9 Of The Greatest Snorkeling Spots In Oahu, Hawaii

9 of the best snorkel spots in Oahu Hawaii
Photo by Hanjoung Choi On Unsplash
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Oahu offers some of the best snorkel spots in the world. With over 100 miles of coastline, thousands of acres of coral reefs, and no fewer than three marine conservation parks, the island is replete with options. You can rest assured that you’ll never be too far from a great place to dive under in these parts.

With all that on the menu, it’s been a rather tricky task to narrow it down to the nine best snorkel spots in Oahu. We’ve based our choices on accessibility, water conditions, sea life, beach quality, facilities, and chances of turtle sightings! We’ve included spots suitable for first-timers and advanced snorkelers alike, and have picked offshore sites accessible by boat trip as well as places you can wade to from the shore. 

So, whether you want to teach your toddler about the ocean, take a leisurely snorkel between sunbathing sessions, or tick off every fish on your Hawaii species card, we’ve got you covered. Just remember that the snorkeling here is generally A LOT better in the summer than in the winter, when the big NW swells aren’t flowing down and bringing big waves to the North Shore.

Hanauma Bay 

Hanauma Bay is one of the best snorkel spots in Oahu
Photo by Amanda Phung/Unsplash

This safe, sandy, protected bay is one of the most famous snorkel spots in Hawaii and is often listed as one of the best places to visit on the island of Oahu. Fringed by a beautiful beach of white-tinged sand, it all sits in a volcanic crater protected from the elements. As a result, the water is nearly always calm and clear and perfect for all snorkeling levels. It’s also a designated marine life conservation district and is known for the abundance of sea life it contains.

Conservationists are working hard to preserve this area of natural beauty and to undo the damage caused by years of over-tourism. For this reason, Hanauma Bay charges a fee of $25 per visitor (for those over 12 years old). They also impose a limit of 3,000 visitors per day and close on Mondays and Tuesdays to give the reef a break. So, if you’re set on visiting Hanauma Bay – and you absolutely should be! – it’s wise to plan ahead and get there early to secure your spot.

You’ll find lockers, lifeguards, washrooms, snorkel equipment rental, and concession stands all available within the bay, as well as education stations to help tourists learn about the conservation efforts in place. The enjoyments typically begin just moments after you get in the H2O, where dashes of coral gardens host all manner of small fish and other species.

Sans Souci Beach

Sans Souci Beach in Waikiki
Photo by David Kovalenko/Unsplash

If you’re staying in Waikiki and want a snorkel spot that’s not just beautiful but convenient, then head to Sans Souci Beach. This beach is part of a second protected marine life district and that means that no fishing is allowed in the area, so the aquatic life remains abundant and unafraid of people.  

Located at the southern end of Waikiki, the beach is part of the Sans Souci Recreational Park, so you have all the benefits of the park’s facilities nearby, plus plenty of grassy space to spread out your towel or picnic blanket. The access is easy, straight off a soft bank of white sand. Plus, the water never gets more than a couple of feet deep, making it a top spot for those with the little ones in tow.

To spice things up a little, you could try snorkeling beside the stone sea walls that jut out from the coast. This is where most of the fish like to hang out. However, that also happens to be the deepest part of the bay (up to 15 feet) and has some moving currents that swirl around, so it’s better left to the more experienced swimmers out there.

Ko Olina Lagoons

the artificial lagoons are safe spots popular with families, small children and beginners.
Photo by Sebastian Pena Lambarri/Unsplash

On the west side of Oahu are four artificial lagoons that offer some of the island’s safest, most accessible, and most consistent snorkeling. Popular with beginners and families with small children, the lagoons are entirely protected from the elements and have calm, shallow waters, soft sea beds made mainly of sand, and good visibility all year round. 

Because of their shallow design, they don’t attract large marine life. That means more advanced snorkelers might find the lagoons a little tame. But beginners and children will find plenty of fish and crustaceans to entertain them, and turtles are occasionally spotted in these parts too.

The lagoons are open to the public and free to visit, but they are popular spots, so arrive early if you want to find parking. There are lifeguards on duty plus toilets, showers, cafes, and snorkel rental available nearby. The Aulani Disney Resort and Spa is right behind the lagoons at their north end. That’s the perfect place to bed down if you do have the kids in tow. However, these spots are also only 30 minutes’ drive from the center of Honolulu, so not too hard to reach in a rental car from the city.

Shark’s Cove

Shark's Cove is an advanced snorkeling spot.
Photo by Ryan Pernofski/Unsplash

Shark’s Cove is a more advanced snorkeling spot and a famous dive site besides. Part of the island’s third marine conservation district, Pupukea, this spot offers an abundance of sea life, including some of the bigger fish you won’t see in shallower areas – things like eels, cornetfish, and mulletfish. It’s also home to plenty of coral and jagged rock formations where many crustaceans and tropical fish live, and the occasional octopus is known to hide. 

The deep-water, rocky sea bed and the distinct lack of lifeguards mean we wouldn’t recommend this area for beginners or small children. Although there is an area of tide pools that kids will enjoy exploring. And, whatever level of swimmer or snorkeler you are, Shark’s Cove is for summer snorkeling only! This is because the waters around the north shore of Oahu can get very rough in the winter – it’s when the big NW swells come in and power up the iconic surf breaks.

Kuilima Cove

Kuilima Cove is located right beside the famous resort of Turtle Bay.
Photo by Cosmin Serban/Unsplash

If you’re after a more accessible snorkel spot on the north shore, try Kuilima Cove. It’s a beautiful, white-sand beach that will appeal to everyone, and even the most tentative swimmer will be tempted to get in the water here. 

The cove is protected by a natural arm of rock which defends it against any rough weather and leaves the water tranquil and perfect for snorkeling, often even in the winter. There is easy access to the water over soft sand, and then the sea bed becomes scattered with flat rocks and coral, around which you’ll find plentiful shoals of colorful fish.

This cove is a great place to spot the official state fish of Hawaii, the reef triggerfish. Or to give it its Hawaiian name, the humuhumunukunukuapuaa – that’s not one to attempt saying after a few too many rums! Kuilima beach is located right beside the famous Turtle Bay Resort, so is exceptionally well maintained and offers excellent facilities. 

Kahe Point 

Oahu has some of the best snorkeling in the world.
Photo by Peter Thomas/Unsplash

Kahe Point on the west coast of Oahu is also known as Electric Beach because of the nearby electric plant which expels water into the ocean. This water is several degrees warmer than the surrounding ocean, creating the ideal conditions for coral growth and attracting a wide variety of sea life. Swim out to the overflow pipes and you’ll see a reef of healthy coral growing all around. You can spot large numbers of tropical fish, turtles, small sharks, and even dolphins there, all gathering to enjoy the thermals.  

The pipe outlet is located a few hundred yards offshore, so you’ll need to be a decent swimmer to reach it. The area is also prone to strong currents, so we’d recommend this spot to advanced snorkelers only. Locals say that the visibility here is another reason it’s among the finest snorkel options on the island. We’re inclined to agree. Summertime days can be so clear that you get 25-30 meters line of sight, no problem.

One final word of warning: Don’t be tempted to dive under close to the opening of the industrial pipes. The currents are VERY strong there and can push you off course very fast.

Kaena Point State Park

Photo by Justin Wilkens/Unsplash

In Oahu, deserted stretches of beach are rather hard to come by. But if you want to combine some snorkeling with relaxing on the soft white sand of a near-empty bit of coastline, then Kaena Point is the one for you. Located on the far western side of the island, this beach doesn’t make it onto many tourists’ itineraries. It’s beset by rough runs of shoreline that are made up of rugged volcanic stone and has little coves and inlets all over the place. However, it’s Keawaula Beach where most of the snorkel action happens…

The clear blue waters have excellent visibility and the flat coral is home to plenty of life including parrotfish, snapper, triggerfish, butterflyfish, damselfish, and even the occasional turtle. If you’re a good enough swimmer to move around the rocks a little, you’ll find crustaceans and crabs hiding within the crevices. There are even tidal pools that reveal anemones and urchins and seaweed life to the little ones who don’t want to go too deep just yet.

Turtle Canyon 

head to Turtle Canyon for the best chance to snorkel with turtles on Oahu
Photo by Subtle Cinematics/Unsplash

If you’re keen to get out into the deeper waters to see some larger ocean residents of the Aloha State, the Turtle Canyon of Waikiki could just be the perfect choice. Just as the name implies, it lies off the reefs of the famous Waikiki Strip, which runs along the southwestern edge of Honolulu, the capital of the island and the whole chain. The upshot? It should be a cinch to organize a tour of this snorkel spot – just ask at your hotel reception.

Also as the name implies, this is one of the most popular offshore snorkeling spots in Oahu because it offers one of the best chances of encountering turtles. Home to a reef that turtles are known to visit when they wish to feed, rest, or have a good clean, it’s a regular haunt for rare green sea turtles. But you’ll also be able to spot strange coral formations and colorful small fish aplenty.

The great thing here is that you can hit Turtle Canyon by morning and be back on the beaches of Waikiki by afternoon. That makes this one of the best snorkel options for family visitors, since it’s all so easy to plan and work into a jaunt to Honolulu. There are no long transfers, no tough snorkel entry points. Enjoy!

Kaneohe Sandbar

For a truly unique Oahu snorkel experience head to the Kaneohe Sandbar.
Photo by Ishan Seefromthesky/Unsplash

For another unique offshore snorkeling experience head to the Kaneohe Bay off the east coast of the island. There, you’ll find a long, thin sandbank that is exposed at low tide and is a popular spot to come and float in the beautiful shallow water.

The sandbar is over a mile from the shore, so you’ll need to board a boat to cross over. You can join an organized tour, charter a boat for the day, or, when the waters are calm, even kayak or SUP over if you’ve got the energy – the sandbar is just over 1.3km from the shoreline in Kahaluu town at its closest point.

Once there, enjoy snorkeling in the pristine waters, exploring the coral reefs, and watching the many turtles and rays that frequent this area. In fact, the area is particularly famous for its turtle populations, which come and go, usually in the early morning. Be aware that this beautiful spot has zero facilities or shade, so pack everything you need for the trip, including plenty of water and sunscreen. And remember to take all rubbish away with you when you leave.

Best snorkel spots in Oahu – our conclusion

This list runs through nine of what we think are the best snorkel spots in Oahu. As you might expect, this bustling member of the Aloha chain offers up plenty of places. From the offshore Turtle Canyon reefs where you’re likely to meet shell-topped critters just a stone’s throw from Waikiki to the octopus-filled waters of Shark’s Cove on the famous North Shore, there’s plenty to get through. Different spots are better at certain times of the year (the northern ones don’t really work in the winter, for example) and some are sure to be busier than others. However, overall, we’d say that the snorkeling here is some of the finest in the whole of the USA!

Is Oahu good for snorkeling?

Yes, Oahu is great for snorkeling. There are three marine life conservation areas on the island and plenty of native sea life for you to look for, including loads of turtles! The water is clear and warm enough that you won’t need a wetsuit and the many snorkeling beaches and boat tours offer something for swimmers of all levels. 

What is the best snorkeling spot in Oahu?

Hanauma Bay is probably the overall best snorkeling spot in Oahu. It’s a protected conservation area with calm waters and so many fish you’ll think you’re swimming in an aquarium! However, you do have to pay to enter the bay, and it does get busy, so plan ahead and get there early. 

When is the best time to snorkel in Oahu?

The best time to snorkel in Oahu is in the summer, May through to September. This is when the conditions are best, the water calmest, and sea life most abundant. Plus it’s warmer and sunnier on land so generally better for that vacation. Conditions in Oahu also tend to be better in the mornings than in the afternoons, so try to get out early. We would skip the winter months, when the North Shore is more famous for its huge waves than its still seas.

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Anita is from Wales and has been a travel addict since her first trip to Australia ten years ago. Since then she's lived and worked in Oz, New Zealand and Canada, worked many ski seasons and travelled widely through South East Asia, Morocco, India and Europe. She's a nomad, freelance writer, foodie, compulsive reader, tea addict and animal lover.