Scuba DivingThe Big Island’s leeward coast offers some of the best diving and snorkeling in the world; the water is calm, warm, and clear. Want to swim with fast-moving game fish? Try Ulua Cave, at the north end of the Kohala Coast, from 25 to 90 feet deep; dolphins, rays, and the occasional Hawaiian monk seal swim by. And don’t forget to book a night dive to see the majestic manta rays, regularly seen in greater numbers here than anywhere else in Hawaii (or most of the world, for that matter). More than 2 dozen dive operators on-island offer everything from scuba-certification courses to guided dives to snorkeling cruises.
Founded in 1984, Kohala Divers (www.kohaladivers.com; 808/882-7774) offers morning and evening one-tank ($109–$139) and two-tank dives ($149–$159) to spectacular sites off North and South Kohala, including a 30-foot-high lava dome covered in plate and knob coral that attracts huge schools of fish, and several spots off Puako frequented by green sea turtles. This is a great outfit for beginners as well as experienced divers, with friendly, well-versed guides. Snorkelers (gear included) and ride-alongs pay $90 to join these and other charters aboard the pristine 42-foot dive boat, which books just 15 of its 24-passenger capacity. You can also rent scuba and snorkel gear at its well-stocked shop in Kawaihae Harbor Shopping Center, 61-3665 Akoni Pule Hwy. (Hwy. 270), about a mile north of its intersection with Highway 19. It’s open daily 8am to 6pm.
Farther south, Kona Diving Company, 74-5467 Luhia St. (at Eho St.), Kailua-Kona (www.konadivingcompany.com; 808/331-1858), prides itself on heading to uncommon dive sites in a 34-foot catamaran complete with showers, TV, and restrooms. It also offers introductory two-dive packages ($230), two-tank morning dives ($135), and one- and two-tank manta ray night dives from Honokohau Harbor ($125–$150). Snorkelers and ride-alongs pay $80 to $115, gear included, depending on the trip; scuba gear costs $35 a day ($60 for shore dive gear).
One of Kona’s oldest and most eco-friendly dive shops, Jack’s Diving Locker, in the Coconut Marketplace, 75-5813 Alii Dr., Kailua-Kona (www.jacksdivinglocker.com; 800/345-4807 or 808/329-7585), boasts an 8,000-square-foot dive center with solar-heated swimming pool classrooms, full-service rentals, and sports-diving and technical-diving facilities. It offers the classic two-tank dive for $135 ($65 snorkelers) daily and a two-tank manta ray night dive for $155 ($125 snorkelers) five nights a week; Jack’s four roomy boats take 10 to 18 divers (split into groups of 6). Pelagic Magic, a one-tank descent that reveals iridescent jellies and evanescent zooplankton ($175), is offered Tuesday and Thursday nights.
On the island’s east side, Hilo’s Puhi Bay and the waters of Leleiwi Point teem with turtles, octopus, goatfish and other sights for divers. Bill De Rooy of Nautilus Dive Center, 382 Kamehameha Ave. at Nawahi Lane (next to the Shell gas station) in Hilo (www.nautilusdivehilo.com; [tel] 808/935-6939), has been leading guided beach dive tours ($75–$150) and classes for more than 30 years. Hilo Ocean Adventures, 1717 Kamehameha Ave. at Banyan Drive (www.hilooceanadventures.com; 808/934-8344), offers daily beach dives in the morning ($80) and night ($109) and morning two-tank boat dives ($135 divers, $80 snorkelers).
SnorkelingIf you come to Hawaii and don’t snorkel, you’ll miss half the sights. The clear waters along the dry Kona and Kohala coasts, in particular, are home to spectacular marine life, including spinner dolphins by day and giant manta rays by night. You’ll want to take an evening boat tour or kayak tour to see the latter; please heed instructions to just watch the mantas and not touch them, which harms their skin. For dolphins and reef denizens, go in the mornings, before afternoon clouds and winds lessen visibility. Please be very careful not to stand on, kick, or touch the live coral, which takes years to grow.
If you’re staying at a Kona or Kohala resort, the hotel concession should have basic gear for hourly rental. If you’re thinking of exploring more than the beach outside your room, an inexpensive place to get basic rental equipment ($9 per week) is Snorkel Bob’s, in the parking lot of Huggo’s restaurant, 75-5831 Kahakai St. at Alii Drive, Kailua-Kona (www.snorkelbob.com; 808/329-0770), and on the Kohala Coast in the Shops at Mauna Lani, 68-1330 Mauna Lani Dr., facing the road on the Mauna Lani Resort (808/885-9499). Higher-quality gear costs $38 a week for adults, $24 for children; prescription masks are also available. Both stores are open 8am to 5pm daily.
You can also rent high-quality gear from Jack’s Diving Locker, Coconut Grove Shopping Center (next to Outback Steak House), 75-5813 Alii Dr., Kailua-Kona (www.jacksdivinglocker.com; 800/345-4807 or 808/329-7585); it’s open 8am to 8pm Monday to Saturday, until 6pm Sunday. Snorkel sets cost $9 a day. On the Kohala Coast, visit Kohala Divers (www.kohaladivers.com; 808/882-7774) in the Kawaihae Shopping Center, 61-3665 Akoni Pule Highway (Hwy. 270), in Kawaihae, a mile north of the intersection with Highway 19. It’s open 8am to 6pm daily, with snorkel sets starting at $10 a day.
In Hilo, Nautilus Dive Center, 382 Kamehameha Ave. at Nawahi Lane (www.nautilusdivehilo.com; 808/935-6939), rents snorkel packages for $6 a day; it’s open 9am to 5pm Monday through Saturday. Beach snorkel tours ($59) are offered twice daily by Hilo Ocean Adventures, 1717 Kamehameha Ave. at Banyan Drive (www.hilooceanadventures.com; 808/934-8344); quality snorkel sets are $10 a day, $40 per week.
Top Snorkel SitesIf you’ve never snorkeled before, Kahaluu Beach is the best place to start, as long as the crowds don’t throw you off. Just wade in on one of the small, sandy paths through the lava-rock tide pools and you’ll see colorful fish. Even better, swim out to the center of the shallow, well-protected bay to see schools of surgeonfish, Moorish idols, butterflyfish, and even green sea turtles. The friendly and knowledgeable volunteers of the Kahaluu Bay Education Center (KBEC; www.kahaluubay.org; 808/640-1166) are on-site daily from 9:30am to 4pm to explain reef etiquette—essentially: “Look, but don’t touch”—and answer questions about its marine life. The KBEC also rents snorkel gear ($14) from Jack’s Diving Locker and boogie boards with viewing windows ($10) if you don’t want to put your face underwater; proceeds benefit conservation at this popular spot visited annually by some 400,000 snorkelers, swimmers, and surfers.
Kealakekua Bay may offer the island’s best overall snorkeling (coral heads, lava tubes, calm waters, underwater caves, and more), but because it’s a marine life conservation district and state historical park, access is restricted to preserve its treasures. The best way to snorkel here is via permitted boat tours, generally departing from Kailua Pier or Keauhou Bay, or kayak tours with permits to launch from Napoopoo Wharf and land near the Captain Cook Monument. You can paddle a rental kayak, canoe, or stand-up paddleboard from Napoopoo on your own if the company has acquired a special permit; otherwise, it’s about a 10-mile round-trip paddle from Keauhou. Carrying your snorkel gear down and up the steep 5-mile trail from the highway is possible but not recommended. Watch out for spiny urchins as well as fragile coral when entering the water from lava rocks along the shore.
Much more easily accessible snorkeling, with a terrific display of aquatic diversity, can be found at Honaunau Bay, nicknamed “Two Step” for the easy entry off flat lava rocks into the crystalline waters just before Puuhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park. Snorkeling is not permitted in the park (and using bathrooms for changing in and out of swimsuits is discouraged), but you can pay the entrance fee to use the parking lot and walk to the bay if the 25 or so spaces on the waterfront road (look for the coastal access sign off Highway 160) are taken.
Beyond the beaches of the Kohala resorts, the well-protected waters of Ohaiula Beach at Spencer Park are a great site for families to snorkel, with convenient facilities (restrooms, showers, picnic tables), not to mention a lifeguard on weekends and holidays, and a reputation for attracting green sea turtles (let them come to you, but don’t touch or approach them). It can get windy, so mornings are your best bet here. Puako’s Waialea Bay, home to coral colonies, reef fish and turtles, provides good snorkeling in calm waters, typically in summer.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.