Oahu, Hawai’i is home to stunning stretches of white sand beaches and turquoise waters teeming with colorful marine life. And there’s no better way to get up close and personal with Oahu’s natural beauty and unique wildlife than snorkeling through its crystal clear waters. So put on your swimsuit and slip on those flippers- here’s six must-see spots with the best snorkeling in Oahu.
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What Should I know About Snorkeling in Oahu?
Actually, hold up- there’s a few things you need to know about snorkeling in Oahu before we dive in (get it?! snorkeling puns!).
1. Follow the Leave No Trace principles
Hawai’i is a super special place- not only for its natural beauty, but also because of the immense biodiversity it offers. In fact, due to its incredibly remote location, Hawai’i is home to many species of animals and plantlife that are found literally nowhere else on the planet.
As such, it’s important that you care for and respect Hawai’i’s nature when you’re visiting- one of the easiest ways you can do so is by following the Leave No Trace principles. In particular:
Respect wildlife: Marine creatures are wild animals and are not there to act as your selfie prop- don’t chase after them or touch them and be sure to observe them from a reasonable distance. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recommends staying 50 yards away from dolphins, sea turtles, and seals in the water and 100 yards away if you’re somehow lucky enough to sneak a peek of a whale.
Also, please don’t feed any sea creatures- it’s shown to really mess up the natural ecosystem. Plus, if you go snorkeling where we suggest, you’ll see plenty of wildlife without needing to give out fish food!
Leave what you find: This goes hand-in-hand with the last point, but don’t touch anything and leave everything, including shells, where you found it- not only to protect the ocean flora and fauna, but also you.
Did you know there are some snails that have a harpoon-like tooth filled with deadly venom (yes, even to humans)? So unless you want to go out of this world due to death-by-snail, leave the things you see in the ocean alone.
Dispose of waste properly: Be mindful to clean up after yourself on the beach, collecting all wrappers, bottles, and other waste and throwing it away properly. Rubbish left on the beach will eventually get swept into the ocean by the rising tide, which is how you get those sad YouTube videos of sea turtles with their heads stuck in plastic six-pack rings.
2. Protect the Coral Reef
Coral reefs are really important to so many facets of our world- they are a crucial part of the marine life ecosystem, provide protection to coastlines from storms and erosion, and act as a source for new medicines. Due to really depressing reasons, like global warming, coral reefs around the world are dying, but you can do your part to preserve it!
Do not touch, kick, or stand on the coral- while coral may look like a rock, it’s a living creature, made up of millions of tiny microorganisms. Even simply touching coral can break off one of these microorganisms, which, in the best case scenario, will take years to grow back.
While my husband, Justin, and I were here, I saw a guy take a break from snorkeling by standing on a nearby reef. Don’t be that dude- if you’re that tired, swim to the beach or lie on your back to take a breather. Essentially, treat touching coral with the same severity as running over a puppy- it’s that serious, y’all.
Also, did you know your sunscreen can hurt the coral? Some chemicals found in common sunscreens can cause coral bleaching, damage the DNA of corals, and increase abnormal growth and deformities within reefs.
But, good news- there’s reef-safe sunscreen, like this one, which don’t include the nasty -enes and -ones chemicals (i.e., Oxybenzone, Benzophenone-1, Benzophenone-8, OD-PABA, 4-Methylbenzylidene camphor, 3-Benzylidene camphor, Octinoxate, and Octocrylene) that you should definitely make sure is included on your Hawaii packing list!
3. Snorkeling can be dangerous.
Snorkeling sounds like a pretty low key activity, but it isn’t something that should be taken lightly- since 2009, over 200 people have died in Hawai’i while snorkeling. So before you don those flippers, make sure you can follow the tips below:
I'm including this one first because it's, hands down, the most important rule– only go snorkeling with a buddy, so you’ll each have someone within arm’s reach if an emergency occurs.
If you’re traveling solo, you can go with a tour group. For example, consider this tour to Turtle Canyon or this one to observe dolphins from a boat and then head to a snorkeling spot, known to be popular with turtles.
Before you go snorkeling in the ocean, make sure you’re a confident swimmer. If you need an extra boost of confidence, consider wearing a snorkel vest (similar to a life vest but specifically designed to be used while snorkeling).
Make sure to get snorkel gear that fits properly. Also, steer clear of full face snorkel masks, which have been linked to snorkelers inhaling increased amounts of carbon dioxide (from rebreathing exhaled air), leading to dizziness, headaches, and unconsciousness- not what you want to do while at the open sea.
Pay attention to the weather and heed warning flags about rough waves. It can be easy to be carried away from shore in a strong current, so if there’s any question about whether it’s safe for you to jump in the water, err on the side of caution.
Best snorkeling in Oahu
After all that talk about rip tides and global warming, let’s get to the good stuff- where to go snorkeling on Oahu!
1. Hanauma Bay Nature Reserve (Honolulu)
It would be silly to write an article about snorkeling in Oahu and not mention Hanauma Bay. Every year, more than a million visitors snorkel in this bay, located just 10 miles east of Honolulu. Once a former volcanic crater, it now is a marine reserve and home to over 400 colorful species of fish, Hawaiian sea turtles, and other marine life.
The good news? Given the protected nature of the bay, the waves are super calm and packed with sea creatures, making this the perfect spot for a beginner snorkeler. Plus, given its proximity to Waikiki, it's an incredibly accessible spot, especially for families that want to dip their toes into snorkeling.
The not so good news? It can be a bit tricky- and expensive- to visit. To protect the bay from overtourism, it’s only open Wednesdays through Sundays, with entry allowed from 6:45 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. To snorkel here, you are required to make a reservation, through the online system, to watch a short educational video about protecting the reef.
Reservations can be made two days in advance, starting at 7 AM HST, and frequently sell out within minutes of opening. In addition, unless you’re a Hawaiian resident, admission is $25 per person (ages 13 years and older), plus an additional $3 to park. So, for a family of four, you’ll easily be looking at over $100 for a visit here.
Despite the reservation system, it can still get quite crowded the later it gets in the afternoon, so I’d recommend showing up as early as possible to enjoy the bay in peace.
2. Kahe Point Beach Park (Kapolei)
Located on the east side of the island (about 40 minutes from Waikiki), Kahe Point Beach Park, also known as Electric Beach, is an unassuming small beach, next to (surprise!) a power plant. So while the backdrop to this beach may not exactly be the swaying palm trees you dream of, the underwater scene is arguably some of the best on the island.
Warm (totally clean!) water, several degrees hotter than the seawater, is discharged from two cooling pipes from the power plant into the ocean, which attracts all kinds of sea life- even beyond just fish! In fact, while we arrived at this beach, we ran into snorkelers who had just seen both a pod of spinner dolphins and a sea turtle in the water.
From the beach, it’s easy to see where the pipes stop offshore- for the best snorkeling, follow the pipeline out to where it ends and watch the sealife play in the warm water! Additionally, perhaps because of its less than idyllic setting, this beach is almost completely devoid of tourists- it’s one of the few spots on Oahu that seems to fly under the radar.
I do have one caveat to this dreamy scene of just you and a pod of dolphins swimming through electrical runoff water, though- the waves here can get QUITE intense, especially during high tide or anytime from October through April. If you haven’t snorkeled very much previously or are not a very sure swimmer, this probably isn’t the best place to get your feet wet (quite literally!).
3. Kuilima Cove (Kahuku)
Located on the grounds of the swanky Turtle Bay Resort (although open to the public), Kuilima Cove is a great spot along Oahu’s North Shore to take beginner snorkelers. At the opening of the cove is a rock barrier that breaks most of the strongest waves, which creates an environment akin to a very chill lagoon.
Additionally, the water throughout the cove is rarely more than neck deep, making this a great spot to take new or nervous snorkelers. And, despite the cove’s calmness or shallowness, there’s still plenty of fish that hang out here- and if you’re lucky, even sea turtles!
While Kuilima offered the smallest variety and quantity of wildlife than any of the other spots we visited along the North Shore, its amenities, like snorkeling rentals and beachside bar (exclusively for drinks post-snorkeling, y’all!), and a beginner-friendly environment definitely make this a must-stop during your trip.
Plus, unlike most other snorkeling hot spots along the North Shore which become unswimmable due to high waves in the wintertime, Kuilima is generally accessible and reasonably calm year round.
4. Waimea Bay Beach Park (Haleiwa)
Waimea Bay is one of the most popular beaches on the North Shore- and for good reason. Featuring a beautiful stretch of white sand and sparkling, turquoise water, Waimea Bay is what you think of when you think of a Hawaiian beach- and its underwater world is just as stunning!
For the best snorkeling on this beach, I’d recommend heading past the southern part of the beach across the Waimea River (the southern portion of the beach tends to be filled with dozens of fishermen) and focusing your time, instead, on the north side of the beach - there’s some bits of coral reef there that are simply teeming with fish. There’s also allegedly a few seals that call this bay home, so keep your eyes peeled in the water for some cute new seal friends.
While this is, hands down, one of my favorite spots on the island, the parking lot is comically small for how popular this beach is, so, I’d highly recommend showing up early to snag a spot.
It’s also worth noting that, while the beach is a snorkeling paradise May through September, it’s known for something else come winter... big wave surfing! As in waves that can reach up to 30-feet high. So, needless to say, if you’re visiting Oahu to relax on the beach on Christmas or are just visiting during the wintertime, I’d recommend stopping here to watch surfers catching some gnarly waves, rather than snorkeling.
5. Shark’s Cove (Haleiwa)
Don’t worry- it’s highly unlikely you’ll find any sharks in Shark’s Cove (the name comes from the shape of the cove, not from the presence of any toothy fish), but you will see a lot of other marine life (this is a pretty good spot to see turtles)!
The cove consists of a small rocky bay, with a shallow eastern side, offering excellent tide pools, and a deeper western portion, that provides awesome snorkeling opportunities. The marine life is so good here, in fact, Scuba Diving Magazine named it one of the “Top Twelve Shore Dives in the World”.
Given Shark’s Cove doesn't have a beach and is rather a rocky outcropping of stabby lava rock, this may not be the best spot for individuals looking to alternate between chilling on the beach and jumping in the water.
And, while Shark’s Cove doesn’t see quite the killer waves that Waimea does, it still gets pretty choppy in the wintertime and is best enjoyed in the summer.
6. Three Tables (Haleiwa)
Three Tables is a sandy little beach on the North Shore (right between Waimea Bay and Shark’s Cove), named for three coral formations that protrude from the water during low tide. The entire area in front of the tables is covered with dense coral reef and SO many fish- this is the spot where we saw the most fish, by far, during our visit in Oahu.
Beyond just the marine life, there’s such cool and interesting underwater topography here as well- ledges, arches, and lava tubes for you to swim around and explore.
Unlike many of the other bays on this list, there’s no natural barriers, other than the tables, to offer protection from harsh waves. So to avoid being pulled out with the current, stay between the tables and the beach. And just like all of the other North Shore spots (other than Kuilima), you won’t be able to enjoy this spot, come winter, due to the waves.
What to Pack for Snorkeling in Oahu
Now that you have 'where to go' nailed down, what do you need to add to your packing list for Hawaii to have an awesome time snorkeling?
Mask and fins: If you’re planning on snorkeling more than once or twice, it’s easier and cheaper to bring along your own mask and fins, as opposed to renting some on Oahu. Most of the beaches don’t have a snorkeling gear rental shop on site and nothing would be sadder than being ready to jump in the water and not having the right gear on hand.
Justin and I each brought along this snorkeling set and it worked out great- the dry-top valve on the snorkel kept the water out when big waves rolled over us while we were swimming and the lower purge valve let me blow out any water in my snorkel from when I dove underwater. Plus the travel bag made it easy to schlep all of our snorkeling gear wherever we needed to carry it.
Reef safe sunscreen: I touched on this above, so I won’t go into too much detail, but don’t get burnt and don’t kill coral reefs- instead, bring along reef safe sunscreen.
Wetsuit shirt: The water temperature in Oahu is fairly pleasant year round, ranging from 76°F (24.4°C) to 81°F (27.2°C). But if you’re anything like me (i.e., a complete baby when it comes to coldness), this may still feel pretty chilly- I had goosebumps every time I jumped in the water after about 10 minutes.
GoPro: This little camera is perfect for capturing your snorkeling memories- not only is it waterproof (up to 33 feet), but it’s also small, incredibly lightweight, and versatile enough to capture both epic photos and your next TikTok.
Reusable water bottle: Bring along plenty of water to keep on the beach- between the hot Hawaiian sun and swimming against the tide, snorkeling can be more tiring than you’d think! To be kind to the planet and to cut down on wasting money on bottled water, Justin and I both have giant Nalgene bottles that we take everywhere, from international vacations to RV trips around the Pacific Northwest and, yup, even snorkeling in Hawai’i!
Where to Stay while snorkeling in oahu
You may have noticed that four of my recommended snorkeling spots in Oahu are located along the famous North Shore. Given that the North Shore is slightly less touristed and it offers an abundance of coral reefs, this area also provides the highest concentration of awesome snorkeling spots on the island.
So, if you want to stay close to the best snorkeling spots and have a slightly more authentic Hawaiian experience than staying on Waikiki, I’d recommend spending a few days near the North Shore to explore its beaches and get to know its quirky food trucks, plentiful acai bowls, and super chill vibes (seriously, I saw many people walk around a grocery store in totally bare feet- what’s more laidback than that?!).
Here’s some ideas for where to stay on the North Shore:
Beach side studio: This studio, perfect for a couple, is located in the surfer town of Haleiwa. Within walking distance to Ke Iki Beach- so close, in fact, you can literally hear the waves while you fall asleep.
160 West: For something with a bit more amenities, consider this 2-bedroom condo, with an in-unit washer and dryer, pool, and private parking.
Turtle Bay Resort: For something a bit swankier, Turtle Bay, home to the above-mentioned Kuilima Cove, is the way to go, as the only luxury resort on the North Shore. Beyond its snorkeling offers, the resort has all the upscale amenities you can dream of, from an onsite spa to a renowned golf course, offering the perfect bougie juxtaposition to the area’s super laidback vibes.
Where’s the best place you snorkeled while on Oahu? Are there any hidden gems I need to check out next time I’m in Oahu? Let me know in the comments below!