It was our last day on the Big Island, and by the end, we’d be on a plane flying over the Pacific with salt in our hair and sand in our underwear. We had almost a full day before our evening flight, so we wanted to make the most of it. I had my heart set on snorkeling Kealakekua Bay, a protected reef that was sanctuary to hundreds of different fish, plus turtles, dolphins, and other sea creatures.
There are essentially three ways to get to the reef in Kealakekua Bay (and a fourth way out, as we would later learn): You can hike, kayak, or take a big boat tour. The hike is one hour down a steep cliff with no shade (and you have to hike two hours back up to get out). The big boat tours sounded too crowded and impersonal to us. Kayaking was the most appealing option, with an easy 20 minute paddle across the bay and plenty of time to snorkel. Since the reef is protected, you need a permit to kayak or take a boat into the area, which means you have to go with an approved guide.
We checked out our options the night before and Hawaii Pack and Paddle sounded the best, but their regular tours ran from 8:30-1:00. That would put us in a bit of a time crunch due to our noon hotel checkout time. I called their office, not expecting much luck, but when they heard of our time restrictions, they immediately designed a personal tour that fit our schedule perfectly. I was so surprised and impressed by their dedication, especially since there were only four of us, less than their normal group size. The price was very reasonable, too. We paid $95/person for four hours when they normally charge $125/person for 4.5 hours in their standard group tours. We didn’t get lunch included but that was fine with us! (Note: Call Hawaii Pack & Paddle directly, don’t book through your hotel. Our hotel quoted us a much higher price than what HP&P quoted directly).
Snorkeling Kealakekua Bay
We met at the Hawaii Pack & Paddle office at 7am on our last day and got a quick introduction to kayaking and the different species of marine life we would be seeing. Bari, one of the guides, told us which sea urchins we needed to worry about and which ones we didn’t, which was great! I had always thought all sea urchins were poisonous and when I learned that the really common pink ones were relatively harmless, I felt much more comfortable snorkeling so close to them.
We then drove to the boat launch at Kealakekua Bay and met Kaipo, our guide, who would be kayaking and snorkeling alongside us. He looked like he was about 16 but was probably 18 or 19, and was a great guide who clearly knew his stuff! He helped us get the kayaks in the water and sent us out into the bay. We paddled toward the other side of Kealakekua Bay, aiming for the Captain Cook monument at the opposite shoreline. As we paddled, Kaipo pointed out the small caves in the cliff wall where the Hawaiians used to hide the bones of their royalty. I kept my eyes peeled for spinner dolphins, which are common in the bay, but didn’t see any. As we neared Captain Cook’s monument, I thought about the messy history that took place on that shoreline. Cook and his sailors had landed here in 1779, and although they were received well at first, they eventually outwore their welcome. This led to a gruesome fight between the sailors and the Hawaiians, and eventually Captain Cook’s death. Don’t feel too bad for him though, he wasn’t so innocent.
When we got to the reef, we didn’t pull the kayaks ashore, but instead just tied the kayaks together and plopped into the crystal clear water. Snorkeling in Kealakekua Bay was like diving into a magical underwater wonderland. Rather than snorkeling above it all, and viewing the sea life from a distance, we were completely immersed in it. The fish were less afraid, and they came out from their hiding places in the coral to swim all around us. Schools of yellow tang flit playfully nearby. I’m normally uncomfortable diving with my snorkel because I’m afraid I’ll inhale water when I surface, but here I couldn’t stop myself from diving and following the fish, exploring the nooks and crannies of the coral. The visibility here was fantastic, with perfectly clear water and the sun was shining the entire time. I’ve heard it is almost always sunny here, which makes for great light underwater. We saw so many fish that we hadn’t seen before and all of our usual favorites too. There were yellow tang, parrot fish, box fish, humuhumunukunukuapua’as, trumpet fish, puffers, eels, even an octopus! But my favorites were all the different types of butterfly fish.
We explored the entire reef making our way from the monument along the cost all the way to the underwater sea arch lava formation, where we saw lots of unique and rare fish including some nocturnal species that Kaipo spotted for us. It was great to have him snorkeling with us because he would dive down and point out many fish that we might not have seen ourselves. I felt so at home in the water here and loved exploring the reef and sea life. Writing this makes me want to be back there so badly!
While we were snorkeling, I heard a shuddering noise and the fish around me scattered and hid. Uh oh… I thought to myself. I lifted my face out of the water and looked up to see a helicopter trying to land on a rocky outcrop near us. There wasn’t a flat place for it to land, and the helicopter took its time getting the landing just right, balancing precariously on the jagged rocks. We watched two people jump down and run ashore, disappearing into the trees. After a few minutes, they were back, carrying someone with them. “Probably a broken ankle,” Kaipo said through his snorkel. He said it was common for people to turn their ankle or trip and fall on the trail down the cliff. The rescue team lifted the injured hiker aboard the helicopter and took off, revealing the fourth and final way out of Kealakekua Bay. We were glad we kayaked.
We finished snorkeling the reef with a few minutes to spare before it was time to kayak back to the boat launch so we climbed into our kayaks and had a quick snack. Kaipo had brought dried mangos and rice krispy treats to share, which really hit the spot after a couple hours of snorkeling. We snacked and passed the bag of mangos between our kayaks as we floating on the sparkling water above the reef. I couldn’t think of a better picnic spot.
The paddle back across the bay was warm and refreshing. I hadn’t done much ocean kayaking before, but this was a piece of cake compared to some of the windy lakes I’ve had to cross in a canoe up in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota. If you’re at all worried about being able to kayak across the bay, don’t be. You can do it.
We drove back to our hotel and checked out, then returned our snorkel gear at Snorkel Bob’s. With an entire afternoon to kill, we couldn’t help ourselves and we rented a boogie board for the day. We knew where we were going to go: Kua Bay. After a delicious lunch at Pine Tree Café, we were ready for some waves!
If you didn’t read my last post about Kua Bay, the best beach on the Big Island, go check it out now. Done? Ok, good. So naturally, we were back at Kua Bay for our last Big Island romp in the waves. Needless to say, it was awesome again, and we had a blast playing in the surf, trying to stay on the boogie board, and soaking up some sun.
Here is a sweet video by Kyle Watai that shows just how fun these Kua Bay waves are:
Video credit: Kyle Watai
As the afternoon wore on, the waves got bigger and more powerful, and one by one we traded the water and waves for the sun and sand. Garren was the last to get out, as he was having too much fun on the boogie board, riding the waves. It took one incredibly powerful wave that sent him face first into the sandy ocean floor to get him out of the water. As he walked up the beach I looked him over, and saw he had some pretty epic sand-rash and the beginnings of a black eye, thanks to the wave that forced his face into the sand. Glad he was otherwise OK, we went to the showers to clean him up.
We all rinsed off, trying to get the salt off our bodies and the sand out of our suits, but it was a losing battle. The Big Island had left its mark on all of us… some more than others.
This marks the end of my Big Island adventures (for now!) and I hope that you enjoyed them! If you did, please share with your friends. If you want more, you can subscribe to the Breadcrumbs Guide mailing list or follow me on Facebook and Twitter! Soon I’ll be posting my suggested Big Island Itinerary with my recommended sites and how you can best fit them into your trip.
Been to the Big Island? What mark did it leave on you?