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The first time I snorkeled in Hawaii, I felt like I was dreaming. When I put my head in the water, the sounds of the real world disappeared and my breathing provided the soundtrack to views of amazing underwater apparitions. Happily, it's easy for just about any visitor to enjoy a similar experience under the surface of the sea, because great snorkeling in Hawaii is readily accessible.
Exploring Hawaii on land and in the air may provide visitors with outstanding views, but a subaqueous adventure leads them to unparalleled scenery. Hawaii's best snorkeling spots are chock-full of maritime delights, from vibrant tropical fish and green sea turtles to playful dolphins and dramatic coral reefs.
Following are my 10 favorite snorkeling spots on Hawaii's four major islands. Each one is easy to locate, provides ideal conditions and rewards snorkelers with memorable undersea vistas.
Hanauma BayOf all the snorkeling destinations on my list, this is the most famous. A nature preserve on Oahu's southeastern shore, it features mellow, shallow waters that are so clear you can spot sea creatures before you even put your head in the water. The fish are incredibly tame - a delight for first-timers who prefer to stay close to shore - while more experienced snorkelers can swim to the outer reef areas. The city closes Hanauma Bay one day each week and limits the number of visitors on the remaining days in order to protect it from the thousands of people who want to experience its riches.
Sharks CoveScuba Diving magazine called this small, northern cove one of the world's top 12 shore dives. Part of Pupukea Beach Park, it attracts snorkelers and scuba buffs with its smooth underwater stones, fantastic coral, charming caves and lively marine creatures such as parrot fish, goat fish, butterfly fish, tang, damsel fish, wrasse and jack crevalle as well as turtles and eels. Two important notes: Unlike the sandy bottom at Hanauma Bay, the entrance to Sharks Cove is rocky and therefore not good for youngsters. In addition, you should enter these waters only in the calm summer months, since winter brings large swells that make swimming here dangerous.
Ahihi Kinau Natural Area ReserveLooking for a humuhumunukunukuapuaa (triggerfish)? You're likely to find one at this south Maui marine life conservation district, where lava rocks and coral attract quite a menagerie of fish. Almost as soon as you enter the water, your view is chock-full of finned wonders from moorish idols to butterfly fish. It's best to snorkel here in the morning when the waters are clearest, before the tradewinds ruffle things up. Ahihi Kinau is easy to wade into courtesy of a small cove near the road, although its calm waters allow entry from the rocks as well. To the north of the cove is your best bet for spotting the turtles who call this area home.
Honolua BayAnother marine life conservation district, this one is located on the northwestern side of Maui. Since it's protected by steep cliffs, the waters are generally calm here. If you access the ocean from the beach, swim to the right, because most of the sea life congregates around the coral on the north side of the bay. You'll find yourself face-to-face with all types of fish, from damsel and surgeon to butterfly and parrot. When it's time for a break from snorkeling, you can watch the surfers who hang ten on the well-loved Honolua surf break, just beyond the bay.
Maluaka BeachMost folks know this as Turtle Town because of the many flippered critters gliding around its waters. Located to the south of the island near the Makena Beach and Golf Resort, Maluaka boasts clear, mellow conditions hugged by a white-sand beach. Most of its inhabitants - including the aforementioned green sea turtles - hang out near the rocks and coral on the left (south) side of the beach. This is one of my favorite snorkel spots because it's easy to swim in and see the underwater spectacle, and it's a little less populated than some of the other beaches and bays on my list.
Anini BeachHome to Hawaii's largest, widest reef, Anini provides fabulous snorkeling opportunities on Kauai's north shore. It's embraced by a beautiful three-mile-long beach and green, postcard-perfect cliffs. The ultra-blue, shallow water is easy to wade into thanks to a sandy bottom near the shore although, as at any beach, watch out for coral underfoot. Residing here are some of my favorite fish: uhu (parrot fish), kala (unicorn fish), damselfish and the inimitable humuhumunukunukuapuaa. Occasionally this area experiences rip currents, in which case be sure to stay on shore and enjoy the views.
Makua BeachYou might find yourself humming "Bali Hai" as you snorkel in this north shore dreamworld, whose incredible natural beauty was showcased in the 1958 movie musical South Pacific. Locals call this area Tunnels because of its fabulous underwater caverns and lava formations. Thanks to a shallow inner reef, it's a cinch to snorkel close to shore, while experienced divers can head to the outer reefs for more adventurous explorations. The adjacent beach stretches for about two miles with shade trees providing a break from the glorious tropical sunshine.
Honaunau BayThis hallowed area is presided over by Puuhonua O Honaunau National Historic Park, a sanctuary for law breakers in ancient Hawaii. Large, smooth, flat lava rocks lead right into the water, creating the perfect entry for snorkelers. Since the water is relatively shallow, the coral in its depths is abundant and attractive to scads of hungry fish. Better yet, the deeper waters of Honaunau are a favorite hang-out for Hawaiian spinner dolphins, and it's a treat to see them swim and frolic nearby. Snorkel here in the morning if possible, since afternoons tend to cloud over in this region of Hawaii Island.
Kaunaoa BayWith the luxurious Mauna Kea Beach Hotel at its side, this white strand of sand on the Kohala Coast is as perfect as beaches get. While it's easy to enter the water anywhere in the crescent, snorkelers get the best underwater views by the rocky ridges and coral on the right (north) side, below the hotel. I see turtles almost every time I swim here, not to mention parrot fish and tang. In the evening, the hotel shines a light on the water, attracting manta rays who feed on plankton. There's nothing quite as magical as standing under the stars and watching them glide through the sea.
Kealakekua BayDue to its remote location, this Kona Coast gem is best experienced with a commercial boat tour which can take you directly to the best snorkeling sites in the bay. Home of the Captain Cook Monument, which commemorates the death of British Capt. James Cook in 1779, Kealakekua is an exceptional underwater marine sanctuary teeming with vibrant reefs, rainbows of fish and friendly dolphins and sea turtles. A 100-foot-high lava cliff protects the bay and keeps conditions calm, and clear waters allow snorkelers to see amazing landscapes as deep as 100 feet below the surface.