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The Best of Big Island Shore Diving

From nudibranch hotspots to deep drops, these are the ultimate shore diving sites.
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The Best of Big Island Shore Diving

Famous for dives that deliver large megafauna from dolphins to hammerheads, Hawaii’s Big Island gives divers plenty of reasons to head offshore. But divers-in-the-know are aware of the solid shore diving options on the largest island in the Hawaiian chain, too.

“It’s definitely more of a subset of a certain kind of diver who asks about shore diving (on the Big Island),” says Byron Kay, who owns Kona Honu Divers and points to the summer months as the best time to try it, since there’s less swell in general.

Wondering what you might see? Mantas, sea turtles, big eye scad schooling by the thousands and a rainbow range of nudibranchs–and that’s just for starters.

The west side of the island offers the clearest and calmest conditions for shore dives, so that’s where you’ll find the best of the bunch. Just be sure to bring or rent thick rubber boots–and a sense of adventure, because weather conditions dictate all diving in these parts.

“Depending on where divers are going, they should have heavy duty, serious rock-crawling, thick-soled boots for lugging heavy gear across lava rocks and other hazards,” Kay says.

Puako

Humuhumunukunukuapua`a

A humuhumunukunukuapua`a, or reef trigger fish, the state fish of Hawaii.

Shutterstock.com/Oliver Luijer

There’s joy is in the journey as you drive to the dive site called Puako near Waikoloa Village on the Kohala Coast. “You drive down this really beautiful road next to the ocean, lined with gorgeous houses, and arrive at this little beach park,” Kay says. Don your dive boots to walk down rocky steps into the ocean, then step into a sandy bottom tidal pool to slip on your fins before kicking out into the channel.

The best part about diving here, Kay says, is all the chimneys, swim-throughs and tunnels that make for fascinating topography–most of which lies in between 15 and 35 feet of water. Take your time to poke around all the nooks and crannies. Peek under overhangs of mini canyons, too, to look for nudibranchs and undulating eels. And when you reach a pinnacle with a mooring on it, prepare to encounter a cast of classic Hawaiian reef fish, including long nose butterfly fish, schooling triggerfish and Hawaii’s state fish, the colorful rectangular-shaped Humuhumunukunukuapua`a. Friendly green turtles are often spotted at this site, too, Kay says, since there’s a cleaning station nearby.

Mile Marker 4

Named for its location at the fourth mile along Ali’i Drive, the main street of Kailua-Kona, Mile Marker 4 is a popular Big Island shore dive thanks to its convenient location in town and relative ease of entry (when conditions are calm). The reef hugging the shoreline at depths of between 30 and 40 feet means you can make the most of lots of bottom time while spotting cool creatures such as freckled snake eels and spotted eagle rays. Satellite reefs at this site (similar to bommies but less pronounced, and surrounded by patches of sand) are a good place to see razor wrasse and scout for sleeping green turtles, in addition to a healthy abundance of other typical Hawaiian reef fish. The entry to the water here is pebbly, so be sure to bring your boots, especially if you have sensitive feet.

Old Airport

Often just called “Old A’s” by locals, this site was named for the location of Kona’s original airport that stopped operating in the 1970s. You’ll want boots again here for a semi-tricky entry, with slippery algae among the potential hazards. Once in the water, kick out a few hundred feet, Kay says, to reach a nice little drop off where you can often get pelagics coming in–among them tuna, mantas and lots of spotted eagle rays.

The reef stays fairly well protected from northwest swells, too, so it can be good to dive during the winter months here, too. Any place you see structure is a good spot to look for gold-lace nudibranchs (among many other varieties). And octopus are often seen in the boulders–look for rubble around for a hint to where they might be. “Most of the good stuff here is in 50 feet of water or less,” Kay says. And this site has the added bonus of nice facilities–including restrooms, picnic tables and showers where you can rinse off post-dive.

Nudi Madness

Gloomy nudi

A gloomy nudibranch, one of the many that can be spotted diving Kawaihae Harbor.

Shutterstock.com/Gerald Robert Fischer

An easy beach entry on the northern end of Kawaihae Harbor puts you in roughly 20 feet of water for some top-notch nudibranch-spotting conditions, as this site’s name would imply. Visibility isn’t always great, Kay warns, but when you’re looking for nudibranchs you’re going for an up-close view anyway.

The stirred-up conditions can make navigating tricky, “but if you get in trouble just pop up,” he says, since you’re only in about 20 feet of water. The upside, of course, is nudibranchs everywhere. “More than you can count,” Kay says, suggesting to keep an eye out for the gloomy nudibranch (Tambja Morosa)–a black and blue specimen that can grow around two inches long. He’s also seen conger eel, dolphins and frog fish at this site, in addition to octopus. “On almost every dive in Kona you’ll see an octopus,” Kay says.

Kailua Pier

This popular dive at the pier right in town in Kailua-Kona is the starting point for the Ironman World Championship, during which divers can get a pretty fascinating view of the action on the surface. Even when it’s not race day, though, finding a parking spot might be your biggest challenge with the site.

Once you’ve ditched the car, walk out to the pier area on the northern end of the bay and step down a few steps onto the sand, where you can enter the water to dive (keep to the left, in the swimming lane, as you fin out). Along the sandy bottom, look for schools of pulani (giant surgeonfish), crabs, goat fish and urchin-chomping Triton’s Trumpets–enormous sea snails with a gorgeous shell that can be blown to make a sound like a trumpeting wind instrument.

The most exciting encounter to have at this dive site, when you can find them, are run-ins with enormous schools Akule, a type of of bigeye scad aggregates tightly by the thousands. They might encircle you in a massive baitball, if you’re lucky. “It can form a donut around you,” says Kay. “Then snappers come through attacking the schools. The schools react very quickly, flashing and moving with the predators.” The result? Pure wonder.

Two Step

School rainbow runners

Rainbow runners schooling.

Shutterstock.com/sergeuwphoto

This extremely well-protected shore diving site near Pu’uhonua O’Honaunau, or Place of Refuge, is only rendered un-diveable when there’s a massive or direct swell hitting it. As a result, Two Step tends to draw shore divers year round as well as snorkelers, as it’s also one of the best sites to just float on water’s surface with a view.

“Getting in and out is easy–it’s two steps, like the name,” says Kay. But the site itself almost feels like three different dive sites, since you can opt to dive in the middle of the bay or along its northern or southern end. Head toward the middle of the bay to dive a reef that slopes 80 feet to the sand, where you might see eagle rays grazing, the big eyes of squirrel fish, and ALOHA spelled out in rocks on the sand. Divers who want to stay shallow can dive south along the shore here. And the most exciting dive, to the north, involves a surface swim to conserve air and finishes at a point, with a cavern along the way. Out at the point, you might see hammerheads (more likely during the winter months), schooling rainbow runners and pelagic mantas.