Snorkeling on the Big Island of Hawaii

Big Island of Hawaii Snorkeling Locations

One of the things we were most exited to do on our Big Island Hawaiian vacation was snorkeling! While in Maui, we did a Molokini snorkeling trip with Red Line Rafting, and while on our Caribbean Disney Cruise last year, we did a Sail and Snorkel Adventure in Tortola. Both snorkeling adventures were awesome, but this time we were looking for a different experience. Instead of piling on a boat with tons of other people, we wanted to get our own snorkel gear and hit up some local beaches and the awesome lagoon at our hotel — the Hilton Waikoloa Village.

We knew that at the Hilton, Ocean Sports has a store next to the Lagoon Grill and a hut on the Lagoon beach where you can rent snorkel gear, but we also knew those would be the highest prices. We thought about stopping in the Costco right next to the Kona Airport to buy our own snorkel gear, but then we knew we wouldn’t have enough luggage space to get our gear back home. Luckily Brian found Snorkel Bob’s, a Hawaiian snorkeling shop with super affordable, yet high quality gear.

When we stopped in Snorkel Bob’s Mauna Lani store at The Shops at Mauna Lani, we were greeted by their friendly staff and each of us was fitted for masks, snorkels, and fins. This was awesome, because for the first time, Carter was able to get a smaller kid-sized mask that fit his face well and was comfortable. We did a one week snorkel gear rental package with masks, snorkels, fins, No Fog Goop, and a fish ID card, as well as four net carrying bags in a different color for each member of our family to easily store our gear and know whose is whose.

On our Maui snorkeling adventure, the kids were provided bright yellow swim belts to wear while snorkeling. The swim belts not only helped them float among the waves and save energy, but it also made it very easy for Brian and I to spot them in the water at all times. So when renting snorkel gear on the Big Island, we added the floatation belts to our package. They didn’t need the swim belts when snorkeling in the calm Hilton Waikoloa Village lagoon, but once in the ocean water and waves, they were very happy to have them!

On our way out, we received a handout with a list of all the recommended Big Island snorkeling spots with directions on how to get there and a map of the island. They also highlighted a few good beginner spots to snorkel with kids that also have great reefs, which was really helpful. Some of the best snorkeling spots for families on the Big Island as recommended by Snorkel Bob’s include:

  • Makaiwa Bay at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel (protected by a sea wall, public access requires a walk through the Kalahuipua’a Historic Park)
  • Hapuna Beach in side Hapuna State Park (big surf in the winter, but great snorkeling in the summer)
  • Wai’alea Bay (69 Beach) inside Hapuna State Park
  • Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historic Park (well, sort of — just before the park entrance go right to find “Two Step,” a snorkeling area lined with lava, and two steps down into the water)
  • Kekaha Kai State Park (first entrance great for snorkeling and boogie boarding, second entrance leads to Kua Bay, a white sand beach good for swimming and boogie boarding)

One thing we found is that snorkeling is much better in the mornings than the afternoons, so plan to get up early! In the mornings the water is calmer, there are much fewer people on the beaches, and there is no sunscreen residue and stirred up silt clouding up the water and negatively affecting visibility. Plus, the winds kick up in the late mornings and that means the water in the afternoons is choppy, making snorkeling harder and less fun, especially for little kids.

Snorkel Bob's Hawaii Big Island

Snorkeling At The Hilton Waikoloa Village Lagoon

The Hilton Waikoloa Village has an awesome four acre, saltwater lagoon with a beach. This means your family can still have beach time with lounge chairs and umbrellas, and you can still hear the waves crashing along the shore, but you have none of the stress that goes along with worrying about your kids playing in the unpredictable ocean surf. The great thing about this is that your kids can still play in the sand, build sand castles, and play in the water in a relaxed, stress-free, wave-free setting.

The lagoon, because it is protected from the ocean and the water is calm, is also a fantastic place for snorkeling with kids — and if you’re looking for some additional water fun, you can also rent hydro-bikes, paddleboats, stand up paddle boards, kayaks from the lagoon beach shack. The calm Hilton lagoon is a great place to try out some of these water sport activities with your family for the first time because there are no waves!

One end of the lagoon is connected with the ocean, allowing fresh sea water and sea life from the Pacific Ocean and Waiulua Bay to naturally enter and exit the lagoon. That means green sea turtles come and go as they please and feed off the algae of the lagoon’s giant waterfall. Because we were staying at the Hilton Waikoloa Village, we went snorkeling in the lagoon a few times.

While the visibility wasn’t great (lots of sunscreen residue), every time we walked by the lagoon or got in the lagoon, we saw at least one sea turtle, but often two or three. We had an unforgettable experience swimming with sea turtles in Maui and the kids really wanted to swim with sea turtles again — I was so happy they could do so right in our own hotel!

Oh, and the lagoon beach also has lounge chairs, umbrellas, and food and beverage service 🙂

Snorkeling at Makaiwa Bay on the Big Island of Hawaii

Makaiwa Bay, located south of the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Mauna Lani Terrace condos, is a sandy, crescent shaped, white sand beach that is absolutely gorgeous. The rear of the beach is lines with a small grassy hill, hedges, and palm trees that provide some shade, there are beach showers to rinse off after swimming in the salt water, and the Mauna Lani Beach Club sits in a hill above the beach so you can get drinks and snacks if you wish. The best part of the Makaiwa Bay beach however, is that it is semi-protected by a stone sea wall along one side. This makes it a great Big Island location for families and kids to swim and snorkel. There is no lifeguard on duty though, so you need to be extra careful.

Makaiwa Bay Public Beach Snorkeling
Makaiwa Bay at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel offers families a protected snorkeling area. The beach at Makaiwa Bay is public, but because it is on hotel grounds, access requires a one mile walk along a paved trail past a lava tube cave and historic fish ponds.

Getting to Makaiwa Bay is a little tricky. It sits on the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel property and while it is a public beach, it is only accessible to the public by trail. To visit the beach at Makaiwa Bay, you need to follow a one mile paved trail in almost full sun from a small parking lot on the Mauna Lani grounds.

  • Bad News: The parking lot is tiny, with spots for only about 20 vehicles, and you have to carry everything you want at the beach on a one mile walk in almost full sun.
  • Good News: There are restrooms in the parking area, the beach is gorgeous, and the trail is part of the Kalahuipua’a Historic Park And Trails, which means on your way to the beach, you’ll pass ancient Hawaiian artifacts, a collapsed lava tube, a lava tube shelter you can walk inside, and seven ancient Hawaiian fish ponds that are still producing fish today.

We arrived in the late morning and were able to get one of the last few parking spaces. We applied our sunscreen in the parking lot so it could soak in on the walk, and carried backpacks with water and snacks and our bags of snorkel gear. I wasn’t very excited about lugging our stuff a mile in the hot sun, but really, it wasn’t that bad — and once you reach the fish ponds, you also reach shade!

Once we reached the beach, we stashed our stuff, grabbed our snorkel gear, and hit the water.

The snorkeling was pretty good! While we didn’t see any sea turtles at Makaiwa Bay, we did see schools of several different types of fish, boldly colored fish of all sizes, beautiful rainbow fish, eels, sea anemones, and brightly colored coral. We had a blast!

Know Before You Go

Snorkel Bob’s:

  • Snorkel Bob’s has two stores on the Big Island of Hawaii, as well as stores on Kauai, Oahu, and Maui. They are open from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm every day, including Christmas and Tu B’Shevat.
  • The Snorkel Bob’s Kona Store is at 75-5831 Kahakai Street, Kailua-Kona, Hawaii 96745. You can reach them by phone at 808-329-0770.
  • The Snorkel Bob’s Mauna Lani store, on the Waikoloa/Kohala Coast, is located at The Shops at Mauna Lani, Mauna Lani Drive, Kamuela, Hawaii. You can reach them by phone at 808-885-9499.
  • If you’re island hopping on your Hawaiian vacation and you want to snorkel on more than one Hawaiian island, Snorkel Bob’s has a FREE 24-Hour Interisland Express Gear Return! You can take your gear with you from one island to another, or if you rented boogie boards, beach chairs, swim belts, or other larger items, take advantage of the Interisland Pick Up for $5 per set/item and pick up fresh gear on the next island!
  • Snorkel Bob’s has snorkel fins and masks for children down to a size 11 and for adults up a size 17. They also have children’s snorkels with extra small mouthpieces, which is awesome because it’s a serious bummer to rent gear for the family, find an amazing beach, and then after 10 minutes of snorkeling, have to get out of the water because your little one’s mouth hurts.
  • On several occasions, I stood on the beach wishing for a beach chair. As we explored the island, I sat in the rental car wishing for a small cooler for cold drinks. Boy would that have been nice! I had no idea that both of these items are available for rent through Snorkel Bob’s! We missed out, but that doesn’t mean you have to! You can rent one beach chair for $15/week and get three free books to keep, or rent two beach chairs for $25/week and get six books to keep. You can also rent a small collapsible cooler for only $5/week!
  • If you have someone in your party who would love to see fish but isn’t comfortable snorkeling, consider renting a special boogie board that has a window in it. It’s almost like a snorkel mask built into the board, so you can look down at the fish, but float comfortably on the board.

Hilton Waikoloa Village:

  • The Hilton Waikoloa Village is located in the Waikoloa Beach Resort on the Kona Coast of the Big Island at 69-425 Waikoloa Beach Drive, Waikoloa, Hawaii 96738, and is only 20 minutes from Kona International Airport (KOA).
  • Download the Hilton Waikoloa Village Resort Map (PDF) and review it before you arrive so you have a general lay of land and can make the most of your time at the resort.
  • You can rent kayaks, hydro-bikes, stand up paddle boards, paddle boats, snorkel gear, boogie boards, and more from the Ocean Sports store next to the lagoon and the beach shack on he lagoon beach.
  • Ocean Sports is the company that rents the equipment at the Hilton Waikoloa Village. If you’re not staying at the hotel, you can still visit the lagoon and purchase a pool pass/sports gear from Ocean Sports on the property.

Makaiwa Bay Beach:

  • The Makaiwa Bay Beach and the Kalahuipua’a Historic Park And Trails parking areas are the same and are located at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel, just north of the Waikoloa Beach Resort on Highway 19. Turn onto Mauna Lani Drive, go straight through the round-about, pass the shops at Mauna Lani (on the right), and turn left on Pauoa Road. Then turn right into a small parking lot.
  • Apply sunscreen generously in the parking lot so it soaks in during the mile long walk to the beach. This helps avoid sunscreen residue in the water while snorkeling, which affects visibility.
  • Bring water for everyone in your family — you don’t want to get dehydrated and ruin your day!
  • Be sure you include extra time to explore the ancient Hawaiian artifacts, lava tube shelter, and fish ponds that are part of the Kalahuipua’a Historic Park And Trails on your way to the beach, because you’re not going to want to do it when you’re wet on the walk back to your car.
  • I did some online research prior to visiting the park and beach to get the lay of the land, and there are A LOT of reviews online from people who had bad experiences visiting the beach and interacting with hotel staff and guests. We never take any of that too seriously though, and always check things out for ourselves. We (the general public), picked a spot on the beach, snorkeled and relaxed, washed our gear and feet off in the beach showers, and never had a single issue, but then again, we didn’t try to use any of their facilities, we didn’t go near an umbrella or lounge chair, and we didn’t even use the bathroom! With that said, we all (even the kids) agreed that this beach had a completely different vibe than any other beach we visited. It didn’t feel friendly, relaxed, or comfortable.

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