A stay on the “Big Island” of Hawaii gave me the chance to indulge in some easy snorkeling. Calm waters, lots of fish, and ease of entry to the water made the following three places my favorite spots on the Kona (west) side of the island.
Author with favorite fish ID book.
City Of Refuge
Also known as Honaunau Bay, this is a favorite spot for snorkeling as well as a good destination for exploring the island’s history, as the snorkeling cove is adjacent to Puuhonua O Honaunau National Historic Park. The park commemorates refuge sites (Puuhonua) where ancient Hawaiians could retreat to escape the dire penalties exacted for breaking many of the arcane laws that kept order in society during that time. We are not talking murder and robbery, we are talking things like men and women being forbidden to dine together, allowing your shadow to cross the path of a chief or nobleman, and so forth. Off with their heads! Or go to a Place of Refuge, such as this one. The park contains reconstructed houses, churches, and other village attributes.
The snorkeling cove, calmest during morning hours, is home to eels, turtles, dolphin, and a host of fishes. Water entry is easy (when seas are calm) from an array of flat black stones that are situated conveniently at water level. Note that the black lava stones are pretty rough, however — this is a good site to use snorkeling booties to protect your feet. For even easier entry, use the (coarse, black-sand) beach adjacent to the boat launch, but obviously be aware of any boats coming and going from the launch.
Undersea montage on the Kona Coast.
Parking is limited, as are amenities. Porta-potties are provided, and there are a few picnic tables and barbecue grills. To get there, take Highway 11 south from Kailua-Kona about 15 miles, then turn right on Highway 160 (“highway” being a somewhat deceptive term for these little two-lane roads), also known as Keala O Keawe Rd., and follow the signs.
Spencer Beach Park
All sources tout Spencer Beach as a great family destination, and I can vouch for that. In addition to ease of water access and protected swimming (courtesy of an offshore reef), there are abundant free facilities for family activities including picnic tables, barbecues, basketball courts, and volleyball nets. Restrooms, showers, and a lifeguard are also present. The combination of features offered at this beach makes it a popular hangout for locals. I heard a lot of Hawaiian being spoken here, and many small brown children were swarming the beach and shower areas. The smells from the grills were sweet, exotic, and tantalizing.
Adult yellow-tail wrasse.
The snorkeling itself is not the best here, if your goal is crystal clear water and lots of fish. The day I visited, the surf was a bit rough — not enough to make you feel in danger at all, but enough to churn up a bit of the bottom and make things a tad murky. It seems this is not unusual. That being said, I did see a number of tang and angel fish, as well as coral and anemonae. And the access is gentle, sloping, and sandy, albeit the pebbly kid of sand typical of many Big Island beaches. It’s not a bad place to start out, especially if you’re staying in the Waikoloa or Waimea vicinities.
Spencer Beach Park is less than 20 miles north of the Waikoloa resort area via Highway 19. At the Highway 270 junction, turn left onto 270; Highway 19 continues to the right toward Waimea, just 9 miles from the junction. The left turn to the park is well signed and not far past the junction.
Kahalu’u Beach Park
Talk about easy pickin’s! This beach is right smack in the middle of Kailua-Kona, with easy water entry, free parking, and more fish than your average aquarium. The water is warm and clear here, especially when you get out away from the entry point and more toward the middle of the semi-protected bay (freshwater springs near the shore pump startlingly cold water into the shallows). Much of the bay is sandy-bottomed, which is not always the case on the Big Island, and many areas are shallow enough to stand up. Just be sure you are standing on sand or rock, not living coral.
I understand that larger marine life is abundant just outside the breakwater, but I can’t attest to that, as I’m not a strong swimmer and I wouldn’t recommend venturing out there unless you are, and then only on a calm day. Inside the protected area, you’ll see a variety of colorful wrasses, parrotfish, tang, needlefish, angels, and puffers.
Turtle at Kahalu’u Beach Park.
A breakwater offshore creates protection as well as an attractive environment for the many fish that live and feed here. Turtles abound as well, particularly in the shallow southern end of the bay, which turns into tidepools at low tide. The area is posted “DO NOT TOUCH THE TURTLES,” and I was pleased (and frankly more than a little shocked) to find that being respected by the families who packed the little beach and the tidepool area.
Did I say “packed”? Um, yeah. That’s the downside to Kahalu’u Beach Park. All the things that make it a great beach for you make it great for everybody else, too. As with any good snorkeling beach on the Kona Coast, your best bet is to go early. Going on a weekday also helps. Combining these two should net you a parking spot.
The park has decent restrooms and usually has trucks providing everything from snacks to snorkel gear to security lock boxes for your car keys, wallet, and other small valuables. If the trucks aren’t present, you are just steps away from other vendors providing all the services you need, as this beach is just north of the Outrigger Hotel/Resort and right on the main drag (Alii Drive) in Kailua-Kona.
Sally O’Neal shares her land and sea adventures weekly in this column. She spent two weeks on The Big Island in March/April 2011. She thanks her dog-eared copy of the 1973 classic “The Many-Splendored Fishes of Hawaii” — still in print! — by Gar Goodson for help with fish identification.