Of the big four islands in Hawaii – the Big Island, Oahu, Maui and Kauai – Kauai gets the fewest number of visitors each year. Averaging just over 100,000 tourists per month, it’s graced by only a quarter the number of visitors of Oahu and less than half the visitors of Maui.
That limited tourism (and more legal protections than other islands) has allowed Kauai to remain more untouched than the other large Hawaiian islands. It’s kept Kauai’s landscapes rugged and its reefs healthy.
Kauai is called The Garden Island for a reason.
What many people don’t know is that many of Kauai’s best gardens are found under the water, in its coral reefs bursting with aquatic plant life.
Going below the surface is one of the best ways to truly see all that Kauai has to offer, and here are the best snorkeling spots in Kauai to do it.
Kauai North Shore Beaches
Kauai’s North Shore boasts some of the most incredible (and iconic Hawaiian) scenery of the Hawaiian island chain. The rise of the Nā Pali coastline out of the Pacific Ocean is a spiritual experience and a fantasy novelist’s wet dream.
But it’s also a beast come winter.
The North Shore’s famously massive winter waves have made it a world-class destination for big wave surfers, but those same waves make North Kauai dangerous for snorkelers for much of the year.
Only snorkel Kauai’s North Shore in the calmer summer months when the waves are less volatile.
Nā Pali Coast Snorkeling
To snorkel in the shallows near the majestic Nā Pali coastline, you must arrive by boat. Several tours will take you to the center where the cliffs meet the sea and provide free time for a snorkel or swim once you’ve made it there.
However, the snorkeling found at the Nā Pali Coast isn’t particularly good. The undeniably enchanting cliffs attract big waves, which limits visibility and keeps wise ocean animals at a distance.
When the weather is sketchy, and the water a little rough, boat tours will still go to Nā Pali, but operators won’t permit passengers to disembark. So, you may get out there just to have to sit on the boat.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take a tour to Nā Pali. From the ocean is the way to see it. But, as far as snorkeling goes, you’re going to have a calmer, more satisfying experience with a taste of the same scenery right off the coast a few miles to the east.
Ke’e Beach Snorkeling
Ke’e Beach is as far as you can travel on Kauai’s North Shore, before civilization is sucked up by the Hono’Onapali Natural Reserve. This makes Ke’e Beach the closest you can get to snorkeling the Nā Pali Coast without taking a boat.
The beach being at the furthest edge of civilization also means Ke’e is barely in civilization. The lush, fertile forests of Kauai nearly swallow up the sandy stretch. The green cliffs of the Nā Pali coast rise behind Ke’e’s western edge.
The fish are plentiful at this North Shore, Kauai snorkeling spot. Though, turtles are less common.
To snorkel at Ke’e, go directly to the western end of the beach. There is a dirt parking lot behind this section of sand for both the beach and the Kalalau Trail trailhead.
Avoid the large lava rocks at the beach’s end, and head out into the water. You’ll be able to see the lava rock formations further out in the ocean and how they break the waves early and keep this section of water relatively calm.
Take a good look around at where the boundaries of the still water lie. This will help you orient yourself. Then, head to the center of this section.
Here, you’ll find coral just below the water, and considerably more fish than you’ll see in the shallower water close to shore.
Since most of the people driving out this far on the North Shore are there to hike the Kalalau Trail, you’ll also find the water less crowded than at many of Kauai’s snorkeling beaches.
Though, parking can fill up fast. So, if you can’t get their early, you may be parking along the side of the road. If you can find a spot at all.
The calm nature of Ke’e Beach (especially in the warmer months) and on-duty lifeguards make this beach pretty accessible, even for novices. Though, the waves can get rough later in the day.
Tunnels Beach Snorkeling
Tunnels Beach has the most abundant, shallowest reefs on all of Kauai. And it’s a mile from a large public parking lot (it has its own small one), which makes it (slightly) less crowded than the direct-access beaches in the area.
If you’re on the North Shore to snorkel, the mile or so walk from the parking lot to Tunnels Beach is well worth it.
The reefs are so prominent at Tunnels, you can spot them easily from the shore. Just head out toward the first one.
You’ll see fish, coral, and an abundance of aquatic plant life right away at Tunnels (only about 3 meters/10 feet out). But, for experienced snorkelers, Tunnels Beach has much more to offer.
If the ocean is agreeable (that is, very, very calm) strong snorkelers and swimmers can continue paddling out to the dark spot straight out from the beach that can be seen in the distance (around 300 meters/1000 feet from shore). Here, you’ll become one with the coral and the fish community.
Since Tunnels Beach’s reef is basically a big half loop, you can also follow the interior of the reef from the right or left side all the way out and around the shallow reef area. If you start at the right, you’ll be moving with the current.
Visibility at the far reef at Tunnels is only good on a near perfect day. But, the good news is, the water is generally calmer closer to shore, so if the outer reef is too stirred up, you can still snorkel.
Tunnels Beach is also a great snorkeling spot for those big sightings, no matter which area of the reef you’re in.
Sea turtles and moray eels love it, and eagle rays and (harmless) white-tipped reef sharks make frequent appearances.
Hanalei Bay Snorkeling
Hanalei Bay is a semi-circular bay protected by large reefs at each end. Which should make for some truly splendid snorkeling opportunities.
Situated just west of Princeville, though, Hanalei Bay is also popular and a little more polluted. And that’s had an impact on its reefs. The reefs to the eastern side of the bay are healthier than the reefs to the west.
But there are better options on the North Shore, such as Ke’e Beach and Tunnels Beach, just ten miles to the west.
However, if you do want to snorkel right in the Princeville area, and you’re looking for a truly rugged experience, take the steep descent to Hideaways.
Hideaways Beach Snorkeling
Hideaways Beach can be a bit hit-and-miss. If you get there when few others are around, it’s like your own slice of paradise. It’s a small beach, though. So, if you get there with a group of kayakers or tourists, it can feel small.
What makes Hideaways Beach a hideaway is that it’s not easily accessible. The trail to get to it is only 0.1 miles, but it is STEEP. So steep that makeshift steps have been fashioned into the dirt slope and ropes have been anchored to give visitors something to hold onto.
Access to the trailhead is right next to the Puu Poa Condos.
If you can get to Hideaways at a downtime, you’ll find the water crystal clear and the reef visible without even having to put on a mask. You’ll also find incredible marine life. Even hammerhead sharks are known to frequent these waters.
Snorkeling at Hideaways can be done just about anywhere. The reef comes quite close to shore. So close that the water can be too shallow for snorkeling at times. If you get in a tight spot, just veer left or right. There are plenty of deeper channels through the Hideaways reef.
Public parking is super limited near the Hideaways trailhead (they are competing with a lot of resorts in this area). Getting there early gets you the best chance at a space (and the best snorkeling), but you can pay for valet at the Princeville Resort if all else fails.
Best Snorkeling Beaches in Kauai for Kids
Kauai’s snorkeling spots can be a bit wild. And its North Shore is where the wilderness and the power of the ocean take over.
As such, the North Shore of Kauai isn’t ideal for novice snorkelers or for kids.
Luckily, there are a couple of beaches on Kauai designed expressly with the little ones in mind where you can still find some of the best snorkeling on Kauai.
Lydgate Beach Park Snorkeling
Lydgate Beach Park isn’t going to provide your wildest or most intense snorkeling experience on Kauai. It isn’t meant to.
Lydgate Beach is meant to be safe and kid-friendly, and it’s both of those things.
Lydgate Beach’s waters are protected by the ocean current by man-made rock walls, which keep the waves low but still let the fish in.
Snorkeling at Lydgate is best kept close to that wall. The water is shallow there and lava rocks, where the fish like to hide, line the ocean floor.
On a nice, calm morning the visibility at Lydgate can improve to the point that you can see almost anywhere in the protected enclosure. When that happens, you’ll get some of the best snorkeling on Kauai in the swimming area’s depths, where schools of fish can band together and pass below.
Lydgate Beack Park may not have the same wilderness feel as our North Shore snorkeling spots. And it certainly won’t satisfy advanced snorkelers. But it’s a great place to learn how to snorkel without the same dangers of snorkeling in more open waters.
The park also has lifeguards on duty, which makes it even more new snorkeler and kid-friendly.
Poipu Beach Snorkeling
Poipu Beach is home to Kauai’s largest resort area, and also to a unique land formation that makes it one of Kauai’s best snorkeling beaches for novices and kids.
This land mass, known as a tombolo, is basically a sandy little island just off-shore that is connected to the mainland beach by a sand spit, a strip of hard-packed sand that acts as a bridge.
The Poipu tombolo acts as a barrier of sorts, creating a semi-protected cove at Poipu where the waves are less powerful and the water is still enough to see through.
This protected area is to the right (or west) of the tombolo from the beach, and is impossible to miss. The area that looks way calmer than the rest of the ocean? That’s it.
Fish and sea turtles really like the warm water and the calm of Poipu, so you’ll have plenty to look at while you’re in the water.
The main downside of Poipu Beach is that it’s surrounded by resorts and, therefore, popular with tourists. That means the beach can get pretty busy pretty early.
Once you head out in the direction of Poipu’s offshore island, though, the number of rocks under the water increases and the number of swimmers and body boarders decreases. This greatly improves visibility.
Not that you’ll have to see far. Poipu’s snorkeling area bottoms out at ten feet.
While you won’t see an amazing underwater world at Poipu (there’s not much of a reef), you will see plenty of fish, some colorful coral, and if you don’t see a turtle there, it’s a really bad day of snorkeling.
Snorkel Rental Kauai
All the major resorts, and many smaller hotels, on Kauai offer on-site snorkel rentals. But these are typically reserved for guests.
For everyone else, tThere are a number of retailers and dedicated rental companies who make snorkel sets available to everyone.
These are concentrated in the three major resort areas – the North Shore near Hanalei Bay, the East Shore near Wailua, and the South Shore near Poipu Beach.
Generally speaking, you’ll pay more at a hotel and less at a rental shop. Though, you may get some benefits at the hotel, like being able to turn your equipment back in each night for safekeeping.
Tips for Snorkeling in Kauai
- Don’t go snorkeling when the waves are rough. It’s dangerous, and the visibility will be poor anyway.
- Heed wave and weather advisories for Kauai beaches. Advisories are posted at more trafficked beaches, but not at every beach. Always check advisories before going into the ocean.
- Know your limits. Pay attention to how your body feels. Don’t swim further from shore than you can swim back.
- Know you might see things in the water that will give you a scare, from jellyfish to sharks. Leave them alone. They’ll leave you alone.
- Never touch Hawaii’s sea turtles. They are an endangered species, and touching one carries a hefty fine.
Kauai Snorkeling Tours
While you won’t need a tour to get to most of Kauai’s top snorkeling destinations, you will if you want to snorkel the Nā Pali Coast.
Or, if you have new snorkelers in your party, you may want to take a protected reef tour.
Many of these tours are designed with novice snorkelers and children in mind, and will teach everyone in your party the basics of snorkeling.