You’re missing out if you’re not snorkeling in Maui and witnessing the diversity of underwater color and life that’s just as abundant as the beauty you’d find among the Valley Isle’s green mountainsides.
Maui’s coastline packs so much variety, from flat white-sand beaches to crescents of golden sand hemmed in by rocky cliffs. Because the coast is windy, with beaches facing many directions, it means that snorkelers can find ideal conditions regardless of which way the wind blows.
Plus, many beaches offer reefs perfect for kids just learning to snorkel, whereas other sites better accommodate the intrepid snorkeler who wants a more challenging experience. Here’s where to find the best places to snorkel in Maui.
Kaanapali Beach, aka Black Rock
The spot may be called Black Rock, but the beach here is sugar white, and Kaanapali Beach is hand-down one of the best beaches for snorkeling in Maui. Swim from shore to where the water is 8 to 25 feet deep, and you’ll find the namesake black rocks. Here, green sea turtles nestle under ledges, and a variety of fish, from Moorish idols to the former state fish, humuhumunukunukuapua’a, can be found.
This site is a favorite for families thanks to a wide, picturesque beach. Plus, Whaler’s Village on the beach walk offers a collection of restaurants and shops, allowing visitors to make impromptu lunch plans or stay for a drink at sunset. If you’re not staying in the area, public parking is available at the Sheraton Maui Resort.
Napili Bay, a gentle snorkel spot, is best accessed via Napili Kai Beach Resort, where parking is available for those who arrive early in the day.
The reef, 30 yards from shore, more or less parallels the beach. As for things to do in Maui with kids, we love this spot where the beach is shallow and the waves are small. Younger swimmers will have plenty to look at, from fantail filefish to longnose butterflyfish.
Plus, you can pop in for a bite at Napili Kai Beach Resort’s Sea House restaurant, serving up dishes such as poke nachos — with sushi-grade ahi plus wasabi aioli and sriracha cream.
For something different, check out this site near Makena Landing. Park there, then walk to the right, following the reef until you see the black-rock fingers reaching out into the ocean.
This site is for the snorkeler willing to dive down to explore. The reward is a series of lava-formed archways and caves. Plus, the unique overhanging environment shelters a slew of critters you won’t see elsewhere — think octopi and eels.
Don’t let the hour drive from Wailea deter you — Honolua Bay offers some of the best snorkeling in Maui because of its designation as a marine sanctuary, protected as the Honolua-Mokule’ia Bay Marine Conservation District. No fishing is allowed here, which means that the schools of goatfish, Moorish idols and butterflyfish are some of the biggest that you’ll swim with from shore.
Another big bonus of the site is that you can expect small to nonexistent waves thanks to rocky cliffs that surround the bay on both sides and block the wind. Do note that in winter, seasonal swell can make this a surf spot, so check the swell report prior to making the day trip.
Mala Wharf, Lahaina, Maui
Too often, snorkeling newbies think that pretty beaches equal pretty snorkel spots. Sometimes, but not always.
One trick is to follow the scuba divers, who know where the good critters are. This tip is especially solid if the divers are headed to shallow waters, which, at 45 feet deep, is true of Mala Wharf, aka Mala Boat Ramp.
This old pier isn’t popular among beachgoers, but we love it for the abundant marine life: Snorkelers can see whitetip reef sharks, usually no more than 5 feet long. Encounters with bluestripe snappers and around a dozen sea turtles are also common. If you can maneuver close to the piers, you may even see nudibranchs, brightly colored animals no more than two or three inches long, which look like slugs. These animals are a favorite among most divers for the rich, incredible variation in colors.
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Scuba instructors rely on this easy-access beach for training new divers. It’s one of the best beaches for snorkeling in Maui thanks to patch coral reefs in 30 feet of water.
Snorkelers can watch parrotfish nibble on corals, wrasse and butterflyfish flitting between coral heads, and, perhaps most impressive of all, turtles being cleaned.
At what’s known as a cleaning station, turtles settle in as butterflyfish nib the algae from their shells. This process can last for 10 minutes or longer, so keep a respectful distance so as not to spook the turtles.
Turtle Town Maui, aka Maluaka Beach
Turtle Town offers some of the best snorkeling in Maui with, as the name suggests, green sea turtles. They favor the site for its abundant sea grass that grows at every depth along this beach, which means even young snorkelers can have encounters in just a couple feet of water.
Find the spot by driving 10 minutes south of Wailea — but before you leave your resort, pack or pick up lunch, as there are no vendors along this stretch of golden sand. While there’s no spot to grab a cold drink at this beach, few tourists target Maluaka Beach, so there’s plenty of space to spread out.
Ahihi Kinau Natural Area Reserve
This spot is not where you’ll set up camp for a beach day. Rather, make this stretch of shoreline your destination for a few hours as you pore over the lava rock in the shallows, getting to know the who’s who of Hawaiian fish.
Snorkeling in Hawaii is fascinating when you recognize that 23 percent of the fish species — a total of 1,216 — are endemic, found nowhere else. Invest in a fish guide chart, then drop in and get to know the flame wrasse, with its hot pink coloring, and the Potter’s angelfish, a wash of reds, oranges and electric blues.
Find this outpost just south of Makena Beach. Note that there are no facilities, no lifeguards, no vendors and no parking lot — just a lot of wild Hawaiian shoreline to explore.
Book a day trip to Molokini, a volcanic crater 3 miles off of Maui, to experience an otherworldly high of seeing 150 feet ahead of you through impossibly clear water.
In addition to the visibility, Molokini delivers more of the big animals than any other location. Out here, what’s known as pelagic life, aka deeper water species, swoop by to cruise and feed. This means a likelihood of sighting eagle rays and manta rays, plus more green sea turtles.
Plus, because most snorkeling is done inside the crater, you can expect calm conditions. The crescent of Molokini faces south, with its backside blocking any waves, making for flat, calm conditions nearly every day.
Manele Bay, Lanai
Locals love Lanai, a 45-minute boat ride from Maui, for its pristine reefs, and for the fact that it’s not nearly as crowded as Molokini. Plus, the island itself is much larger than Molokini, allowing each boat more privacy.
Tourists love Lanai for the almost sure-thing encounters with three local pods of spinner dolphins, spotted most often from the boat while leaving harbor and while underway.
At Manele Bay, the health of the reefs, as well as the numbers of surgeonfish, butterflyfish and other schooling species surprise most first-timers — enough to inspire them to be return guests just as soon as possible.