Are you interested in snorkeling in Kealakekua Bay as part of your trip to the Big Island? Then you’re in the right place!
Nestled on the pristine Kona Coast, Kealakekua Bay boasts crystal clear turquoise waters that are teeming with vibrant marine life. The extensive coral reefs around the infamous Captain Cook monument is one of the best snorkeling spots you’ll find on the island. This was one of the most memorable days of our trip and one I’ll always replay when I think about the Big Island.
In this guide, I’ll provide tips on how to make the most of your trip, including why kayaking to the bay is the best way to make the most of your snorkeling adventure.
- Kealakekua Bay History
- Kealakekua Bay State Park Overview
- Best Time to Visit Kealakekua Bay
- How to Get to Kealakekua Bay
- 🥾 How to Get to Kealakekua Bay By Hike
- 🚣🏻♂️ How to Get to Kealakekua Bay By Kayak Rental
- 🛥️ How to Get to Kealakekua Bay By Guided Tour
- Snorkeling in Kealakekua Bay at the Captain Cook Monument
- Frequently Asked Questions about Snorkeling in Kealakekua Bay
🌟 Top Pick: Kayak Rental from Ehu and Kai
🚣🏻♂️ Best Guided Kayak Tour: Morning Magic Kealakekua Bay Kayak & Snorkel Tour
🛥️ Best Guided Boat Tour: Morning Kealakekua Snorkel Tour
🤿 Best Snorkel Rental on Big Island: Snorkel Bob’s
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Kealakekua Bay History
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, pristine 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.
The Bay is the site of where western explorers first made contact with the native Hawaiians. It is also the site of where British explorer Captain James 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 disliked (understandably) by Hawaiians who view it as a memorial to a violent invader.
Kealakekua Bay State Park Overview
⏰ Hours: daily during daylight hours
🎫 Fee: none
📍 Address: Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park
🚻 Amenities: viewpoint area, picnic areas, water fountain, restrooms (Nāpōʻopoʻo section of the beach park)
Best Time to Visit Kealakekua Bay
The best time to visit kealakekua Bay is in the morning because this is when the waters are calmer and the temperatures are cooler.
The morning hours are also when you’re most likely to see pods of spinner dolphins (naiʻa), which is 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.
If you’re planning on snorkeling, marine life is most active in the morning so those early hours are the best time to spot tropical fish, green sea turtles, and rays!
How to Get to Kealakekua Bay
The Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park is open to all. From the park, you’ll find a scenic viewpoint that looks out across the bay with the Captain Cook monument on the other side.
However, the waters of Kealakekua Bay are protected, meaning all vessels entering the water require a permit issued by the Division Parks. That means your first step to snorkeling in Kealakekua Bay is figuring out how you’re going to get to the Captain Cook monument.
There are 3 ways to access the land at Ka’awaloa Flats where the monument is located:
- By hike – Only recommended if you’re in great physical shape and you enjoy hiking more than snorkeling
- By kayak rental – This is what we did and is my preferred way of exploring the bay as you can spend as much time as you want kayaking and snorkeling.
- By guided tour – If you prefer to have everything taken care of for you. Taking a guided kayak tour has almost all of the benefits of renting your own kayak and is a great option if you’re not a comfortable kayaker.
🌟 TOP PICK: Kayak Rental. The best way to explore Kealakekua Bay is to rent a kayak. For less than $50 per person, you can spend the whole day kayaking and snorkeling in Kealakekua, including the area around the Captain Cook statue which offers some of the best snorkeling on the Big Island. You also have full freedom to explore the bay at your own pace. For example, it took us an hour to kayak to the site of the Captain Cook monument because we took breaks to enjoy the scenery and hang out with pods of spinner dolphins along the way (at a respectful distance of course).
🥾 How to Get to Kealakekua Bay By Hike
Hiking to Kealakekua Bay is by far the hardest way to get to the area around the Captain Cook monument.
On the one hand, you’ll be able to get to the waters around the obelisk without a permit and get in and out of the water as you please. However, the trail is 3.8 miles out-and-back and requires first hiking down the mountain. This means that you’ll need to schlep all your snorkel gear for 2 miles after snorkeling.
I have 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.
🚣🏻♂️ How to Get to Kealakekua Bay By Kayak Rental
You can also rent a kayak from a licensed tour company and kayak out to the monument without a guide. It takes about 20-25 minutes (1.5 miles) to kayak across the Bay and get to the monument.
The self-guided kayak option will require you to feel comfortable with the idea of tethering the kayak to yourself as you’re snorkeling. Though neither me nor my partner are the most comfortable kayakers, we chose the self-kayak option anyways because we thought it’d give us the greatest chance of seeing dolphins (which it did!).
Best Self-Guided Kealakekua Bay Kayak Rental: Ehu and Kai Adventures
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 and is 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.
How to 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 towards 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 as it’s the only place with a beach and a bunch of kayaks.
💡Tips for Renting a Kayak: Book your kayak rental at least 1-2 days in advance and pick a morning time slot to get the clearest ocean conditions. Also, keep in mind that you will be out on the water for a few hours and there is absolutely no sun protection (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 reef-safe sunscreen, at least 1-2 water bottles per person, and a few light snacks to stem the hunger.
🛥️ How to Get to Kealakekua Bay By Guided Tour
A guided tour is by far the most comfortable option since the tour operators will handle all of the logistics so all you have to worry about is snorkeling and enjoying your time in Kealakekua Bay. This is also a great way to learn about this historic place as you’ll have a knowledgeable tour guide accompanying you.
🐬 If you’re most interested in seeing the marine life in Kealakekua Bay, make sure to pick a morning tour for the greatest chance of seeing dolphins and best snorkeling conditions.
Best Kealakekua Bay Snorkel Tours
- (🌟 Top Pick) 🚣🏻♂️ Morning Magic Kayak Tour: If you’re a nervous kayaker or swimmer, then a great alternative is to book a kayak tour with Kona Boys instead. The best part about taking a guided kayak tour with Kona Boys is that they are one of 3 authorized kayak tour companies that are licensed to dock their kayak on the shore, meaning you won’t have to snorkel with the boat tethered to you.
- 🛥️ Morning Kealakekua Snorkel Tour: Fair Wind Cruises are one of the best tour operators on the Big Island and have been around since 1971. Their snorkel boat tour is great if you want a comfortable, all-inclusive (gear & lunch provided) tour option and you’re interested in sailing in Kealakekua Bay.
Snorkeling in Kealakekua Bay at the Captain Cook Monument
Once you make your way to the Captain Cook monument, you’ll find yourself at one of the best snorkeling spots on the Big Island. The bay is home to an array of colorful tropical fish, including butterflyfish, parrotfish, and tangs, and the beloved Hawaiian green sea turtle.
There are two “sides” to the Captain Cook monument: the right side towards the cliffs and the left side towards the open ocean. The most interesting places for snorkeling are (1) immediately surrounding the Captain Cook monument or (1) right of the monument (when facing the shore). 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). As you continue to 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.
Frequently Asked Questions about Snorkeling in Kealakekua Bay
Can you snorkel Kealakekua Bay without a tour?
Where is the best place to snorkel at Kealakekua Bay?
How deep is Kealakekua Bay snorkeling?
Is Captain Cook snorkeling worth it?
Can you swim with dolphins in Kealakekua Bay?
Kealakekua Bay Snorkeling: Final Thoughts
Kealakekua Bay is undoubtedly one of the top snorkeling destinations you’ll find on the Big Island of Hawaii. With its calm waters and colorful coral gardens, it’s easy to see why snorkeling is the perfect way to immerse yourself in this vibrant underwater world. And if you’re lucky, you might even encounter manta rays or Hawaiian spinner dolphins as you explore this marine sanctuary. No matter what, remember that Kealakekua Bay is more than the home of the Captain Cook monument – it’s a place of religious and historical significance to the Hawaiian people.