Best Snorkeling Beaches in Oahu
Locally known as The Gathering Place, Oahu is not just a site of recognition when it comes to political and demographic distinction in this US State of Hawaii. It is also a prime snorkel destination wherein the words of an avid snorkeler describing its 227 miles (365 kilometers) shoreline that is completely surrounded by the pristine waters of the Pacific Ocean could only mean one thing: This is Paradise!
Where to Snorkel in Oahu?
Oahu is big. In fact, it is the 3rd largest in Hawaii and randomly snorkeling in Oahu does not guarantee you to see the best of its underwater feature and maximize your snorkeling experience. For purposes of geographical direction and being the State Capital, we will assign Honolulu (located at the southeast coast) as our main reference point and direct you to the best snorkeling spots in Oahu.
While there are offshore snorkeling areas in Oahu, what we recommend are the beaches lining the immense shoreline of this 20th largest island of the United States. A quick reminder about snorkeling in Hawaii – Hawaii law requires divers and snorkelers to prominently display a dive flag marking their dive areas – you can learn more about dive flags for snorkeling here.
North Shore of Oahu
Distance Range from Honolulu: 23 – 41 miles (37 – 66 kilometers) via Highway 83E
If we speak of Oahu’s North Shore, the first thing that comes to our mind is surfing. Well, it is expected as the northern shores of Oahu is known to be the surfing capital of Hawaii and the world. However, hardcore surfing in the north shore is not a year round event as big waves are only persistent from October to April.
Little did we know that, aside from surfing, snorkeling is a big thing in the north shore where waves are considered as natural carriers of nourishment for nearby reefs where one can see pristine coral beds.
A side note – if you are looking into discovering best scuba diving spots in Hawaii – take a look at our guide to scuba dive in Kauai.
Here are the famous snorkeling spots in North Shore Oahu:
1. Kuilima Cove (Turtle Bay) Snorkeling
Despite the massive waves north shore is known for, there are spots that are perfectly calm and protected from strong ripples, like Kuilima Cove. In fact, the conditions in Kuilima cove is the complete opposite of the famous surfing spots in the north shore. Instead of big waves and ripples that brings strong current, Kuilima cove is calm, serene and waves are literally non-existent courtesy from its natural rock shields. This condition has earned Kuilima Cove the perfect spot for newbie snorkelers.
In case you’re driving a car, there’s a parking lot designated for guest visiting Kuilima Cove. Just go through the main gate of the Turtle Bay Resort and drive towards the tennis court where the parking lot can be found on the right.
Many newbie snorkelers who have been to Kuilima Cove said that swimming in this calm portion of the north shore is just like dipping in a pool where average depth is at 1 meter (3 feet). As you go further deep out of the cove, you can traverse a sloping reef where you can see a variety of marine fishes like butterflyfish, surgeonfish, damselfish, parrotfish, unicorn fish and moorish idol to name a few. Kuilima cove houses a good population of Hawaii’s former state fish – the reef triggerfish locally known as humuhumunukunukuapuaa. Aside from reef fishes, one of the main reason why Kuilima Cove has become a big hit to snorkelers is the fact that it is one of the snorkeling spots in Oahu to see Sea Turtles, hence also called as Turtle Bay. Commonly found are green and hawksbill sea turtles, but if it’s your lucky day, then expect to interact with leatherback sea turtles which are considered as ancient mariners of the deep.
Aside from the nearby hotels, what’s good with Kuilima cove is that it has a public shower and restroom where you can change dry clothes afterwards and some nearby bar to rehydrate or munch in some tropical recipes.
2. Pupukea Beach (Sharks Cove) Snorkeling
Opposite to the white fine sand surrounding Kuilima Cove, Pupukea Beach is literally littered with rocks and small boulders. The unique topography of Pupukea beach is true for both land and underwater.
Located just across the Kamehameha highway, you will initially walk down a rocky rubble substrate where the use of reef boots will come in handy as your feet’s primary protection against sharp rocky protrusions.
Despite the difference in topography, Pupukea beach is pretty similar to Kuilima cove when it comes to the absence of waves. As you enter the water, you will appreciate the warm clear waters where some have compared its temperature to your houses’ tapwater. Initially as you walk on the shallows, you will see that small boulders are scattered in the area with some corals encrusting over them. But as go deeper, you will realize that the gentle slope of the reef suddenly drops off in to a wall of abyss. This is the spot that you will surely enjoy where you can see the marine life of the shallows, like needlefish, butterflyfish, eels, crabs and shells, meet the occasional passing-by of big creatures from the deep like sharks.
If you happen to be in Pupukea Beach, you might as well consider experiencing the extreme. What we are talking about is Cage Snorkeling with Sharks.
After signing up with this once in a lifetime adventure, you will proceed to the nearby Haleiwa Harbor where you boat awaits. You will head out 3 miles (5 kilometers) offshore arriving to what is known as the shark’s den. Unlike the usual cage diving operation where bait is deployed to lure in sharks near the cage, this one does not employ luring and your interaction with sharks (like Galapagos, Blue, Silkies, Hammerhead and the occasional passing by of Tiger Sharks) is not in an aggressive behavior, but rather, in a normal state.
3. Three Tables Beach Snorkeling
History will not tell you about a story of three unique tables wash ashore near Waimea Beach Park of North Oahu. But rather, the name of this popular Oahu snorkeling spot was derived from three flat reefs that exposes itself during the ebbing of tide.
Best experienced during the months of May to September where the water is generally calm and visibility is relatively clear, Three Tables Beach is considered one of the best snorkeling spots in Oahu for several reasons, like (a) the reef is shallow with an average depth of only 4.5 meters or 15 feet; (b) you can explore three different reef areas in just a single swim; (c) aside from the abundance of reef fish, it has a unique underwater topography where you can see lava tubes, ledges and arches on the deeper portion, and; (d) it is one of the few spots in Oahu where you can freely swim with sea turtles.
West Shore of Oahu
Distance Range from Honolulu: 24 – 41 miles (38 – 66 kilometers) via Highway 1W & 93W
The leeward side of Oahu offers the same Hawaiian experience, but often, the weather is calm and without the crowd. For reasons that there are far less hotels and establishments compared to other areas in Oahu, the West Shore is not a typical tourist destination. However, if you think on the positive side, you will realize that the laid back characteristics of West Shore means that natural resources are more pristine and preserved. This is evidently true when it comes to the marine environment where snorkeling has become an unforgettable experience.
1. Kahe Point Beach Snorkeling
If you want to snorkel and interact with a huge concentration and diversity of reef fishes, then Kahe Point Beach is the place to be. If you are lucky, then expect to see the following marine fishes all in just one swim: damselfish, surgeonfish, wrasse, squirrelfish, perch, goatfish, snappers, jacks, mackerels, triggerfish and parrotfish plus the occasional passing by of green sea turtles and Hawaiian Spinner Dolphins. But have you ever wondered why all these marine fish are found in Kahe Point Beach? Look at the picture above and the towering structures of a Power Plant has something to do with this underwater attraction. This energy-producing facility has an underwater outlet pipe that emits warm water, which in turn, attracts marine life. This is the reason why Kahe Point Beach is popularly known by its alternative name: Electric Beach.
Your beach entry is quite spacious and comfortable as the water is calm and shallow with a gentle slope down to 20 feet (6 meters). As you go further out, you will most probably encounter a large tubular pipe. Take note that these pipes are the cooling outlets of the power plant. You can’t help it but follow the pipe where its outer cone has already become an artificial reef where corals and reef associated fish already thrives. But we warn you not to directly swim in front of the pipes opening as it release a large volume of water and can potentially swept you away while underwater.
2. Kaena Point Beach Snorkeling
If you’re looking for a mile-long beach that has a nearby reef system and without the crowd, then head to the westernmost part of Oahu where the rugged mountains meets the immensity of the mighty Pacific Ocean.
Located just across the Farrington Highway, you can park your car along the sand and just walk a few steps towards the beach. As you enter the water, you will notice that the visibility is slightly turbid. This is due to the mild wave action that is persistent in the area. However, as you go further deeper, visibility becomes clearer where you can clearly see the vibrant reef filled with reef fishes. But we would like to point out that the fish population in Kaena Point Beach is not as abundant and diversified as compared to other snorkeling sites in Oahu.
Nonetheless, amongst the reef fish that you can see in Kaena Point Beach are wrasses, butterflyfish, parrotfish, surgeonfish, damselfish and perch. Just in case you have a keen eye for marine life, focus your sight on tiny cracks and crevices where most snorkelers have seen crustaceans like crabs and a wide variety of live sea shells.
One good thing to note when you go to Kaena Point Beach is that it has a public shower and a standby lifeguard. On the other hand, you should bring food and drinks as there are no bars or food stalls nearby. Well, i guess, you can’t have the best of both worlds.
3. Ko Olina Lagoons Snorkeling
On top of being on the leeward side where weather is generally calm, the West Shores of Oahu has some sheltered spots along the shore in the form of lagoons, like the ones you see in Ko Olina.
Despite being built artificially in the coastal community of Kapolei, the network of four lagoons in Ko Olina is a popular tourist destination and a famous snorkeling spot in Oahu where snorkelers of all levels can enjoy. The shallow and confined environment the lagoon gives is favored by newbie snorkelers knowing that they don’t need to struggle kicking their fins while risking their safety when compared to snorkeling in an open ocean.
Snorkelers who have been to Ko Olina Lagoons said it’s like a walk in the park where you first stroll, have a feel of the general surrounding and select your preferred spot. In this case, lagoon number 1 is often the most crowded as it is the nearest to the road and lagoon 4 having the least number of swimmers.
Nonetheless, regardless of what lagoon number you choose, the water condition is pretty much the same and don’t expect to see a nice reef inside the lagoon due to its artificial origin. But the absence of coral reefs inside the lagoon perimeter will not disappoint you as your snorkeling experience will be focused to fish interaction as there are several species found like tangs, moorish idols, wrasse, goatfish and butterflyfish.
4. Makaha Beach Snorkeling
During the calm season of the summer months, Makaha beach is transformed from a surfers haven into a bodyboarders and snorkelers paradise. Located just across the Farrington Highway in the Town of Waianae, Makaha Beach receives a decent number of tourist during peak season where its white sandy beach can become crowded. But for you to get out of the crowd, hitting the water and go snorkeling is often your best option, not unless, you badly need that tan and needs more sunbathing.
If you’re now ready to hit the water, bear in mind that the reason you are here in Makaha Beach is to see and interact with sea turtles as this is one of the best places in Oahu to see them. However, do not be overwhelmed with the fact that you are guaranteed to see one and get excited to be in the water while disregarding your entry and exit point.
Take a moment to stand in an elevated position and have a good sight of the sea in front of you. You will notice that, as small waves enter the reef area, the water is generally directed towards the center of the beach. After the waves hit the beach, it moves back to deeper waters causing to what is known as rip tides which often brings strong water current. This is the reason why entering on the rocky edges of the beach is more safe.
Marker buoys are also found indicating the presence of a reef. Most snorkelers aim their swimming direction to one of the buoys and spend a decent time interacting with reef fishes. But remember, you are here for sea turtles. So for you not to go home empty handed, go out further to the buoy markers and aim your swimming direction towards the reef ledge with depth ranging from 6 – 9 meters (20 – 30 feet) where you will see find sea turtles passing by following the reef wall.
East Shore of Oahu
Distance Range from Honolulu: 14 miles (22 kilometers) via Highway 61
The east shore of Oahu is considered as the windward side of the island where strong winds and big surge are a persistent environmental condition. But despite these conditions, there is a spot in the east shore that makes both beach bummers and snorkelers go crazy. It’s like finding the needle in the haystack.
1. Lanikai Beach Snorkeling
Commonly exposed to trade winds, Lanikai Beach is a snorkeling spot exclusive for advanced snorkelers. Overlooking across Mokulua Drive in the Town of Kailua, Lanikai Beach is a 0.5 mile (800 meter) long white beach that is open to the public 24/7. It is locally known as the “Heavenly Beach” for its sheer beauty and has been consistent in holding the record for One of the World’s Most Beautiful Beaches.
You can select your entry point anywhere from the 800-meter shore stretch, but we highly recommend you start in the shallow sandy area near the intersection between Mokumanu and and Kaiolena Drive. Once you enter the water, you initially notice that the visibility is slightly turbid as caused by the constant water movement. However, as you go deeper, the turbidity of the water will turn into a blue turquoise undertone as the fringing type of reef starts to appear.
You have to be aware, during events of extreme low tide, the reef is relatively shallow that swimming over it is next to impossible and swimming around it instead can be considered your plan B in exploring this beautiful Eastern Oahu Snorkeling Spot. While others get disappointed when they coincidentally swim in Lanikai Beach during extreme low tide, others see it as an opportunity to get up close and personal with the reef residents where underwater photography is a big hit and the main subjects of your masterpiece often include butterflyfish, damselfish, parrotfish and surgeonfish. Of course, Nemo and Dory can be found here as there is a good population of clownfish and blue tangs.
South Shore of Oahu
Distance Range from Honolulu: 4 – 12 miles (6 – 19 kilometers) via Highway 1E and 72
As far as the State Capital of Honolulu is concerned, the South Shores of Oahu is your closest spot if snorkeling is in the top of your bucket list of things to do in Hawaii. While we often have this notion that snorkeling spots close to urban centers are not that good where some resources may be damaged by urban development, well this is not the case for Oahu.
1. Hanauma Bay Snorkeling
Considered as a prime destination and one of the best snorkeling beaches in Oahu, Hanauma Bay can become crowded with a record high of 10,000 visiting guest per day composing of tourist, picnickers, divers and snorkelers alike. The huge volume of tourist had significantly degraded the natural state of this public beach park. But that was the past. Today, Hanauma Bay is declared as a Nature Preserve where only 3,000 guests are allowed each day, except Tuesdays where the bay is closed to the public. This restriction, in turn, had flourished its resources back and this is more evident when you explore its underwater environment.
As you enter the calm water and start your snorkeling adventures in Hanauma Bay, you will notice that just after a few meters from the white sandy shores are clumps of encrusting corals that acts as barriers from incoming waves. These encrusting corals are uniquely formed in such a way that they create a tidal pool where marine life resides. Many snorkelers said that the reef fishes (like chubs, perch, porcupinefish, cardinalfish, hawkfish, mullets and big eyes) in Hanauma’s tide pool are amongst the tamest fish in Oahu where they are fond of human presence.
Just a reminder: The parking lot is located over the bay and you need to walk down a steep path before you reach the beach area. Now here’s the thing: what if you forget your mask and snorkel in the car, do you need to walk back that steep path? Good thing with Hanauma Bay is that they have tram vehicle that goes up and down once every few minutes or just go to the beach shop and rent a snorkeling set.
2. Queens and Sans Souci Beach Snorkeling
If you happen to be in Waikiki, Queens and Sans Souci Beach is the nearest area that you can go snorkeling. While they are separately named, Queens and San Souci Beach are adjacent to each other and share the same Waikiki shoreline.
Located just across the corner of Kapahulu and Kalakaua Avenue, Queens Beach is a designated Marine Conservation District where marine life has proliferated and snorkelers often see a good population of fish. There is an established entry point at Queens Beach located at the side of a seawall called as the Kapahulu Groin. Your general swimming direction would be going to the left towards Waikiki Aquarium. In order to see the most marine life in Queens Beach, you need to swim further out arriving at a dredged channel that runs parallel to the shore. If you are the adventurous type of snorkeler equipped with the advanced skills, there is an offshore reef located several hundred meters off the dredged area.
It will only take a few minutes to swim out and once you arrive at the shallow part of the offshore reef, you will realize that this is a good spot for wall exploration as the edges of this reef suddenly drops down to the seafloor. If you don’t want to swim towards the offshore reef, you can have the option to go back to the shallow shores. But what we would recommend, instead of going back to your entry point in Kapahulu Groin, swim towards the jetty near Waikiki Aquarium where the white sands of Sans Souci Beach awaits you.
While snorkeling in Queens and San Souci Beach can be similar with hitting two birds with one stone, you should be aware that swells could go big especially on the winter months.
At the end of the day, Oahu is not just a paradise for surfing, but also for snorkeling just as Kona is for the Big Island. This two different water sports can be shared in the same playground. And for Oahu, it is just a matter of time for waves to subside and see the real Hawaiian beauty underwater.