truly remarkable place of great peace, beauty and spiritual healing, Punalu’u’s black sand-lined coves and beaches are world-renowned. With dozens of endangered Hawai’ian Green Sea Turtles and superabundant abundant fish, this is a truly snorkeling experience–made unique because of the black sand bottom of the bay. Due to chilly waters, off-shore winds, strong currents and a fearsome rip, swimmers and snorkelers should use caution when swimming at Punalu’u, but it’s hard to resist getting in and swimming with all those turtles. There are abundant Hawaiian cultural sites in the park that are worth visiting.

Photo by Bradford T. MacGowan

Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle Basks in the Sun at Punalu'u Beach: Photo by Bradford T. MacGowan

Kehena Beach (on Highway 137 near mile marker 19): A quick scramble down the bank on a dirt path quickly brings you to the Kehena Black Sand Beach. Once on the beach the first thing that may strike you is that many of the locals who frequent this park have forgotten to put on proper beach attire…or any other attire whatsoever, for that matter. In the shade of palms and ironwood this wonderful beach is generally sunny even when the rest of Puna is rainy. Swimming here is great near-shore, but ocean currents are strong and dangerous not far from shore. The locals are friendly but frisky, so don’t leave valuables in your car.

Pohoiki Bay at Isaac Hale Beach Park (on Highway 137 between mile markers 11 and 12): A lovely black sand beach with an expert surf break, Isaac Hale Beach Park is one of the very few real beaches and boat ramps in Puna District; as such this park sees a lot of traffic. It is also the site of the best surfing and some of the wildest snorkeling and scuba diving in Puna.

A short path along the shoreline leads from the parking lot, past a house with abundant “No Trespassing” signs, just a few minutes stroll then turns about 20 yards into the jungle to a secluded, perfectly lovely, natural hot spring that is wonderful for soaking. Locals usually don’t bother with swimwear here; you shouldn’t feel required to, either.

Kapoho Tidepools (turn off Highway 137 and head east on Kapoho-Kai Road, left on Kaheka and right on Waiopae): Stuffed with abundant sea life, this sprawling basin of lava tidal pools is a remarkable treasure for snorkelers of all abilities from the starkly frightened to the seasoned veteran. Moorish idols, yellow tangs, various wrasses and eels, sea urchins and sea cucumbers abound and there are even some nice corals in the deeper pools. The largest pool is called “Wai Opae”, which means “fresh water shrimp”.

Keeping to the left of the main channel keeps one away from most of the ocean currents, which can be surprisingly strong, even in small channels, where ponds empty into the ocean. No real facilities exist here beyond the parking lot, so come prepared.

Eastside Beaches:

Richardson Beach Park (Take Kalaniana’ole Street 3.6 miles east from the intersection of Highways 19 and 11 in Hilo): The almost universal experience of visitors to Hawai’i is that, although it is certainly beautiful and unique, no matter what pre-conceptions a traveler may bring about Hawai’i, their experience is a bit different to what they expected. Richardson Beach Park, with its towering palms, fresh water pools, delightful surf, secluded and calm tidepools and general ambience of tropical paradise, is almost certainly very close to what most visitors expect from Hawai’i—hence it popularity. The snorkeling here along the small black sand beach is the best of the Hilo area.

Frequented by dolphins and sea turtles, the near-shore water is a little cold when getting in, due to fresh water springs, but soon warms-up a few dozen yards from shore. The currents and surf can occasionally be tricky here, so heads-up, pay attention to advice from the lifeguards.

Be sure to watch for Part VI which talks about snorkeling the wilderness beaches of the Island of Hawaii.

A short video discussing many of these topics can be found here.

For more information about visiting and touring Hawaii in general, and exploring the fabulous snorkeling on the Big Island in particular, visit http://www.tourguidehawaii.com and www.tourguidehawaii.blogspot.com. For information about the author, go here.

All media copoyright 2009 by Donald B. MacGowan

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