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Kealakekua Bay Snorkeling: Captain Cook Boat Tour

Kealakekua Bay snorkeling tour

Located near Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii, Kealakekua Bay offers an amazing snorkeling experience that’s hard to beat. Kealakekua Bay snorkeling is often advertised as an excursion to swim with dolphins.

You can see tropical fish, Hawaiian green sea turtles, Hawaiian Spinner dolphins, and humpback whales if the conditions are right.

The Big Island has a dry and wet side. Hilo has a wet tropical climate with up to ten feet of annual rainfall. In comparison, Kona has hot, dry weather and some of the best snorkeling spots on the island.

So, if you love watersports and are looking for a fantastic experience, book the Kealakekua Bay snorkel tour during your vacation. Sometimes, this tour is sold as a ‘snorkel with dolphins’ excursion as you can often see spinner and bottlenose dolphins.

Kealakekua Bay is a historical location and the place where Captain Cook first landed in Hawaii. During your tour, you’ll see the monument on land, so that’s why some operators sell it as a ‘Captain Cook Snorkel Tour.’

If you’re arriving on the Big Island by cruise ship, this excursion in Kona only takes a few hours, allowing you time to explore the town. 

If you’re visiting Kona for two days, consider booking the night snorkel with the giant manta rays, a bucket list adventure we enjoyed on another sailing trip.

Booking A Kealakekua Bay Snorkeling Tour

Depending on who you book with, the boat tours depart from Napoopoo Pier, Kailua-Kona Pier, Honokohau Harbor, or Keauhou Bay. These excursions last 2-1/2 to 4 hours.

Snorkeling at Kealakekua Bay, watching dolphins and the Captain Cook Monument in Hawai
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An afternoon tour usually experiences choppier water, so if you’re not a strong swimmer, choose a morning tour instead. Mornings allow you to avoid the heat and the crowds.

My excursion was three and a half hours long, of which I spent about one and a half hours in the water. Afterward, the boat ride back included sea caves and sightseeing along the beautiful coast of Kona.

I needed to wear a bathing suit under my shorts and T-shirt for this excursion. I also carried a small waterproof backpack with a microfiber towel and bottled water. 

For photography, I had a regular DSLR camera for shots during the boat tour and a GoPro for capturing underwater images.

Since Hawaii has banned sunscreen containing the coral-harming chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate, I needed a reef-safe sunscreen. It’s important to note it’s scorching in Hawaii, and water washes away that sunscreen pretty fast. 

So, I also use a Rashguard t-shirt whenever I snorkel to prevent burns on my shoulders and areas that bob out of the water. Rashguard clothing is terrific at preventing burns and costs very little money.

Sightseeing along the Kona shoreline
Sightseeing along the Kona shoreline

Getting To Kealakekua Bay

The boat ride was exhilarating, and I enjoyed the rugged Kona coastline’s views. I was thrilled to spot a giant hawksbill turtle en route to the snorkeling spot.

Unfortunately, the turtle didn’t feel the same about us, even though we were a long distance away. Upon seeing our boat, it darted beneath the water and disappeared quickly.

Arriving at our snorkel spot, I was happy to see the cove was relatively sheltered and the waters reasonably calm. Although Kona snorkel tours are a popular activity, there were few boats in the area, and another group enjoyed a kayak tour.

A strenuous hike is available to access the beach if you’re adventurous and prefer not to book an excursion. But, the trail is steep, overgrown, and best attempted by an experienced hiker.

While the walk down can take 45 mins to an hour, the hike back is much longer due to the incline trail. Once you arrive at the ocean, water access is very challenging without scraping yourself on the rocks.

Captain Cook Monument

The Captain Cook Monument overlooks the bay and marks the spot where he lost his life in 1779. Cook was a British explorer who discovered the Hawaiian Islands in January 1779.

Captain Cook Monument near Kona, Hawaii
Captain Cook Monument

The native people initially welcomed Cook by feeding him and his crew and furnishing them with gifts. A few weeks later, tensions arose, with Cook firing the first shot at the Hawaiian people. This event resulted in his death aboard his ship a few days later.

In 1874, the locals erected a monument in the approximate location of Captain James Cook’s death. The white 27-foot spire is a striking contrast against the lush green landscape.

During the Captain Cook snorkeling tour, I could not access the land and only viewed the monument from my vessel.

Kealakekua Bay Snorkel Experience

During the boat ride, staff gave me snorkel gear consisting of a mask, fins, and a snorkel. Alternatively, you can bring your own equipment. The crew gave snorkeling tips and instructions to those relatively new to snorkeling or feeling a bit nervous.

Kealakekua Bay is a marine sanctuary with over 300 acres of pristine waters, coral gardens, and numerous tropical fish species. The Marine Life Conservation District is the perfect place for beginner snorkels in Hawaii.

Yellow tangs
Yellow tangs

While I have snorkeled many times, I always prefer to swim in waters where I’m not battling a strong current. Since I would be in the water for over an hour, I took a complimentary pool noodle, which allowed me to relax and bob in the calm waters.

Each Hawaiian Island has plenty of great snorkeling places, from Oahu’s Hanauma Bay to Maui’s Molokini Crater. But on the Big Island, the snorkeling hot spot is Kealakekua Bay.

At first glance, Kealakekua Bay didn’t look like an excellent place to snorkel. However, once I put my face under the crystal clear waters, the underwater world appeared before my eyes, like turning on a light bulb.

I snorkeled near the Captain Cook monument, and the water there was incredibly clear. The extensive coral reef wasn’t as colorful as those I had seen in the Caribbean, but they were certainly alive and teeming with life.

Swimming along the edge of the coral, I spotted butterflyfish, yellow tangs, angelfish, and tons of urchins. The reef drops off quickly, but snorkeling in the shallows provides the best place to view the fish.

Snorkeling With Spinner Dolphins

Watching dolphins from a zodiac
Watching dolphins from a zodiac

During my snorkel, pods of spinner dolphins joined us in Kealakekua Bay. I couldn’t contain my excitement, as this is what I came to see. As instructed, we kept our distance from the dolphins and allowed them to play in their natural habitat.

As the name suggests, spinner dolphins leap out of the ocean and spin in the air. It’s a marine version of a pirouette, and quite a treat to watch the acrobatic displays of playfulness.

As I was getting out of the water, a group of kayakers also showed up to enjoy the aerial ballet.

A snorkeler harassing the dolphins
A snorkeler harassing the dolphins

Out of nowhere, a single swimmer with large flippers began chasing the dolphins. My boat crew knew her by name and said she was a local.

I watched in disgust as she continued to harass these marine mammals for the entire time they were in the bay.

This act was certainly not what I expected from a local and not a good example to show travelers to Hawaii. As soon as the dolphins vanished, she also disappeared.

Ride Back To the Harbor

Sea caves on the Kona coast
Kealakekua Bay snorkeling excursion includes viewing some sea caves

While the outgoing boat ride was fast, the trip back to the harbor was much more leisurely. It gave me time to dry off and have a much-needed snack.

My particular excursion included soft drinks, juice, bottled water, snacks, and fresh fruit (pineapple and oranges). Some of the longer tours on larger catamarans include a lunch. However, you’ll be paying a much higher price.

During the cruise back, the captain maneuvered the vessel closer to the shore to view some exciting sea caves formed by old lava flows. The water was so clear in one area that I could see the bright yellow tangs against the ocean floor’s sandy bottom.

Head of a Hawaiian green sea turtle just above the water
Head of a Hawaiian green sea turtle

We also spotted a Hawaiian green sea turtle that surfaced briefly near our zodiac boat.

Arriving back at the harbor, I was thrilled to complete this anticipated excursion, which I intend to do again. Kealakekua Bay tours are a must for anyone visiting Kona, Hawaii. Maybe next time, I’ll go kayaking to Kealakekua Bay.

If you decide not to take a snorkel tour to see Captain Cooks Monument, head to Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park instead. Here, you can enjoy views across the water and see the monument from a distance. 

The parking is limited and the small beach is unsuitable for swimming. However, you’ll find a sacred site with informational plaques which provide a great read.

Happy travels ~ Karen

Watching dolpins at Kealakekua Bay, yellow tang fish and the Captain Cook Monument