We highly recommend snorkeling Captain Cook Monument. This location has it all: coral, fish and super clear water. It is always an adventure to get there, and that is definitely part of the wonderful experience. The Captain Cook Monument is on the north shore of Kealakekua Bay, inaccessible directly by car. We have tried pretty much every way to get there, kayaking, boat tour, and hiking, and we talk about the benefits and drawbacks of each below.
The monument is the location where Captain Cook was killed by the local Hawaiians. And surprisingly the land around it is British soil. All of Kealakekua Bay is a protected marine life conservation district, helping to preserve the health of the reef and the populations of fish for snorkeling Captain Cook Monument.
Note: This page is a sample from our popular Big Island Snorkeling Guide eBook available here.
These snorkeling Captain Cook Monument instructions are given looking at the white obelisk of the monument from the water (see picture above). To the right of the monument is toward the bay, and to the left of the monument is toward the open ocean.
Be aware that if you come on a boat tour, they may limit the area you are allowed to snorkel. You may not be able to explore the entire area we are describing.
The snorkeling is along the shore to the left and right of the white obelisk of the monument. The coral shelf begins in a couple feet of water right next to shore. And as you swim out away from shore the ocean floor drops away quickly into depths where you cannot see the bottom. We have found the coral and fish to be abundant in both directions. The visibility here is some of the clearest in all of the Hawaiian Islands; you can often see 100 feet.
To the left toward the ocean, there are some shallow coral areas you can explore between the rocks in addition to checking out the edge of the drop off. Past the rocky point, it gets really deep and more exposed, so don’t go there.
We find that in front of the monument and to the right is a little more interesting than to the left. Directly in front of the monument, the drop off is sudden, but if you keep heading to the right, the coral shelf gets a little wider.
Up in the corner of the bay, there is a rocky bottom in the shallows and then the coral reef gradually drops off again. It is a bit deeper here, but the topography and coral life is fantastic. We have found big schools of fish right up along shore. All the way around the little rocky point, under the steep cliffs, the coral starts to look less alive. Turn back at this point.
There are often turtles here. You may also see urchins and Crown of Thorns Sea Stars on the reef. Further out in the bay Hawaiian Spinner Dolphins rest and you may hear them, but probably won’t see them near the monument itself. And we often find the less rare Bubbling Neoprenes that you can see in the picture to the right.
There are a good number of fish here and in good variety. Here is a sample of what we saw:
Choose your mode of travel for snorkeling Captain Cook Monument. There are a few different ways to get to Captain Cook Monument. And depending on what type of adventure you want, and how in shape you are, it should be pretty easy to decide.
Here are the options:
1. Snorkeling Captain Cook Monument by boat tour is our favorite way to get there. There are a variety of different boat tour companies that leave from Keauhou Bay, Honokohau Harbor or the Kailua-Kona Pier. They break down into two basic types, big comfortable but slow catamaran sailboats (picture at right), or fast small inflatable speedboats (or rafts as they call them in Hawaii). The catamaran trips are often more relaxing and comfortable, and the inflatables are more adventurous, physically challenging, and offer no shade.
Most of the companies offer a morning or afternoon trip. The water is calmer and there is more sea life in the mornings, so that is the best time to go.
With the catamaran trips there is plenty of shade, comfortable seating, music, and great food. One company provides a wonderful BBQ lunch. These trips tend to cost a little more than the inflatable boat trips, and take more time. The inflatable trips take less of your day and tend to cost a little less. With both you get snorkel gear.
You can read a story about snorkeling Captain Cook Monument by catamaran on Go Visit Hawaii.
2. Hiking down the mountain for snorkeling Captain Cook Monument is for the more adventurous and athletic. High up above the cliffs over the bay is the beginning of a trail. It used to be a rough 4x4 road that came down to the monument, but is now closed to vehicles.
We have hiked down this two mile trail before, and it was fun, but that is because we are avid hikers. Not only is it four miles round trip, but there is about 1500 feet of elevation drop that you have to come back up. Combine this difficult hike with a couple of hours of snorkeling in the middle, and you have two very worn out people.
Oh, did I mention we also had to carry down all of our snorkel gear, lunch and plenty of water? Plus we found a mango tree and definitely had to haul up a few pounds of those on the way back!
You can just see the trail/road in the picture below, cutting from the center top to the left, and back down to the right.
Snorkeling Captain Cook Monument by hiking is a great way to get there, but we would only suggest this if you are already a hiker in great shape. Take more water than you want to and don’t forget your mosquito spray - one year it was really bad. Also be aware that the state may start requiring permits to hike down to snorkel.
3. Kayaking to Captain Cook across Kealakekua Bay has a long and controversial history. There were illegal vendors renting kayaks at the Napo'opo'o Pier and a drug problem creating a seedy vibe that was not inviting. Also, the landing of too many kayaks at Captain Cook was causing damage to the reef.
In recent years, the state has attempted to clean up the situation with a moratorium on kayaks in the bay. Gradually, they have allowed more permits, and now you have two options for kayaking to Captain Cook to snorkel.
The state has permitted three tour companies to lead trips across the bay. Only these three companies, listed on the state park website, are allowed to use Napo'opo'o Pier for launching and can land at Kaawaloa Flats on the Captain Cook side.
The state has also issued four kayak rental companies permits that allow kayaks on the water, but not launching at Napo'opo'o Pier or landing at Kaawaloa Flats. So, if you rent a kayak you will be getting in and out of it on the water and will need to tie it to yourself while you snorkel. All of the rental companies have a private beach on Kealakekua Bay that you will be able to launch from.
Make sure if you rent a kayak that you are given the permit you need to be on the water. And be clear about the conditions the state has placed on these permits.
Some of the permitted kayak rental companies also do guided trips, but most do not have a landing permit. If you are taking a tour, we recommend going with the companies that can land at Captain Cook. It makes for a much more relaxing experience.
If you are staying somewhere that has a free kayak for your use, your vessel still needs a permit for use on Kealakekua Bay. See the state park website linked to above. You will also need to find a safe place to launch your boat.
Directions To Captain Cook Monument -
For boat and kayak tours or rentals, follow the driving instructions of the company you book your reservation with, or rent from.
There are no facilities at Captain Cook.