Tucked away south of Kailua-Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii sits dramatic Kealakekua Bay. With tall cliffs surrounding the majority of the Bay, the view from sea level promises to not disappoint. Kealakekua Bay is best know for its Captain Cook monument, only accessible by boat or foot, and the incredible Kealakekua Bay snorkeling that surrounds it.
Kealakekua Bay-Background Info
For better or worse, the arrival of European explorer Captain James Cook to the Hawaiian Islands in 1778 forever changed the fate of this region and the native Hawaiian people. The Captain Cook Monument sits where the explorer met his fate in 1779, on a peninsula of land sprawling from the base of the cliffs. The Monument, access trail, and surrounding area are part of the Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park.
The Kealakekua Bay Marine Life Conservation District oversees and preserves the fragile marine resources of the Kealakekua Bay. With the growing popularity of Kealakekua Bay snorkeling, regulations were recently added reducing the numbers of kayaks on the bay to aid in preservation efforts.
While the view of the towering cliffs is a gorgeous sight, most visitors to the Bay aim to visit the Captain Cook Monument The monument sits on a small, flat peninsula with Kealakekya Bay snorkeling being some of the best on the Kona side of the Big Island. Access to the monument is only by foot (steep hiking trail) or by sea (ocean kayak or tour boat).
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Kealakekua Bay Snorkeling
Despite the lack of direct access to the Captain Cook Monument, the number of tour boats during the busy time of the year are a clear indication of the popularity of snorkeling in Kealakekua Bay. To avoid the crowds as much as possible, plan for your Kealakekua Bay snorkeling excursion as early in the morning as possible.
An added bonus to your early morning departure are the Kealakekua Bay dolphin sightings! See more below on experiencing the Spinner Dolphins Kealakekua Bay.
Kealakekua snorkeling is really some of the best on the Kona side of the Big Island. Yellow Tang reef fish are everywhere, in some of the largest schools we’ve seen, with colorful Parrotfish darting in and out. The coral creates a short reef flat, and then an abrupt drop off. So there are both shallow water snorkeling and free diving alternatives to satisfy most snorkelers.
Captain Cook Snorkeling
Kealakekua Bay is adjacent to the town of Captain Cook, and the best snorkeling in the bay is surrounding the Captain Cook monument. So if you hear of the fabulous Captain Cook snorkeling, navigate to Kealakekua Bay!
Kealakekua Bay Kayak
We first kayaked Kealakekua Bay back in 2000 when there were virtually no restrictions on launch sites, etc. A lot has changed in recent years, mostly due to the high volume of visitors degrading the natural resources. There are now a limited number of permitted kayak rental companies allowed at the Bay, all of which are launching further down to the coast from the Captain Cook Monument than in years past.
If you are not comfortable navigating a kayak across the mouth of the bay in possibly rough waters, don’t choose this option! But if you are experienced in open ocean kayaking, a kayak rental is our hands down best choice to explore Kealakekua Bay.
How to get there: hiking, kayaking, or tour boat
Access to the monument and its surrounding Kealakekua Bay snorkeling is only via one trail, or by the ocean. You can choose to book a boat tour out to the monument, or for the most adventurous, rent a kayak.
Captain Cook Monument Trail
The Captain Cook Monument hike, or the Ka’awaloa Trail, is considered “difficult” and “overgrown” by Alltrails. Sadly we weren’t able to carve the time out to hike down to the Monument, but it’s on our list for our next Big Island adventure. If you tackle the trail, be prepared for steep terrain and sunny conditions for the 2 miles (one-way) of trail, with no facilities until you are back to the top.
- Drive South from Kailua-Kona on Hawaii Belt Rd. Access to the trail is in the town of Captain Cook, 30 minutes south of Kailua-Kona.
- Google Maps does have a Pin for the trail head and when maintained, a sign is visible.
Kayak Rental Kealakekua Bay
- Driving South from Kailua-Kona on Hawaii Belt Rd. like above, access to the Bay is via Route 160. Follow the windy route 160 down to the bay and your chosen kayak rental site (it seems they all have pins on Google Maps).
As stated above, recent regulations require Kealakekua Bay kayak rentals to be from permitted companies, and launch outside the main area of the Bay. From the launch area, we paddled directly across the mouth of the Bay to the Captain Cook Monument, taking about 30 minutes
We rented from Ehu and Kai Adventures for $64/double kayak (or $45/single) which includes life jackets and paddles.
Kona Boys is another Kealakekua Bay kayak rental, with prices slightly higher at $54/single kayak and $74/double kayak. Kona Boys also offers weekly rental rates.
Once at the Monument, your kayak needs to stay on the water, and not get drug on/tied up to land. Our rental provided a strap to tow your kayak behind you while snorkeling, but we felt there were far too many snorkelers in the water.
We chose to take turns snorkeling, and rafted up our two double kayaks and kept out of the way of other snorkelers. Keep this in mind for trip planning, and leave early in the morning if possible to avoid the crowds!
Boat Tours to the Captain Cook Monument
If you’re not up for kayaking or hiking to the Kealakekua Bay snorkeling, then book a morning on a boat tour out to the Monument. We don’t have any personal experience or recommendations for tour companies, but they seemed plentiful once we were out snorkeling! Boat tours depart from Kailua-Kona for half day trips.
Kealakekua Bay Dolphins
Another reason to plan your trip to Kealakekua Bay is for sightings of the Hawaiian Spinner dolphins who swim into the bay most mornings. Everyone loves dolphins, and when they swim right alongside your kayak it is truly magical!
If you choose to kayak in Kealakekua Bay, opt to hug close to the shoreline either on the way to or from the Monument, for the best chance of seeing Kealakekua Bay dolphins. If you spot dolphins, stop paddling and they might swim up close to your kayak.
For those on boat tours, it seems all of the motor boats do a tour of the bay after snorkeling. The vantage point from up in the boat is likely far better for seeing dolphins off in the distance.
Be Prepared-Essential Gear to Bring
While your trip to Kealakekua Bay is not a multi-day event, we always love to be prepared for the best experience possible! The following are a few things we packed in our kayak on our trip across the bay.
- Snorkel and Mask– I know this item is an obvious one to pack, but a word on quality of snorkels and masks, especially for kids. Upgrading to a decent set will have a direct impact on your fun snorkeling at Kealakekua. Avoid the leaky masks! We’ve outlined the best kids snorkel sets for you to choose from. If your packing is tight, you can avoid snorkel fins for this outing.
- Water Clothing– Even Hawaiian water is significantly colder than your body temp, meaning if you plan to snorkel for a while then you will get cold. Extend your time in the water with rash guards and swim booties. The rash guard doubles as sun protection! We’ve had good luck with the durability of Kanu rash guards for men, women, and children.
- Sun Block– Protect yourself while also being reef safe over the pristine corals at Kealakekua. We’ve been using SPF Rx for nearly 3 years living in the tropics and have grown to really love it. It’s not quite as thick as other reef safe options, and it really does continue to work while swimming (though we re-apply every few hours).
- Go Pro– OK, while a GoPro is not an essential item, you won’t regret having it! We hemmed and hawed for a long time before splurging on a GoPro, and can’t believe we waited! While snorkeling and kayaking with the dolphins at Kealakekua, we shot only video to capture it all, and then used the GoPro app to grab still pictures.
- Dry Bag– keep all your belongings dry and safe when you clip your dry bag inside your kayak cockpit.
Snorkeling in Kealakekua Bay
Are you ready to include snorkeling or kayaking Kealakekua Bay to your Big Island itinerary? We hope you do!
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This article was first published in August 2020, and most recently updated in November 2021.