We highly recommend snorkeling Captain Cook Monument. This location has it all, fish, some healthy coral, 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 rocky north shore of Kealakekua Bay south of Kona, 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.
Note: This page is a sample from our popular Big Island Snorkeling Guide eBook available here.
The water is calm enough to snorkel here most of the time, but it is the most calm in the mornings before the afternoon winds start. If the winds or swell are out of the south or west, it may be too rough to snorkel here.
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.
The easiest way to enter the water for snorkeling Captain Cook Monument is from a boat if you came on one; though entering from a kayak can be a struggle, but will be necessary if you rent your own (read more below). Otherwise, the best place to enter is from the concrete wall that is just below the monument. It is not the easiest entrance, but it is better than trying to enter over the uneven and slippery rocks elsewhere. When there are kayak companies present, they provide a ladder that makes it much easier and they are happy for everyone to use it, not just the kayak tour patrons. The area where the companies land their kayaks looks like it might be a good entrance but is not because of the slippery rocks and it is shallow a long way out.
You can slip or lightly jump off the top of the concrete wall into the water. The exit is trickier unless the ladder is there. If there is no ladder, the ends of the concrete wall extend and descend into the water. You can use these to climb back up onto the wall. This is best done with some shoes on your feet.
These snorkeling Captain Cook Monument instructions are given looking at the white obelisk of the monument from the water. To the right of the monument is north and toward the cliff, and to the left of the monument is south and 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. There is fun stuff to see in both directions. The visibility snorkeling Captain Cook Monument 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 areas between the rocks you can explore in addition to checking out the edge of the drop off. There are a good number of fish here, but there are not many healthy shallow corals. Past the rocky point, about 600 feet from the monument, 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 swimming to the right, the coral shelf gets a little wider. Up in the corner of the bay there is a rocky or sandy bottom in the shallows where we often see big schools of fish. Offshore from these shallows the coral reef gradually drops off again. You will see that much of the shallow corals here were killed by the bleaching events in 2014 and 2015. But the ones in slightly deeper water fared better. The top of the coral shelf is about 20 feet deep before the drop off, the topography in this area is fantastic, and there are a lot of fish in good variety. All the way around the little rocky point, under the steep cliffs, the reef gets less healthy and there are less fish. This is about a 1200 foot swim from the monument. Turn back at this point.
There are often turtles here and you have a chance to see some bigger fish, like Milkfish and Bluefin Trevally. Farther out in the bay Hawaiian Spinner Dolphins rest and you may hear them, but probably won’t see them near the monument itself. You can see a good number of fish while snorkeling Captain Cook Monument in good variety. And there are some healthy corals left in slightly deeper waters to see too.
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. You can choose from many different types, large comfortable sailing or motorized multihulls, small motor boats, or fast small inflatable speedboats (or rafts as they call them in Hawaii). The trips on the larger boats are often more relaxing and comfortable, and the smaller motor boats and inflatables are more adventurous and physically challenging. We used the Fair Wind, which is a large catamaran.
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. On the larger boats there is plenty of shade, comfortable seating, music, and great food. These trips tend to cost a little more than the small motor boat or inflatable trips, and take more time.
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 trailhead for the Ka'awaloa Trail. It used to be a rough 4x4 road that came down to the monument, but has been closed to vehicles for quite some time. We have hiked down this nearly two mile trail a few times, and it was fun. But, you have to be in good shape for a serious climb. Not only is it nearly four miles round trip, but there is about 1400 feet of elevation change that you have to descend and climb back up. And the trail is quite rocky and gets slippery when it is wet.
Combine this difficult hike with a couple hours of snorkeling in the middle, and you have two very worn out people. Oh, did I mention we also had to carry all of our snorkel gear, lunch and plenty of water down and back up that hill? Don't be fooled because the hike seems easy going down. It is hot and tough coming back up.
You can just see the trail in the picture below, cutting from the center top to the left, and back down to the right.
We still consider this a great way to get to Captain Cook to snorkel, 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. 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 Ka'awaloa Flats on the Captain Cook side.
The state has also issued kayak rental companies vessel permits that allow kayaks on the water, but not launching at Napo’opo’o Pier or landing at Ka'awaloa 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 your vessel has the permit it needs 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 Hike Trailhead
1. From Kailua Kona drive south on either Highway 11 (Hawaii Belt Rd) or Ali'i Drive (which becomes Mamalahoa Bypass). After 12 or 13 miles respectively, you will come to an intersection between Highway 11, Mamalahoa Bypass, and Napo'opo'o Road (160). Take Napo'opo'o Road from here.
2. About 1/10th of a mile from the intersection, on the right, across the street from three large palm trees, is the trailhead. There is a sign for the Ka'awaloa Trail. The best parking is before you reach the trailhead on either side of the road.
For boat and kayak tours or rentals, follow the driving instructions of the company you make your reservation with, or rent from.
There are no facilities at Captain Cook.
Learn Your Fishes