Day 5 of our Big Island road trip was spent kayaking and snorkeling in Kealakekua Bay. This was one of the most memorable days of our trip and one I’ll always replay when I think about the Big Island.
- Kealakekua Bay Facts
- How to get to Kealakekua Bay
- Kayak Kealakekua Bay
- Snorkeling in Kealakekua Bay
- Restaurants Near Kealakekua Bay
Kealakekua Bay Facts
Kealakekua Bay is a marine life conservation district located south of Kailua-Kona. Marine life conservation districts are given special protection to safeguard the reefs from humans. This protection combined with the calm, vibrant blue waters of the bay is why Kealakekua is home to an abundance of colorful coral and diverse marine life – and therefore, one of the best places to snorkel on the Big Island. If you’re lucky, you might also spot spinner dolphins who come to rest in the bay after feeding at night.
In Hawaii, Kealakekua is a place of historical and religious significance and is listed in the National Register of Historical Places.
Why is Kealakekua Bay also called Captain Cook?
The Bay is the site where western explorers first made contact with the native Hawaiians. It is also where the British explorer Captain Cook was murdered in response to a failed assassination attempt against the King of Hawai’i. Though Kealakekua is nicknamed after the easily recognizable obelisk in the bay, the monument is understandably disliked by Hawaiians who view it as a memorial to a violent invader.
How to get to Kealakekua Bay
The waters of Kealakekua Bay are protected, meaning all vessels entering the water are required to have a permit issued by the Division Parks. Additionally, you can only access the land at Ka’awaloa Flats (where the monument is located) by either hiking down or taking a guided kayak tour from one of three state-approved vendors.
What this actually means is that, as a visitor, there are 3 primary ways to get to the monument:
If you choose to hike, you’ll be able to get to the waters around the obelisk and rest out of the water whenever you need a break. However, the total distance is 3.8 miles and requires first hiking down the mountain. This means that you’ll need to schlep all your snorkeling gear for 2 miles after snorkeling. I had a friend who is in similar physical shape as me who said that the hike back was pretty brutal, especially because he received direct sun exposure most of the way back as there was no shade or cloud coverage. I’d only recommend this option if you’re in great physical shape, you enjoy hiking, and you don’t intend to snorkel for very long. The best guide on hiking the trail down to the Bay is from Big Island Hikes.
By Boat Tour
A boat tour is by far the most comfortable option. The tour will ensure you get to the location in the morning, which is the best time to see marine life, and you’ll be able to go in and out of the water as you please. We didn’t do too much research on boat tours because we knew we wanted greater flexibility in exploring the bay and didn’t want to be beholden to someone else’s schedule. Additionally, the boat tours are the most expensive option of the 3.
This is what we did! The self-kayak option requires you to rent a kayak via a licensed tour company and kayak about 1.5 miles across the Bay to get to the monument (about 20-25 minutes). This will require you to feel comfortable with the idea of getting in and out of the kayak without resting it somewhere as well as having to tie the kayak to yourself as you’re snorkeling. Though neither of us is a comfortable kayaker, we chose the self-kayak option anyways because we thought it’d give us the greatest chance of seeing dolphins (which we did!).
Kayak Kealakekua Bay
Kayaking Kealakekua Bay ended up being one of our favorite activities on the Big Island. I was honestly apprehensive about choosing the self-kayaking option but I felt much better about doing it after watching this video from the Hawaii Vacation Guide. If you’re feeling nervous, I totally get it! Below are a few tips and recommendations that might put you at ease before your trip.
Kealakekua Bay Kayak Rental
We rented our kayak from Ehu and Kai Adventures, which is about a 35-minute drive from Kailua-Kona. Ehu and Kai is a family-owned operation that’s been around since 1997. They are the only company that’s licensed to operate at the bay. This means that all you need to do is get to their location, pick up your kayak, and start kayaking across the bay to get to the Captain Cook monument. For other tour companies, you’d have to pick up the kayak, strap it to your car, and then drive to the bay before kayaking.
Kealakekua Bay Kayak FAQs
- When should I book my kayak rental? Book at least 1-2 days in advance and pick a morning time slot to get the clearest ocean conditions.
- What should I bring? Pack the essentials. On the kayak ride, we used the dry bag Ehu and Kai provided us and filled it with a small towel, reef-safe sunscreen, our GoPro, snacks, water, and sunglasses – all of which we used. Keep in mind that you will be out on the water for a few hours and there is absolutely no hiding from the sun (we were out there for 5!). We ended up running out of sunscreen and getting majorly sunburned. If you plan on being out on the water for more than 2 hours, pack a full can of sunscreen, at least 1-2 water bottles per person, and a few snacks to stem the hunger.
- When is the best time of day to see spinner dolphins? The greatest likelihood of seeing naiʻa is in the morning after their evening hunt and before the rest during the day. Dolphins rest during daylight hours so take care not to disturb them during their resting period, typically between 10:00 AM and 2:00 PM. Another reason for picking an early time slot.
- Can you swim with dolphins in Kealakekua Bay? As of September 2021, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) prohibits swimming with dolphins and remaining within 50 yards of the animals. Please respect these wonderful creatures and give them the privacy and distance they need.
- How do you actually kayak to Captain Cook monument? It’s about a 20-minute kayak ride to get across Kealakekua Bay to the Captain Cook monument. The way to the monument is straightforward – once you exit the small inlet where Ehu and Kai is located, you’ll make a straight line to the obelisk which is clearly visible from the water.
- The way back is less clear. The “landmark” is a big tree that marks the entry point into the inlet from where you started. If you go past the tree toward a white house, you’ve gone too far. Pay close attention to the instructions for the way back so you don’t miss this detail. If you happen to pass the area, you’ll notice it as it’s the only place with a beach and a bunch of kayaks.
We took our time kayaking out so we could relax, enjoy the scenery, and spot dolphins on the way over.
Snorkeling in Kealakekua Bay
When people come to Kealakekua Bay to snorkel, they’re really talking about snorkeling around Captain Cook monument. That’s because this is where you’ll find the best snorkeling. As you kayak across the bay, I found the water crystal clear but too deep to see any marine activity when snorkeling.
Where to Snorkel around Captain Cook Monument
The most interesting places for snorkeling are near the Captain Cook monument or to the right of it. This is where we saw an abundance of coral as well as schools and schools of fish – tangs, butterfish, & groupers aplenty (though sadly no turtles or rays)!
I didn’t notice a difference in the amount and variety of fish we saw until we got further away from the monument. There are two “sides” to the Captain Cook monument: the right side towards the cliffs and the left side towards the open ocean. As you move away from the monument, I found that there was less and less to see towards the open ocean but plenty of coral to continue exploring on the right.
TIME SPENT: 4 hours
(2 hours kayaking across the bay, 1.5 hours snorkeling, 30 minutes kayaking back)
Restaurants Near Kealakekua Bay
Hands down, our favorite meals we had on the Big Island were at Manago Hotel and Teshima.
For our first meal after our snorkeling trip, we had lunch at the Manago Hotel. They are known for their pork chops but their butterfish tied for my favorite meal on the trip. The butterfish was so well-cooked and seasoned – a melt-in-your-mouth texture as well as sweet and umami flavors from the miso on the side. If you don’t like fish with bones, this isn’t the dish for you.
After having the butterfish for lunch, I wanted it again for dinner. This time, we went to Teshima, which is the other top contender for favorite places to eat on the Big Island. Their misoyaki butterfish was also really well-cooked and flavored. While I think the texture of Manago’s butterfish was softer without dripping in sauce, I enjoyed the miso flavor at Teshima’s more because it was less sweet. Mike ordered the shrimp tempura set, which was so good – literally the best tempura I’ve had outside of Japan.
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