During the long, breezy, months of summer—when tradewinds whistle through sunny blue skies and north shore beaches are calm—spending a day snorkeling at Honolua Bay is one of the best activities on Maui. In winter—a time of year when humpback whales leap powerfully off Maui’s shoreline, and mauka showers invite afternoon rainbows to the ridges above Ka‘anapali—the ability to go snorkeling at Honolua Bay isn’t always a guarantee, but that’s a point we’ll get to later after we briefly discuss her magic. After all, that’s the word that most Maui locals would use to describe Honolua Bay. Whether it’s snorkeling with sea turtles above a Technicolor reef or watching sunbeams illuminate the valley, there is a palpable magic to Honolua that hangs in her tropical air.
Located along Maui’s northwestern shoreline, Honolua Bay is the preferred destination of our Kaanapali snorkeling tours. We will frequently also visit Mokulei‘a Bay (commonly referred to as “Slaughterhouse” since there was once a slaughterhouse on the cliffs), and even though the bays are right next to each other and are part of the same conservation area, the snorkeling at Honolua and Mokulei‘a bays are completely different in their offerings.
What Will I See Snorkeling At Honolua Bay?
In a word, everything. Ok, well maybe not everything, but thanks to its size and its wide range of depths the bay is home to a diverse amount of marine life. From where we moor during our Ka‘anapali snorkeling tours, a protected section of shallow reef is only a few short kicks from the boat. This is where you’ll find reef fish grazing on the coral and yellowstriped goatfish foraging in the sand. A large school of ta‘ape congregates beneath the boat, and experienced free divers can dive 15 feet down to swim through the blue and yellow cloud..
Tracing the shoreline towards the rocky beach, the depth decreases to about 5 feet and coral is replaced by rock. Here in the shallows is where you’ll find large schools of akule or perhaps the occasional eel, as shy fish like the kupipi poke their heads from rocks in the surge zone. The middle of the bay is a sandy bottom with no marine life to speak of, so all of the action when it comes to snorkeling takes place on the bay’s rocky fringes. While first-time snorkelers will love the shallows, experienced snorkelers should follow the reef where it drops off into the sand channel. Here, along the 20-ft. ledge, turquoise parrotfish glide between coral heads, red menpachi hide beneath ledges, and massive mounds of lime green lobe coral form aquatic, underwater castles.
The real treat, however, is Honolua’s sea turtles, and the best place to find the iconic green turtles is at the “turtle cleaning station.” Since they spend the majority of their lives underwater, algae gathers on turtle’s shells and they don’t have a way to clean it. Luckily, herbivorous reef fish are none to happy to feed on the algae growing on the shells, and here at the turtle cleaning station (which isn’t all that dissimilar from an underwater car wash), turtles will sit in nooks in the coral and offer the reef fish a feast.
Visitors who are snuba diving will have the best view of the cleaning, and snorkelers can wait for the shiny clean turtle to surface for a breath of air. To find the turtle cleaning station, follow the reef where it drops towards the sand channel until a depth of 25 feet, and where the reef makes a 90° turn towards the shoreline, look down to see if there are turtles camouflaged in the reef..
How Is Mokulei‘a Different?
Despite being next to Honolua Bay, Mokulei‘a offers a completely different experience from its larger, more popular neighbor. Unlike Honolua which is protected from the tradewinds, Mokule‘ia can be more exposed to the high winds and surf. The result is a bay with more rock than coral, and Mokluei‘a has a unique underwater topography of swim-thrus, boulders, and sand channels.
The sea turtles at Mokulei‘a tend to be a bit smaller than at Honolua, and since they’re lungs haven’t reached the full size of an adult's, the result is turtles which surface more often and spend less amounts of time on the bottom.
Mokulei‘a is also home to octopus and spotted eagles rays—two species more frequently seen here than at neighboring Honolua. Though it takes a keen eye to spot these masters of camouflage, you can look for octopus along the vertical wall or in the shallow rocks towards shore. Eagle rays, on the other hand, tend to buzz the sand channel near the point that separates the bays, and while they won’t hang with snorkelers for long, these soaring, spotted—and fast—critters are mesmerizing in their grace.
What Is The Best Time Of Year For Snorkeling At Honolua Bay?
Technically, it’s possible to enjoy snorkeling at Honolua Bay during any time of year, but the clearest, calmest, and best conditions are most commonly found during summer. During the winter months of October-April, large swells can produce 20 ft. waves that come crashing through Honolua.
While this is good news to island surfers (and anyone watching the surf), the Bay can become a maelstrom of whitewater that is hazardous and poor for snorkeling. Other times, when winter rains drop much-needed water on the slopes of Mauna Kahalawai—the excess runoff from Honolua stream can greatly reduce visibility. Mokulei‘a Bay, however, doesn’t have a stream, so it sometimes can still offer beautiful snorkeling even when Honolua is murky.
If high surf creates unsafe conditions, our Ka‘anapali snorkeling tours will instead head south to Olowalu, where Hawaiian green sea turtles and healthy corals create a tropical underwater playground. While our destination of choice is always Honolua, here is a general estimate—given the time of year—that Honolua Bay will be accessible:
May 1-August 31: 90%
September 1-October 31: 75%
November 1- March 15: 40%
March 16-April 31: 60%
For more information on Maui’s weather systems, be sure to read our post “Understanding Maui’s Wind, Weather, and Waves,” and if you have any questions about our Kaanapali snorkeling tours you can leave them in the comments below.
Aloha, and we'll see you at the "The Bay!"