Snorkeling Mauna Kea Beach Public Access With a Resort Feel

Big Island Hawaii

Snorkeling Mauna Kea Beach is decent when the water is calm. There are a lot of fish to see and some interesting topography, but not much live coral. The long and beautiful sandy beach makes for a very easy entrance. It is on the Kohala Coast north of Kona and Waikoloa. Also known as Kauna’oa Beach, it is one of the most stunning beaches anywhere. 

Note: This page is a sample from our popular Big Island Snorkeling Guide eBook available here.

Snorkeling Mauna Kea Beach
See many fish, like this Threadfin Butterflyfish, while snorkeling Mauna Kea Beach.

This open bay is a bit exposed so if the waves are up, the visibility will be lower and you won’t have as much fun. Don’t get in if you are uncomfortable with the conditions. It’s almost always calmer in the mornings.

This beach has public access through the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel gate, but they limit the number of public parking passes they issue. When you arrive at the gate, tell the attendant you would like to use Mauna Kea Beach. Arrive early, otherwise you may have to wait until someone leaves to get a pass, but it is worth it. We always bring a book to read just in case we have to wait.

Once you are parked, there is a walk down a slight hill to the beach, so if you bring a lot of gear, be prepared to carry it. Just so you know, we have often seen bees or wasps on the paved walk down to the beach.

Getting to the Beach

After parking, find this Public Access sign and gate for the 1100 foot long path down to the beach.

From the south end of the parking lot, find the narrow paved road that serves as the path down to the beach. It is marked with a Public Access sign on a rock wall just past a gate. You will be walking slightly downhill for about 1100 feet to reach the beach. The restroom and showers are on this path just before the beach. Once you get to the beach, the right end is another 900 feet walk and the left end is about 700 feet.

Stunning Mauna Kea Beach
A Snowflake Moray Eel we found while snorkeling Mauna Kea Beach.

Water Entrance

Snorkeling Mauna Kea Beach takes place next to the rocky points at either end of the beach, so walk to the end you intend to snorkel. Then, you will have an easy, sandy, gradually sloping entrance into the water. Walk out into the water barefoot and slip your fins on when you can float.

Where to Snorkel

You can choose which end to snorkel based on conditions when you are there. The right side is a larger area to explore, but they both have many fish and some topography to explore. This beach was one of the hardest hit by the coral bleaching events of 2014 and 2105. Most of the corals here are unfortunately dead.

Snorkeling Mauna Kea Beach
Left End

Snorkeling the left end of Mauna Kea Beach.

The left end is the smaller of the two snorkeling Mauna Kea Beach areas, but still has some fish and fun topography to see. The snorkeling is along the rocky point and out toward the center of the bay where it drops off to sand again in about 20 feet of water. The swim from the beach out to where the reef drops off to sand is about 750 feet and the reef extends into the middle of the bay about 300 feet from the rocky point. There tends to be slightly lower visibility on this side and it is generally shallower. If you decide to round the point farther to the left, make sure you are of aware of any currents and can contend with them.

Snorkeling Mauna Kea Beach
Right End

Large school of Orangespine Unicornfish and Whitebar Surgeonfish we saw while snorkeling the right end of Mauna Kea Beach.

We prefer the right end if the conditions cooperate for snorkeling Mauna Kea Beach. There are actually three snorkeling areas you can explore. First, you can hug the rock wall along the edge all the way out to the point, about an 800 foot swim. Many fish hang around that rock wall. Second, for the last two thirds of the length of the wall there is a shallow shelf of dead coral that runs parallel about 300 feet into the bay. That shelf is about 15 feet deep and is home to some fun fish to watch too. Third, past the point, the reef extends 200-400 more feet out until it drops off too deep for fun snorkeling. You will find interesting topography of huge canyons, in 20-30 foot depths that is fun to explore. We saw a number of schools of fish out here and lots of other fish too. If you swim past the point watch for currents. The visibility is often low here, but generally clearer as you go out to the point and beyond, weather, currents, and waves permitting.

We prefer the snorkeling from the right end of Mauna Kea Beach if the conditions cooperate.

On your way out the right end, you might notice that the resort has a light that they shine into the water at night. This light sometimes attracts Manta Rays to feed there, so if you are here after sunset, you might want to check that out.

What We Saw Snorkeling Mauna Kea Beach

A small school of Bluefin Trevally we saw while snorkeling Mauna Kea Beach.
A beautiful pair of Sailfin Tang at Mauna Kea Beach.

This is a good place to see many fish in good variety. You can also enjoy exploring some interesting topography, but there are not many live corals here.

Fish:

  • Blenny, Scarface
  • Butterflyfish: Forceps, Fourspot, Lined, Longnose, Ornate, Oval, Raccoon, Teardrop, Threadfin
  • Chromis, Blackfin
  • Chub
  • Coris, Yellowtail
  • Damselfish, Brighteye
  • Eel: Snowflake Moray, Stout Moray
  • Filefish, Barred
  • Flagtail, Hawaiian
  • Goatfish: Blue, Manybar, Yellowstripe, Yellowtail
  • Gregory, Hawaiian
  • Grouper, Peacock - many
  • Hawkfish: Arc-eye, Blackside, Stocky
  • Hogfish, Hawaiian
  • Jack: Barred, Rainbow Runner
  • Moorish Idol
  • Mullet, Sharpnose
  • Needlefish, Keeltail
  • Parrotfish: Bullethead, Palenose, Redlip, Stareye
  • Porcupinefish, Spotted
  • Puffer: Spotted, Stripebelly
  • Sergeant: Blackspot, Hawaiian, Indo-Pacific
  • Snapper, Blacktail
  • Surgeonfish: Goldring, Eyestripe, Orangeband - school, Ringtail, Whitebar - schools, Whitespotted, Yellowfin
  • Trevally: Bigeye, Bluefin
  • Tang: Achilles, Convict, Lavender, Sailfin, Yellow
  • Triggerfish: Black, Humuhumunukunukuapua’a, Lei, Pinktail
  • Trumpetfish
  • Unicornfish: Bluespine, Orangespine
  • Wrasse: Bird, Christmas, Hawaiian Cleaner, Ringtail, Saddle
A young Banded Coral Shrimp at Mauna Kea Beach.

Coral:

  • Lobe
  • Mound

Other Creatures:

  • Oyster, Black Lipped Pearl
  • Shrimp, Banded Coral
  • Urchin: Banded, Blue-black, Collector, Pale Rock-boring, Red Slate Pencil
  • Zoanthid Pillow

Driving Directions

1. From Kailua Kona, take Highway 19 (Queen Kaahumanu Hwy) north. Follow it through the Waikoloa resort area, past the Puako Road turnoff, and past the big Hapuna Beach sign and turnoff.

2. After the overpass look on the left side of the road for the entrance into the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel near the 68 mile marker and turn in.

3. Let the gate guard know you want to go to Mauna Kea Beach. After entering the resort property, just follow the road down the hill and around a ways as it veers left until it ends and park.

Parking for snorkeling Mauna Kea Beach.

Facilities
There are nice showers, restrooms, changing rooms, and water available, as well as some shade.

Outdoor showers on the restroom and changing room building at Mauna Kea Beach.

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