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A favorite pastime on the Big Island, snorkeling is perhaps one of the easiest and most enjoyable water activities for visitors. By floating on the surface, peering through your mask, and breathing through your snorkel, you can see lava rock formations, sea arches, sea caves, and coral reefs teeming with colorful tropical fish. While the Kona and Kohala coasts boast more beaches, bays, and quiet coves to snorkel, the east side around Hilo and at Kapoho are also great places to get in the water.
If you don't bring your own equipment, you can easily rent all the gear needed from a beach activities vendor, who will happily provide directions to the best sites for snorkeling in the area. For access to deeper water and assistance from an experienced crew, you can opt for a snorkel cruise. Excursions generally range from two to five hours; be sure you know what equipment and food is included.
Kahaluu Beach Park. Since ancient times, the waters around Kahaluu Beach have provided traditional throw net–fishing grounds. With super-easy access, the bay offers good swimming and outstanding snorkeling, revealing turtles, angelfish, parrot fish, needlefish, puffer fish, and many types of tang. Stay inside the breakwater and don't stray too far, as dangerous and unpredictable currents swirl outside the bay. Alii Dr., Kailua-Kona.
Kapoho Tide Pools. Here you'll find the best snorkeling on the Hilo side. Fingers of lava from the 1960 flow that destroyed the town of Kapoho jut into the sea to form a network of tide pools. Conditions near the shore are excellent for beginners, while farther out is challenging enough for experienced snorkelers. End of Kapoho-Kai Rd., off Hwy. 137, Hilo.
Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park. This protected Marine Life Conservation District is hands-down one of the best snorkeling spots on the island, thanks to clear visibility, fabulous coral reefs, and generally calm waters. Pods of dolphins can be abundant, but they're protected under federal law and may not be disturbed or approached. Access to the area has been restricted in recent years, but a few companies are permitted to escort tours to the bay. Overland access is difficult, so opt for one of the guided snorkel cruises permitted to moor here. Napoopoo, at end of Beach Rd. and Hwy. 160, Kailua-Kona www.hawaiistateparks.org/parks/hawaii/index.cfm?park_id=46.
Magic Sands Beach Park. Also known as White Sands or Disappearing Sands Beach Park, this is a great place for beginning and intermediate snorkelers. In winter, it's also a prime spot to watch for whales. Alii Dr., Kailua-Kona.
Puuhonua O Honaunau. There is no swimming inside the national historical park here, but just to the north is a boat launch where the snorkeling is almost as good as at Kealakekua Bay. Parking is very limited. Be respectful of local fishermen who use the area. Hwy. 160, 20 miles south of Kailua-Kona.
Body Glove Cruises. This operator is a good choice for families; kids love the waterslide and the high-dive platform, and parents appreciate the reasonable prices and good food. The 65-foot catamaran sets off for Red Hill from Kailua-Kona pier daily for a morning snorkel cruise that includes breakfast and a lunch buffet. A three-hour dinner cruise to Kealakekua Bay is a great way to relax, watch the sunset, and learn about Kona's history. It includes a buffet and live music. Seasonal whale-watch cruises are available, too. 75-5629 Kuakini Hwy., Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740. 808/326–7122 or 800/551–8911. www.bodyglovehawaii.com. Snorkeling $128; dinner cruise $108; whale-watch cruises $88.
Captain Zodiac Raft Expedition. A four-hour trip on a rigid-hull inflatable Zodiac raft takes you along the Kona Coast to explore gaping lava-tube caves, search for dolphins and turtles, and snorkel around Kealakekua Bay. Captains entertain you with Hawaiian folklore and Kona history. Trips depart at 8:15 am, 10 am, and 1 pm. A seasonal three-hour whale-watching cruise is offered. All equipment, such as Rx masks and flotation devices, are included. Honokohau Harbor, 74-425 Kealakehe Pkwy. #16, Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740. 808/329–3199. www.captainzodiac.com. From $99 per person; whale-watching cruise $74.
Fair Wind Cruises. In business since 1971, Fair Wind offers morning and afternoon snorkel trips that are great for families with small kids. The custom-built 60-foot catamaran has two 15-foot waterslides, freshwater showers, and a staircase descending directly into the water for easy access. Snorkel gear is included, with lots of pint-size flotation equipment and prescription masks available. The company is known for its delicious meals. Cruises last 4½ hours; 3½-hour snack cruises are offered, too. For ages seven and older, the company operates the Hula Kai snorkel cruise, a 55-foot luxury hydrofoil catamaran with theater-style seats for panoramic views. Their five-hour morning snorkel cruise includes a gourmet breakfast buffet and barbecue lunch. Keauhou Bay, 78-7130 Kaleiopapa St., Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740. 808/322–2788 or 800/677–9461. www.fair-wind.com. Cruises from $75.
Snorkel Bob's. You're likely to see Snorkel Bob's wacky ads in your airline in-flight magazine. The company is known for a wide selection of rental gear and can set you up with adventures such as cruises, helicopter flights, and ziplines. 75-5831 Kahakai St., Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740. 808/329–0770 or 800/262–7725. www.snorkelbob.com.