Snorkeling the Big Island’s crystal-clear water is an easy way to spot marine life.
Kealakekua Bay, an underwater marine preserve that is a resting area for dolphins and the site of the Captain Cook Monument, is a popular destination. So are the pristine waters off the Kohala Coast and Pawai Bay.
Snorkel gear can be rented or purchased. In either case, all you’ll need is a mask, a snorkel and some fins. Gear comes in many sizes and shapes, but be sure you have a good fit.
You can also go snorkeling in style, aboard a catamaran. This typically includes plenty of food, cocktails, restrooms, and lots of flotation equipment.
Here are a few safety tips:
1. Never snorkel alone. Hang with a buddy. 2. Whenever possible, snorkel in the morning, when fish are
more active and water clarity is at its peak. 3. Marine life tends to congregate around structures, so
stick to reefs for a face-to-face encounter. 4. Don’t feed the fish. 5. Even on the cloudiest of days, use waterproof sunscreen. 6. Take a small cooler with bottled water, snacks and food. 7. Snorkeling isn’t so much about swimming as it is about
floating. Stay relaxed, float and kick only when necessary. 8. Be respectful of the ocean. Avoid standing on coral, as
broken coral takes many years to grow back. 9. Don’t combine snorkeling with alcohol or drugs.
• Big Island Kayak (800) 979-3370 • AdventureX Rafting (808) 937-7245 •Aloha Kayak Company (808) 322-2868 • Body Glove (808) 326-7122 or (800)-551-8911 • Captain Zodiac Raft Expeditions (808) 329-3199 • Dolphin Discoveries (808) 322-8000 • Fair Wind Cruises (808) 345-0244 • Hanamana (808) 936-5855 • Lava Ocean Adventures (808) 966-4200 • Kamanu Charters (808) 329-2021 • Sea Quest Rafting Adventures (808) 329-RAFT • Snorkel Bob’s Kona (808) 329-0770 or
Mauna Lani (Kohala Coast/Waikoloa) (808) 885-9499
Track the Underwater Kingdom
Hawai‘i Island’s cerulean waters are teeming with life. Living coral can be found in 57 percent of the waters surrounding the island—the highest percentage in the main Hawaiian Islands. And where there’s coral, there are fish.
At least three island tour-boat companies specialize in underwater views.
Blue Sea Cruises investigates the view down under in its glass bottom boat. Viewing wells provide live screening action while narrators fill in the details. Expect to see schools of fish, dolphins, manta rays, turtles—and, in the winter—humpback whales. Naturalists shed light on historical sites along the coastline and a hula show tops off the excursion. Better yet, their Evening on the Reef tour provides not only manta ray viewings but a premium dinner and hula show package along with stunning sunsets
Atlantis Adventures, a 65-foot, air-conditioned submarine with 26 large portholes, conducts tours off Kailua-Kona. The sub cruises past hundreds of tropical fish that populate an 18,000-year-old, 25-acre fringing coral reef that lies some 100 feet below the surface. The company also offers package tours, including a combination submarine/volcano air tour and, from December through April, whale-watching tours.
Kailua Bay Charter Company runs 50-minute reef tours in a glass-bottom boat, which affords up-close views of underwater features like “shipwreck rock,” where the reef rises to within inches of the glass, then plunges to more than 100 feet. Expect to see turtles, frolicking dolphins and seasonal whales. You can also charter their boat to create your own tour for you and your friends.
All of these tours depart from the Kailua-Kona pier.
• Atlantis Adventures (800) 548-6262 • Kailua Bay Charter Co. (808) 324-1749 • Blue Sea Cruises (808) 331-8875
Catch a Wave
Legends about surfing are found in the earliest stories of ancient Hawai‘i. Around 400 A.D., a form of bellyboarding on small wooden planks was introduced. Later, Tahitian explorers brought their tradition of riding waves with canoes. The Hawaiians merged the two techniques to create the sport of surfing.
Learning how to surf is a rewarding adventure. Students generally begin their training by riding soft longboards and are introduced to surfing fundamentals, safety, and ocean-awareness rules in a land lesson before entering the small surf to give it a try.
Ocean Eco Tours, located in Honokohau Harbor, specializes in beginners’ training. The company holds the only surf permit for Honokohau National Park and offers lessons at the popular Kahalu‘u Beach Park on Ali‘i Drive in Kailua-Kona.
Kahalu‘u is a popular surfing site particularly attractive to beginners. The park’s reef-protected lagoons attract crowds year-round, and the beach is guarded and popular with both snorkelers and surfers.
One of the most popular and consistent surf spots on the east side of the island is Honoli‘i Point, near Hilo. This is a great place to watch surfers and body-boarders.
• Ocean Eco Tours (808) 324-7873
Paddle to the Capt. Cook Monument
British Sea Captain James Cook, thought to be the first Westerner to set sight on the Hawaiian Islands, spotted the islands of O‘ahu and Kaua‘i on Jan. 18, 1778. Almost a year later, on Jan. 17, 1779, the explorer found his way to the Big Island. He anchored his ships in Kealakekua Bay, where the annual Makahiki Festival was in progress. Thinking Cook might be the god Lono, Hawaiians welcomed him with a great feast.
On February 4, Cook left the Big Island only to return about a week later, after a severe storm damaged one of his ships. This time the Hawaiians, who had discovered Cook was not a god, were quite hostile. Cook and four of his sailors died in the battle that ensued.
A small bronze plaque at the northern end of Kealakekua Bay marks the spot of his death. Near the plaque is a 27-foot obelisk erected by Cook’s countrymen.
Kayaking Kealakekua Bay is a great way to see the monument and explore the surrounding reef. As Kealakekua Bay is a Marine Life Conservation District (MLCD), it presents a unique aquatic experience. Landing a kayak is only permissible with a permit, of which there are only 10 available per day. Aloha Kayak Company, in addition to renting kayaks and snorkel gear for your trip, makes the link to the landing permit available on their website at www.alohakayak.com.
• Aloha Kayak Company (808) 322-2868
Snorkel, Dive at Pawai Bay
Pawai Bay is an exquisite spot for snorkeling and scuba diving. A protected marine sanctuary, the bay is populated by more than 600 species of tropical fish, moray eels, manta rays, green sea turtles and the occasional dolphin. Ledges, caves, shallow shelves and steep drop-offs make for interesting terrain in crystal-clear water.
Though it is located near the old Kona airport not far from Kailua-Kona, Pawai Bay is not easily accessible, which is one reason a lot of people pay for a seat on a cruise boat equipped with snorkel and diving gear.
Body Glove gets you there in style on a state-of-the-art 65-foot catamaran, featuring freshwater showers, a 15-foot high dive platform and a 20-foot water slide. The company offers both snorkeling and diving.
Kamanu Snorkel Sailing Charters has been taking visitors to Pawai Bay for 30 years. Kamanu caters to non-swimmers and novice snorkelers. A wide assortment of gear is carried on board the vessel. A brief orientation will be provided before passengers enter the water.
Kona Boys Beach Shack takes you on a kayak tour along the Kona Coast to this beautiful bay. Once there, you’ll take in the aquatic sights via a leisurely snorkel. Afterwards, the guides share the cultural and natural history of the area with the group.
• Body Glove (808) 326-7122 or (800) 551-8911 • Kamanu Charters (808) 329-2021
Ride the Swells in an Ocean Raft
Riding the swells of the great Pacific tucked away safely in a powered, rigid-hull inflatable boat is an experience that puts a whole new perspective on an adventure at sea. Commonly called ocean rafts, these stable, high-performance boats resemble rescue craft, which is one thing they’re used for. They’re also used for fun and adventure.
Typically carrying no more than 35 passengers, a rafting trip almost always includes snorkel stops in Kealakekua and Honaunau bays. In a raft, you can enter sea caves and lava tubes and get a good look at dolphins, sea turtles and whales. The waters off the South Kona coast are among the calmest in the state, which makes rafting here generally comfortable.
Most rafting tours depart from Honokohau Marina near Kailua-Kona and travel along the Kona Coast to snorkeling destinations. AdventureX Rafting launches from Puako, 30 minutes from Kailua-Kona. Morning and afternoon tours are available and generally take three or four hours to complete. Some boats are equipped with canopies for shade and ladders to provide water access.
• AdventureX Rafting (808) 937-7245 • Captain Zodiac Raft Expeditions (808) 329-3199 • Dolphin Discoveries (808) 322-8000 • Sea Quest Rafting (808) 329-7238
Walk on Water
Standing upright on a board and navigating the surf with a lightweight paddle is wildly popular on the Islands. It’s called stand-up paddle surfing, or SUP, and it has been revived on the islands in the past few years, quickly spreading to the Mainland and beyond.
Originating in Waikiki about 60 years ago, Beach Boy Surfing, as it was known then, was commonly used to get around the occasional flat day in Waikiki and for taking pictures of visitors learning to surf.
Today, some of Hawai‘i’s surfing greats (Laird Hamilton, for one) have latched onto the sport taking the idea to a new, more rigorous level.
• Aloha Kayak Company (808) 322-2868
Latch onto an Outrigger Canoe
Designated the state’s official team sport, outrigger canoe racing draws hundreds of paddlers to clubs throughout the Islands. However, it is more than a popular activity—it’s a culturally significant link to the legendary seafaring traditions of Hawai‘i.
Hawai‘i’s first settlers arrived aboard double-hulled sailing canoes that they paddled across 2,000 miles of uncharted ocean using only the stars and flight patterns of birds to guide them. They found the Islands more than 1,000 years before European explorers arrived in 1778. Canoes were used for interisland travel, fishing and sport, to transport warriors into battle, and for exploratory voyages.
Typically, a modern-day outrigger is powered by six paddlers in a 45-foot fiberglass, single- or double-hulled canoe. The canoe features the ama, which is a pontoon attached to one side of the hull to provide added stability.
• Aloha Kayak Company (808) 322-2868
Go Sea Breeze Sailing
One of the best ways to fully experience the fabled attributes of sailing the Kona Coast is to book a tour on a catamaran or sail boat. The Kona Coast is a fine place to sail, protected as it is from the blustery eastnortheast trade winds by the volcanic mountain slopes. The mountains create a wind shadow, or lee, along the west side of the island that provides sailboats and fishing boats with protected, smooth-surface conditions. The heating of the landmass by the sun causes warm air to rise, pulling the “Kona Breeze” off the ocean and providing gentle winds.
There isn’t much “white knuckle” sailing on the Kona Coast, nor do you have to be an accomplished swimmer or diver to enjoy the trip. And if you’d rather pilot your own craft, some companies rent small sailboats and pontoon boats for sightseeing, fishing and snorkeling.
• Fair Wind Cruises (808) 345-0244 • Kona Boat Rentals (808) 326-9155
Get High on Kitesurfing
From the technological advances of windsurfing, paragliding and wakeboarding has come a hot new water sport that some call kitesurfing and others call kite boarding. This extreme sport takes wind, guts, the right equipment and a lot of practice.
The surfer stands on a kiteboard (a small surfboard with straps) and is pulled across the water by a big kite. Sounds easy enough, but don’t be fooled—it could take many sessions of kitesurfing before a pilot becomes competent.
Kitesurfing enthusiasts say the sport, though challenging and sometimes dangerous, is more fun and not as dependent on high wave and wind action as windsurfing. Lessons and rental gear are available all over the island.
Soar in a Parasail
Parasailing in Kailua Bay is an easy-to-master
thrill ride in a gorgeous surrounding. The water in the bay is so clear you can almost see the ocean floor, and most days you’ll be drifting through cloudless, blue skies.
UFO Parasail, the only operator in Kona, loads parasailors in a boat and then attaches them to a towline and a parachute. As the towline is released, you soar into the sky. With a ride running from 7 to 14 minutes, this is a quick thrill.
Most parasailing companies employ state-of-the-art equipment, ensuring dry landings and safety. You can fly single, tandem or triple. No experience is necessary.
• UFO Parasail (808) 325-5836 or (888) FLY-4UFO
Rent a Power Boat
When Mother Nature set out to design the Big Island, she came up with 11 distinct climate zones ranging from tundra to tropical forest—and she saved the best for the Kona Coast. In the summer, less than an inch of rain falls a month; in the winter, that changes only marginally to 1 to 3 inches a month. The waters off the coast are typically calm, creating a perfect setting for boating activities.
Kona Boat Rentals has devised a great way to explore the coastal waters on your own. The company rents easyto-operate, environmentally friendly u-drive boats that accommodate up to six adults with room to spare. No license is required.
Kona Boat Rentals, located at Honokohau Small Boat Harbor in Kailua-Kona, offers full- or half-day rentals. The company’s 21-foot center-console boats are roomy and come equipped with a full electronic package including GPS and fish finders. So take the wheel and go explore.
• Kona Boat Rentals (808) 326-9155 or (800) 311-9189
Power a Jet Ski
Looking for some action? Try getting wet and wild on a jet ski. This is a safe and fun water activity for nearly all ages, and anyone can learn to do it. Riding the waves on a personal watercraft is a good bet in Kailua Bay, where the water is relatively free from fast boats, water skiers and other vessels.
Rental companies typically rent by the hour, but for some, 60 minutes may be only the beginning of a good time. Beginners are welcome, with life vests and operating instruction included.
Go Ocean Kayaking
Ocean kayaking is a great way to slip away from the crowd and get lost in the irresistible tug of nature. Whether you rent a kayak to go or book a guided tour with an activity company, expect to move through some of the island’s most inviting seascapes and abundant marine life.
It’s possible to rent one- or two-person kayaks ranging from a wide, virtually untippable kayak to sleek fiberglass racing kayaks. Rentals usually come equipped with soft racks designed for any vehicle and are able to handle up to three kayaks at a time.
Another option is a jet-powered kayak that speeds over the water at 15 miles per hour. These excursions begin at Puako Bay.
Guided tours range from a lazy paddle along the North Kohala Coast to more adventurous tours on the South Kona coast, where sea caves and secluded beaches prevail.
• Adventures In Paradise (808) 323-3005 • Aloha Kayak Company (808) 322-2868 • Ocean Eco Tours (808) 324-7873
Land a Winner
Sport fishing on the Kona Coast is big business. Many anglers come to pursue the storied 1,000-pound Pacific blue marlin and other hefty catches of broadbill swordfish, yellowfin tuna, mahimahi and sharks.
Since water depth drops off to 6,000 feet just a few miles offshore and continues to get deeper as you head out to sea, most of Kona’s 1,000-pound marlins have been found between just 2 to 5 miles from shore.
More than 60 charter boats are available for hire, most of them out of Honokohau Harbor, north of Kailua-Kona.
You can also get a look at Kona whoppers in the lobby of King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel. Check out a 1,166-pound blue marlin, the record catch at the 1993 Hawaiian International Billfish Tournament. Big fish are weighed in daily at Honokohau Harbor’s Fuel Dock at 11 a.m. or 3:30 p.m. The Charter Desk is located just above these weigh scales at Honokohau Harbor.
If you don’t want to hang with the Kona crowd, drop your line in the more remote eastside waters, where LavaKat Fishing Charters, offered by Lava Ocean Adventures (located in Hilo), promises some serious sport fishing. The rule is a guaranteed catch, or the crew buys dinner.
• Hanamana (808) 936-5855 • Lava Ocean Adventures (808) 966-4200
Schmooze with the Dolphins
There’s something spellbinding about squinting into the Pacific and spying a pod of wild dolphins spinning like shiny toy tops out of a sun-polished sea. These marine mammals may appear out of the blue and put on a show for you. And when they do, there’s an almost irresistible urge to get in the water with them.
A number of Big Island tour boat companies understand that
urge and provide the opportunity to do so. Most of them follow self-regulatory guidelines developed to safeguard dolphins as well as humans.
Dolphin Discoveries pioneered Big Island dolphin swims 15 years ago, developing the guidelines currently in use by most companies that offer dolphin tours. The company specializes in small group tours, and their guides are trained marine-mammal naturalists.
Another way to get to know dolphins is to participate in the Dolphin Quest marine research and education program at the Hilton Waikoloa Village.
Sunlight on Water, a tour company with 15 years of experience in dolphin encounters, guarantees dolphin sightings and the opportunity to get in the water with them on its Kona Coast tours. You can also swim and snorkel with wild dolphins on ocean rafting tours with AdventureX Rafting, Neptune Charlies and Captain Zodiac Raft Expeditions.
• AdventureX Rafting (808) 937-7245 • Captain Zodiac Raft Expeditions (808) 329-3199 • Dolphin Discoveries (808) 322-8000 • Dolphin Quest 800-248-3316 or (808) 886-2875 • Kamanu Charters (808) 329-2021 • Neptune Charlies (808) 331-2184 • Ocean Eco Tours (808) 324-SURF (7873) • SunLight on Water (808) 896-2480
Learn to Snuba
You’ve seen the photographs and films of colorful reef fish undulating in the warm, deep-blue ocean currents, and now you want to experience the sensation of meandering alongside them. But diving with heavy tanks seems a bit much; snorkeling only scratches the surface.
There is a compromise. Snuba, invented in 1988, is a dive experience that combines the best of both scuba and snorkeling. It allows participants to go deeper than snorkeling, using a shallow-water dive system that makes it possible to dive as deep as 20 feet below the surface for up to 30 minutes without wearing heavy air tanks. Divers wear masks, fins and weight belts. What sets snuba apart is the mouthpiece (or regulator) attached to a hose that extends to the surface, where air tanks float in a raft.
Children as young as 8 years old can snuba, as long as they are comfortable in the water.
• Big Island Water Sports (808) 326-7446
Wade in a Tide Pool
Tide pools are mini-ecosystems boasting everything from Moray eels to coral reef life and fish. These pools tend to be shallow with calm, clear waters for casual snorkeling or toe-dipping, and the Big Island has numerous great spots to splash around.
Kikaua Point Beach, near Kailua-Kona, is a kid-friendly option with a sand-bottomed pool only around 3 feet deep. Arrive early, since there is limited parking, and check in with the golf-resorts’ security so that they can give you a hang-tag and directions. Located on Kukio Nui Road near the 87 mile marker.
Wawaloli Beach is more of a sheltered swimming hole perfect for when the surf is high. This spot offers tide pools that boast fish, anemones and scuttling crabs. This beach park also features benches, trees, restrooms, and plenty of space to picnic or rest, though it doesn’t have a lifeguard. It is located in Kalaoa on Queen Ka‘ahumanu Highway near the 94 mile marker.
Waiopae Tide Pools Marine Preserve, south of Pahoa, isn’t exactly a sandy beach here—instead, the area is a maze of tide pools full of fish and sea life. It is rarely crowded, since it’s so far off the main drag. To get here from the Hilo side, head south on Highway 132, then go east on Highway 132 to Highway 137. After 1.1 miles, turn east on Kapoho Kai Drive and follow signs to a small public parking lot and access point.
WARNING: The tide pools near the open ocean are fronted by powerful waves. Never turn your back on the ocean. Don’t walk on rocks that look wet near breaking surf. Bring shoes or sandals to wade, since lava rock can be sharp.
Help Protect Hawai‘i’s Marine Animals
The Big Island’s shores are alive with wildlife. Some of these animals, like humpback whales, Hawaiian monk seals and sea turtles, are considered endangered species and are protected by federal laws. Dolphins and other whales, though not endangered, are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Hawai‘i’s marine mammals are fascinating and easily observed creatures, which is one reason nature-based tourism is a popular segment of the visitor market. Scores of tour boat companies and water-based activities on the Big Island cater to whale and dolphin watching. Rules and guidelines to follow when viewing marine wildlife: 1. Stay at least 100 yards from humpback whales and 50
yards from dolphins, monk seals and sea turtles. 2. It is against the law to approach, chase, surround, touch or swim with marine mammals, including dolphins. 3. If approached by a marine mammal or turtle while on a boat, put the engine in neutral and allow the animal to pass. 4. Do not harass, swim with, hunt, capture or kill any
marine mammal. 5. Feeding marine mammals is prohibited under
Federal law. 6. To report suspected violations, call the NOAA
Enforcement Hotline at 1-800-853-1964.