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Snorkeling Hawaii's west coast; clear calm water within an hour's drive of Kailua.

Snorkeling Hawaii's west coast

Clear calm water within an hour's drive of Kailua

Protected from the prevailing northeast tradewinds by 2 1/2-mile-high volcanoes, the dry west coast of Hawaii offers clear calm waters for snorkeling. Boat trips to offshore reefs are regularly scheduled by most Kona resorts and dive shops. Based on the experiences of several Sunset editors who have visited the area, we have selected 11 near-shore snorkeling locations within an hour's drive of Kailua.

Snorkeling here is enhanced by the Big Island's geologic age. Youngest of all the Hawaiian islands, it has relatively little sand along the sea floor to obscure snorkelers' views. Hundreds of black lava "finger reefs' extend into the sea, perfect for exploring.

You can go any time; the water stays between 75| and 80| year-round. In winter, the water tends to be clearer than in summer, but you run the risk of the occasional storm.

The parks and bays we show on our map above are safe for beginners but still interesting enough for experienced snorkelers. All offer relatively easy water entry, but each presents a different underwater experience.

In some, you'll swim through "sweet waters': skin-tingling submarine springs of cold, fresh water, which attract small reef fish that feed on cold-water alage. Along the northern stretch of coast on calm winter days, you may even hear the whistle-like cries of humpback whales farther out to sea. In all spots, you'll see a variety of colorful reef fish, rock-hugging marine life, and resplendent corals.

Where to rent snorkel equipment

You can rent gear at most Kona Coast hotels and dive shops; many supply underwater cameras (up to $20 per day). If you're staying in Kailua, a good place is the Beach Shack at King Kamehameha Hotel ($5 a day for fins, mask, snorkel; open 9 to 5 daily). You can also pick up a free snorkel map for the north and central coasts at Gold Coast Divers shop across the street from the Kailua pier.

For boat-snorkeling trips, ask at any hotel desk, or look in the yellow pages under Skin Diving Tours. Half-day trips average $20 including equipment, all day $35; ask also about night dives.

A few reminders for the novice snorkeler: for safety, stay a body's length from coral reefs; take along garden gloves or dive gloves ($4 in dive shops) to avoid coral cuts; and don't put your hands into underwater holes. Avoid touching most urchins, especially those that look like spiny black biscuits--they're poisonous.

If you see whitecaps anywhere along this coast or hear big surf breaking, don't go snorkeling: the occasional northwest winds that blow here during the winter are infamous for drownings and shipwrecks. Warnings should be particularly heeded the farther north you go. For a Big Island weather forecast, telephone (808) 961-5582.

Eleven snorkeling spots

Here's a south-to-north guide to the leeward coast's snorkeling spots.

Hookena. Twenty miles south of Kailua, turn west off State Highway 11 on the winding, bumpy road to Hookena Beach Park (look for the sign). Park at the beach. Enter water from the beach; find good reef snorkeling a few hundred feet offshore along the coast south to Kealia Beach.

Honaunau Bay. Mystically serene, this is the site of Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park, better known as the City of Refuge. Its calm, shallow waters (3 to 10 feet) are best entered off the county boat ramp north of the park complex; an underwater garden just offshore from the ramp harbors a variety of corals, fish, and other marine life. Keeping an eye out for boats, you can also explore the rocky ridge that leads from the ramp out to sea.

From the town of Captain Cook, take Highway 11 south 7 miles, then head north and west on Highway 160, following signs to the park; just before the parking lot, turn west on a narrow road leading to the ramp.

Kealakekua Bay. Best reached by boat (it's a 1/2-mile swim from point-of-entry Napoopoo Beach), this famous mile-long bay is the site of a 315-acre underwater park. Offshore from the Captain Cook Monument are submarine caves, boulders, sand channels, and cliffs; a massive sea cliff separates the north and south ends of the bay. Luxuriant corals abound, as do parrot fish, wrasses, damsel fish, and others.

At least a dozen snorkel boat trips explore this bay. Parking and public facilities are at Napoopoo Beach Park; follow signs from Captain Cook.

Kahaluu Bay. Guarded by the Menehune Breakwater, the popular sandy beach at Kahaluu Beach Park offers easy entry and exit for snorkelers. Novices should stay close to shore, where water is 3 to 6 feet deep; more experienced snorkelers can explore the deeper waters near the reeftopping breakwater. It's usually current-free during calm seas here, but high surf can cause ferocious riptides.

From Kailua, drive south 5 miles on Alii Drive to the park.

Kailua Bay. Enter on the north side of the Kailua pier off the white sand beach at King Kamehameha Lagoon (in front of the hotel) or by stairway and ramp just north of the Ahuena Heiau; depths range from 6 to 20 feet. Look out for boats docking and leaving the pier. Good shallow snorkeling for novices is available near the shoreline; advanced snorkelers can work their way around the point north of the lagoon.

Honokohau Bay. An old fishing village often visited by Portuguese families lies on the southern bend of this bay; a crescent-shaped sandy beach lines its length; offshore reefs provide good snorkeling in shallow to deep waters. You may find old hooks and fishing lines along the sea floor here. Beware of the boats near the harbor immediately south of the bay.

Head north 3 miles from Kailua on Highway 19 to Honokohau Harbor. Park on the north side of the harbor, and walk north through gates to the old village. Enter the water just north of the village.

Anaehoomalu Bay. One of Hawaii's most popular beach parks, Anaehoomalu has a wide, gravel-sand beach, with easy entry and clear, shallow, current-free waters. Snorkelers should stay near the rocks at the south end of the beach. This palm-fringed crescent beach, which fronts the Sheraton Royal Waikoloa Hotel, is popular for boardsailing. Coconut trees are planted inland from the beach; look also for ancient royal fishponds and petroglyphs.

From Kailua, head north 25 miles on Highway 19 (18 miles north of the Keahole airport), then turn west and go through the hotel gatehouse; parking and beach access are south of the hotel.

Puako Bay. Six miles farther on (2 miles south of Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area), a small residential community lines a shoreline rich with shell and reef fish. Colorful coral formations lie straight out from the boat ramp; there's good snorkeling both north and south of the ramp. From the turnoff to Hapuna Beach 24 miles north of Keahole airport, head southwest on dirt roads 2 miles to Puako. Park on the road that parallels the beach.

Samuel M. Spencer Beach County Park. Well protected with good facilities, Spencer beach is usually quite busy with children and local families, especially on weekends. Its gently sloping sea floor and harbor landfill to the north keep the waters calm. The rocky shoreline just south of the park and the long shallow reef offshore are good for snorkeling.

Off Highway 270 just north of Highway 19, look for signs to the park.

Lapakahi State Historical Park. Rivaling the diverse underwater topography of Kealakekua Bay, this is another marine life conservation district. A restored fishing village here sits on one of the most beautiful and tranquil of the Big Island's many bays. Clear, emerald waters allow snorkelers great views of a variety of colorful corals and reef fish, and provide access to cliffs, boulders, and caves. Twelve miles north of Spencer beach, turn west at the part sign; park in the lot and enter the water north of the village.

Mahukona Beach County Park. From 1880 to 1937, this was a railway port for several sugar plantations in the North Kohala district. Snorkelers can see wheels, cables, and other rail artifacts on the bottom of the bay. To enter, you have to climb over rocks, but the clear waters and rocky shoreline are well worth the effort.

Two miles north of Lapakahi, turn west at the sign to the park.

Photo: Underwater passage lures snorkeler exploring the shallows of Hawaii's Kailua Bay. Cloth-and-rubber diving gloves guard against coral cuts

Photo: Wind-sheltered west coast of the Big Island offers safe snorkeling

Photo: Spiny-fingered slate-pencil urchins are common along Hawaii's leeward shore; after a quick look, he put these back
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Copyright 1984 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Dec 1, 1984
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