Honolua is one of the first places snorkel rental shops and guides will send people looking for great snorkeling on Maui too. Along with Mile Marker 14 and Black Rock in Kaanapali, Honolua Bay is the number one spot. Often poorly kept secrets like this have a habit of the Reality not living up to the hype. We often hear tales of people gravely disappointed having made long a drive to snorkel in muddy water with no fish from a rocky beach with a poor ocean entry.
So why do so many experts send tourists here claiming that Honolua is the Best snorkeling spot on Maui when so many come away dejected, While others tell tales of crystal clear water, abundant Coral, and Amazing Sealife? Simply put Honolua Bay Snorkelling is hugely variable. Some days this bay is like nowhere on earth the water is pancake flat and an incredible deep azure with extensive reef and packed with fish, the next day, the surfs up and the water has turned a muddy brown and is unswimmable!
We take a look at changing moods of the bay in this article to see if you should make the trip up to Honolua, if the bay is worth Snorkelling, and how to get the best out of Honolua? Find out here if Honolua Bay really is the best Snorkelling spot on Maui or just hype.
- About – A Snorkel Spot in a Protected bay with calm clear waters and tons of fish and marine life.
- Mile Marker – HighMile Marker 16 (+0.7)
- Location – West Maui – Mile Marker 32.5 – Hwy 30
- Facilities – Porta Potties
- Cost – Free
- Highlights – Crystal cleat Water, Amazing Sealife, and Coral. Protected waters.
Honolua Bay is a Marine Life Conservation District and the only one on the Island*. This means all marine life AND the habitat is protected. So No Fishing, No collection/removal of materials such as Shells, sand, or Corals. The DLNR state the following as Prohibited activities:
To fish for, take or injure any marine life (including eggs), or possess in the water any device that may be used for the taking of marine life, except as indicated in permitted activities above.
To take or alter any sand, coral, or other geological feature or specimen, or possess in the water any device that may be used for that purpose.Hawaii.gov
These restrictions allow Marine life to flourish. Unaffected by man’s activity. The abundance of life is pretty spectacular as a result. While sea life is abundant and flourishing all across Maui County, only a few locations have such a fantastic concentration of fish in such a small location.
*Molokini and two bays over on Lanai are both MLCD’s within Maui county but not actually on Maui
The bay is lined by a small beach that is almost completely made of large and uncomfortable rock. While the tree lines shore has a fantastic lost world feel to it, time spent on the beach is far less relaxing than the golden sandy shores found elsewhere. As you can see from our Photo above the bay is stunningly beautiful from the lookouts above but the only real reason to head here is the Snorkelling.
How to find Honolua Bay
Honolua is located at the far end of West Maui, Take Highway 30 along the coast, past Lahaina, past, Kaanapali, Napili, and Kapalua. As you leave the resort areas behind the road begins to narrow and become a smaller one-lane highway and denser tree cover begins to close in. Around Mile Marker 32 (or where that should be), you pass Slaugterhuse bay on your left, immediately afterward you should see Honolua Bay Overlook. Stop here for views of the bay buy no access.
Keep going and you should pass Mile Marker 32.5 and then you will start to see pullouts along the highway. If the weather is nice and the conditions good, these pullouts will be chocker. Look for space, or if everything is full ou may have to keep circling until one frees up, turnover is pretty high. What you mustn’t do is park anywhere along the highway or marked private. Parking fines and Tow-aways will be the result, the area is actively enforced!
There are two trails leading to the beach, both run through some wonderful jungle filled with dense green foliage and a family of semi-wild chickens. Take your time along these really short trails to soak in the setting, it is not often you get to experience a jungle landscape this dense and rich.
Follow either trail until they converge. There is a short stream crossing and the state of the stream is likely to dictate the conditions in the bay.
Honolua Bay’s changing conditions
Honolua’s conditions are largely controlled by two factors. The size and direction of the Swell and the amount of rainfall inland. The weather can be stunning where you are with blistering sun and light breezes, but the bay can be a churning mess of brown frothy water!
Most of the time the large Kamane Head provides shelter from the big ocean swells, along with the protection provided by Molokai across the channel. This makes Honolua calm, still, and swimming pool-like, most of the time. However, when the wind hits from just the right angle, the bay is open to swells generated on 3000miles of open ocean. On these days the reef makes for an exciting surf break and surfers flock here but forget about snorkeling.
Likewise, heavy rain up in the hills brings large amounts of silt down from the hills and this really muddies up the water. At times of heavy rain, the bay is basically unfit for snorkeling. The Visibility is near zero and in fact, it becomes a safety issue. The freshwater flooding in can easily host parasites and harmful bacteria and the murky water is the perfect hunting ground for sharks!
These risks may be minimal, but as there is nothing to see and the whole experience of snorkeling blind in muddy stream water is pretty unpleasant the best course of action is to stay dry and try somewhere else.
That said the stream runs almost constantly even in dry periods and this adversely affects the water quality nearly year-round. However, when the stream is a trickle the effect is only really concentrated on the nearshore. swim out past the murk to the shimmering coral beds out along the rocky shoreline to the right and things often Perk right up. When the stream is more in flood it spells bad news for the snorkeling.
What to do when it is bad?
The best way to decide if it’s worth a dip is to check the water quality from the headlands. Either the first overlook you pass or head on up Lipoa head to the second overlook. If the water is looking murky, it really is best to pass. There will certainly be others around and many may have chanced it, so ask any snorkelers leaving the water what it was like, we love talking about our hobby, so we happily pass on what we have (or haven’t) seen.
If you are determined to try it, then the further out you go the better your chance of good conditions. But stick to the shoreline. Follow the right-hand coastline out along the coral beds. If it’s murky, stay in shallow water as swimming in deep, colored water is a great way to find a hungry shark. Eventually, you get to the second reef area and this is more often than not clear, this is where the Catermarans unload their clients and is normally only ruined by surf, not the stream. Be warned though it can be a good 300m surface swim to get to these clear waters…and you need to do that back as well!
The best bet if the bay is rough or looking silted up is just try elsewhere. The best thing about Maui’s snorkeling is there are tons of great sites all over the island. Read our full list of sites here.
If you arrive at Honolua and the water is either murky then your first point of call is next door at Slaughterhouse Beach. On the whole, Slaughterhouse beach is not as impressive as Honolua, the coral is more sparse and not as healthy and there are fewer fish and turtles. However, it is completely unaffected by the Honolua stream. So while Honolua can be a large muddy pond, Slaughterhouse is crystal clear.
However, if the problem with Honolua is the surf then Slaughterhouse will probably be equally affected, the swells that destroy conditions at Honolua wreak similar havoc at Slaughterhouse. In this case, you need to look further afield.
Napili Bay is a favorite of ours, and only 5-10 mins from Honolua, Black Rock always offers good conditions and the 3 Kamaole beaches are hard to beat in South Maui!
Snorkeling Honolua Bay when it is good!
You may be thinking, at this point, that Honolua is not worth the risk. Especially if you are staying in South Maui…is it really worth a 1 hour plus trek all the way up here if the snorkeling is poor? Well, here is the thing, when it’s good it’s spectacular!
There really is nowhere this good on the Main island of Maui. Other spots all have their upsides, the sheer extent of the marine life at Honolua is unbeaten. There are spots over on Lanai and Molokai that are remote and wild that can match it, and Molokini is also right up there, but for spots on the Island nothing can touch Honolua. Even the no longer accessible Aquarium and Fishbowl were not as good as Honolua (who knows maybe now they are closed off they are even better?).
The weird contrast here is the water, when unaffected by the stream in incredibly clear, more so than practically anywhere on the island. Away from any agricultural runoff and with no sandy beach to churn it up the water can take on a real clarity. As you can see in our drone footage and snorkel video! Conditions are also really benign. We have never detected any sort of current and you really can float about in safe shallow water just enjoying the underwater spectacle…assuming the surf is not up of course.
How to Snorkel the Bay
The bay is made up of different parts.
Nearshore – When conditions are poor, avoid. When conditions are moderate, Avoid. When conditions are perfect, Avoid. Everyone has to snorkel here as this is the entry point, but even on good days, it is rubbish. Keep your head down and push through to the better water ahead. Definitely don’t judge the bay on these early waters.
Right-hand side reef system – This is the main snorkeling area of the bay. You can see in the overhead shot this is where the clear water and extensive reef network sit. These calm protected shallow waters get sun all day long and that if perfect coral growing conditions. Where ever you find healthy coral you find an intricate ecosystem living alongside. You can spend your entire snorkel exploring here and you will get the best of the bay.
Central Channel – In the middle of the bay the water deepens off and a sandy bottom forms. This is handy for the sailboats and catamarans that moor up to unload their passenger direct to the best snorkeling. When a boat is in expect the right-hand reef to be busy!
The central channel is not to be ignored. We have seen incredible things here. The problem with blue water is (apart from being deep and scary) it is all or nothing. If you check out the deepwater it will either be empty and devoid of life or there will be something incredible!
Left-hand Side Reef system – Over on the left-hand side of the bay things are very different. The dividing line of the two bays is much steeper than the right-hand side and there is more of a wall. This makes for really exhilarating snorkeling as you are much more exposed o the ocean. Beginners should stick to the right. There is less to sea and the deeper water means much less coral growth.
Surf Break – Even in light swell days, there is normally some kind of break here. Often nowhere near enough to surf, but enough to ruin snorkeling. There is little to sea out here as the ocean smashed up any coral and it’s a long swim into remote and exposed waters, we don’t snorkel here.
What will we see?
Again what you will see depends on the area you snorkel. We shall ignore the nearshore, there is little to see even if the clarity is good enough. Out on the right-hand side reef system, the main inhabitants are the regular Reef fish of Hawaii. There are tangs, butterflyfish, triggerfish, parrotfish, Bluestripe Snapper, Wrasse, Unicornfish, Pacific Chub, and of course the Humuhumunukunukuapuaa. On top of this, there are the rarer creatures such as day octopus, Banded Coral Shrimp, and even Spiney Lobsters who are all safe from human collection!
It is not really what you can see here more the fact that the usual suspects are all here in abundance and large healthy mature specimens call the shallow reef home. This is the type of reef where everywhere you turn your head something else catches your eye!
Heading to the deep Central channel is where things can get exciting. We don’t really suggest swimming out into the channel, but exploring the drop-off at the edge of the reef can provide some real feature sightings. The sandy bottom will be home to yellow goatfish and the mid-water is often home to large schools of ‘Opela or other baitfish. These are not here by accident but are often driven in by pelagic hunters.
The bay is a rare chance to see these hunters in action, schooling baitfish, and hitting prey. It really can be like a live-action nature documentary! The first time we witnessed it was really staggering, and we thought we had seen everything! Large Amberjack, Trevally, and other predators prowling the waters picking off prey.
You may also see the big rays, Eagle Rays, and Manta Rays all prowl these waters. Early morning can provide dolphin sightings, but usually, they are too far out to approach snorkelers (you are better spotting them from the headlands). Really in the deeper water expect anything, there is the possibility of big sharks but we have never seen them and if the water is clear they will not be hunting humans.
Over on the left-hand side of the bay, the wall produces much fewer fish. In fact, apart from the fun open ocean aspect, it is not great snorkeling over here. There are however a lot of Turtles. You will see turtles anywhere in the Bay, and lots of them, but they are particularly prevalent over this side.
Conditions in Honolua are particularly benign and there are few special considerations over and above the usual snorkeling safety tips. The entry is rocky, but the worst you will get is a stubbed toe or a little fall, there is really any kind of shore break at all.
You obviously have to be careful of murky water and powerful surf at times but we have already highlighted that. Good snorkeling is a fair way out so make sure you have enough in the tank to make it back. And if heading out past headlands the benign conditions can run out and currents start to run along the coast.
Also, remember this is a Marine Life Conservation District so the NO TAKE rules apply to you. Put those shells back, and no Spearfishing!
Honolua Bay Snorkelling Trips
We mentioned a few times that catamarans and sailing boats frequent the bay, delivering snorkelers right to the best reefs. If the idea of a gentle ocean cruise, sipping cocktails, and being delivered right to the reef sounds more like your cup of tea than rocky beaches, stubbed toes, and long swims through muddy waters, then consider one of these cruises.
These are some of the most relaxed and romantic cruises on the island and a far cry from the cattle class trip to Molokini!
Have Your Say
Have you been to Honolua? How was it on your trip? Were the waters clear and calm or muddy and wild? f you did get to snorkel what did you get to see? The usual suspects or something a little more special? Let us know in the comments below and if you have any questions feel free to fire away.