Our Big Island and Maui Snorkeling Trip – September 2018

Yellow trumpetfish with yellow tang.
A study in yellow.

By Tom & Jan Turner – (Jamestown, PA)
I wanted to share our Big Island and Maui snorkeling trip report. On September 7, 2018, my wife and I had the wonderful opportunity to fly to Hawaii to spend over three weeks snorkeling some of the great, wonderful snorkel spots. We broke our trip into four different locations, spending a week on the northwest side of the Big Island at Waikoloa, then a week on the southwest side of the island at Kona, then three days on Oahu primarily to see Pearl Harbor and the Arizona Memorial, then eight days on Maui staying in Kihei.

We found the water to be generally murky, which we thought with all of the storms and the time of year, it might be typical. We arrived just after Hurricane Lane had gone through, and were there when Tropical Storm Olivia came through.

Green sea turtle looking directly at camera.
A study in facial expressions.

I would also like to mention that we used Galen and Nicole’s Hawaii Snorkeling Guide to get us to the best snorkel spots. Their descriptions and directions have to be the greatest time saver for anyone who wants to snorkel the Hawaiian Islands. We used their guide daily to get to all of the best spots.

Our first week on the Big Island, we were able to snorkel at Kikaua Point Beach Park, Puako End of the Road, Kapa’a Park, Lapakahi State Park, Pauoa Bay, Mahukona Beach Park, Mauna Kea Beach twice, and Makaiwa Bay.

As is the case with any activity where you are seeking out and watching wildlife in its habitat, you never know what you are going to get, and it is always changing.

Our favorite spot during our first week was Pauoa Bay. This is based on the wildlife and the coral, but also this was the first reasonably clear water that we came across.

Based on the site update supplied by Galen and Nicole, we almost passed up Mauna Kea Beach. However, we had such a great morning swim, that we decided to stay for the afternoon also. We swam to the right in the morning and saw clouds of the typical mix of reef fish. We thought that the coral was great and we saw three eels along the way. In the afternoon we swam to the left and continued to see great coral and reef fish, along with three turtles and one eel. In our opinion, definitely worth keeping on the “must see” list.

Green sea turtle with coral ridge behind.

Overall, during the week we saw 12 green sea turtles (one had a bite taken out of him), the biggest Cornetfish we had ever seen, maybe 3 1/2 feet long, a five foot green moray eel along with 10 other smaller eels, watched an octopus for 10-15 minutes, and of course, tons of typical reef fish and lots of coral.

On the day that Tropical Storm Olivia came through, we drove to the east side to see the volcanoes. We could not see a thing as everything was closed so that you could not even begin to get close because of the lava flows. We stopped at Rainbow Falls and got some great pictures, and also stopped at the Black Sand Beach. We were sad to find out that the Kapoho Tide Pools had disappeared under a lava flow.

Manta ray at night.
Night snorkel with manta rays.

Friday, September 14, was moving day. Because the day would be kind of messed up because of moving from the north end to the south end, we booked a night manta snorkel with Sunlight on Water. This was absolutely amazing and one of the best things that we did on this trip.

As is the case with wildlife in its habitat, we initially were hanging onto the raft with the lights for about 40 minutes with no sign of mantas at all. We were watching clouds of these fish that looked like some kind of game fish, that were anywhere from 3-15 inches long.

Then the mantas came in, and man did they ever come in. They proceeded to put on an acrobatic show for us for about half an hour. They were not real big for mantas, but they were still 10-14 feet across. They were swimming in loops and swimming at each other then curving up so that their bellies almost touched. We were warned not to touch the mantas, but the mantas would touch us. There was no getting away from them. It was an absolutely magical experience and it is wonderful to play it over in your head. We hope to do it again someday.

For our second week on the Big Island, we went to Two Steps, which is a great snorkel spot but it might be the most crowded snorkel spot that I have ever been to without a tour group. Most people do stay in close to the shore, so you get away from the crowds as you head out. We actually spent two whole days at Two Steps. The coral and reef fish are wonderful here, even with the crowds that frequent the spot. We also saw four turtles, at least a dozen eels and an Ocean Triggerfish.

Along with Two Steps, we went to Ho’okena Beach, Kahalu’u Beach, Napo’opo’o Beach, Ke’ei Beach, Manini Beach, and Kamakahonu Beach (this was the first time that we ran into spear fisherman while snorkeling and one actually shot at a fish that was quite close to us. It was rather unnerving.).

Bottlenose dolphin pod in Hawaii.
Swimming with dolphins.

At Napo’opo’o Beach, we swam with dolphins. We read that you can sometimes swim with dolphins at this location, so we hoped that a few might show up. Forget about a few, there were probably 100 dolphins in several pods that were cruising through the bay. We spent about two hours watching the dolphins and we were able to get great pictures and videos of them. (As of October 28, 2021, it is illegal to be within 50 yards of the Hawaiian Spinner Dolphins. Read more here.) While carousing the bay, we also saw an octopus, Ocean Triggerfish, and lots of the regular reef fish.

Altogether for our second week on the Big Island, we were fortunate enough to see 10 turtles, all green sea turtles, 18 eels, Ocean Triggerfish, several flounders, unicornfish, a huge, huge school of silvery fish 6-12 inches long (it just went on and on, never got to the end), and an octopus. There was great and interesting terrain particularly at Two Steps and Ke’ei Beach, and there was always great coral and reef fish.

A note about gear; when we went to Napo’opo’o Beach, I lost a clip to my fins. Without the clip, they are not usable as the clip holds the strap that goes around your heel. Fortunately, we always carry spare parts, so I was able to fix it and continue with our plans. It pays to carry spare parts.

Friday morning, September 21, we flew to Oahu primarily to tour Pearl Harbor. We did no snorkeling while there, even though there were a few spots that we wanted to visit, but did not have enough time.

Two white tip reef sharks over a coral bottom in Hawaii.

On Sunday, September 23, we flew from Oahu to Maui. We stayed in Kihei while on Maui, and had the opportunity to visit many of the snorkel spots described in Galen and Nicole’s Maui Snorkel Guide. We went to Ulua/Mokapu Beach Park, Palauea Beach, Kama’ole Beach II and III, Molokini on the Mololo for an afternoon snorkel, Po’olenalena Beach, Chang’s Beach, the Coral Gardens on the Mololo (was supposed to be another trip to Molokini but it was too rough to go there), Ali’i Kahekili Beach Park (saw our first Hawksbill Turtle of this trip), and Ahihi Bay.

The highlight of our time was the trip to Molokini. This was the first really clear water that we had seen during the entire trip. We picked a day when it was supposed to be calm, and it turned out to be the ideal day.

Being the afternoon, we were the only boat at the crater, and we had a wonderful time. We saw two White-tip Reef Sharks that were eating something that was under a large piece of coral. Very interesting to watch. We also saw a school of pretty big Bluefin Trevally, and the largest octopus that we saw on this trip. We decided to try to repeat the trip, so we scheduled another trip over in the afternoon on a day when it was to be calm, but it turned out to be too windy. They took us to Coral Gardens instead, and this spot was fine, but nothing like Molokini.

Turtle getting cleaned in Hawaii by fish.

During our snorkeling on Maui, we were able to see a total of 63 turtles. All were Green Sea Turtles except for one Hawksbill Turtle. We saw 27 eels, six octopuses, two White-tip Reef Sharks, Bluefin Trevally, a Scrawled Filefish, along with all of the various kinds of reef fish that are always so much fun to watch. The coral was great and usually plentiful. We did find ourselves missing the soft corals that are so plentiful in the Caribbean, but we certainly enjoyed the different kinds of coral to be seen in the Hawaiian Islands.

We did go on a guided tour of the Road to Hana. It was fun and entertaining, but too long. It got to where you just wanted to get back. Some of the cliffs that you drive on along the way were absolutely fantastic. Really kind of scary.

Overall, we had a great time snorkeling the Hawaiian Islands. We will go back some time, but our next big trip will be in the fall of 2019, spending two weeks on the east end of Grand Cayman and re-visiting all of the places where we first found and learned of the fantastic joy that can be had snorkeling in the reefs of the world.

Comments Moved From Previous System

Nicole & Galen – Jan 1, 2019 – Thank You!

Tom & Jan, as always thank you for sharing your wonderful trip report and pictures! Looks like you saw a lot of great sea life on your trip.

Debbie – Jan 2, 2019 – Best of the Two?

Thanks so much. We have snorkeled Maui many times and are considering adding Hawaii to the mix this summer. Did you prefer the snorkeling at one island over the other? You may have inspired us!

Tom & Jan Turner – Jan 2, 2019 – Best of the Two???

Hi Debbie, that is an impossible question. They are both great and quite different. There are things on Hawaii that I prefer, and things on Maui also. I think that Molokini was the highlight for regular snorkeling, but just being able to swim out into Kealakekua Bay and find several pods of dolphins and have them swim right up to you is amazing. Going on a night snorkel where you have huge wild animals performing for you, how can you beat it?

For the overall trip, I do think that I would say that I enjoyed Maui the best for the general reef snorkeling, but there are things on the Big Island that you have to go and do if you have the opportunity. I think that if you can spend some time on Hawaii, you need to do it to take advantage of things that are not available on Maui. Do it and then talk about it for the rest of your life. You can’t go wrong.

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