Hawaii is a gorgeous tropical paradise, and there are many beautiful islands within that offer fantastic snorkeling experiences. You may have narrowed the selection down to two very popular ones, Maui and Kauai. If you could only go to one, which one would you go to? How does one decide between them?
The focus of this article will be on which of these two islands in Hawaii offers the greater snorkeling experience. Snorkeling is the number one water activity for tourists checking out the Hawaiian islands, and the experiences provided by each island are high quality across the board. We’ll compare what these islands offer in terms of the number of snorkel sites available, overall safety, quality of the coral reefs, and the kinds of marine life you can expect to see.
For those who want a summary, we’ve concluded that Maui is the better option if you want the best snorkeling experience in Hawaii. In fact, it is arguably the best snorkeling destination in the entire United States. Whatever your level, whether you’re a beginner or a veteran, you can find plenty to do snorkeling in Maui. We’ll discuss how we came to this conclusion down below.
Overall snorkeling experience between Maui vs. Kauai
Let’s get this out of the way first: you can’t go wrong snorkeling at any of the islands in Hawaii. The opportunity to even visit Hawaii for a nice tropical vacation is a blessing.
Now, how does one choose between snorkeling at the second largest of the Hawaiian islands, Maui, and the fourth largest, Kauai? Size isn’t everything in this case. You’ll want to consider factors such as: how many snorkeling sites are there? What is the quality of these snorkel sites? How accessible are they? Also, what kinds of marine life can you expect to see?
If a scuba diver were to make a choice between these two islands, it’d be a lot harder. A snorkeler, on the other hand, can have stricter criteria that can make it possible to decide one over the other. We snorkelers need calm surface conditions and easy access in and out of the water, so whichever island provides that has a huge advantage in the decision-making process.
As we’ve already mentioned, Maui is our preferred option. That doesn’t mean that snorkeling in Kauai isn’t worth it, just that Maui edges it out based on factors that we explain in great detail in the coming sections. This section provides an overview for the entire article.
A general rule of thumb for snorkeling in Hawaii is that most of the top spots are found on the western sides. The western side is drier with less runoff so that the waters are pristine and tend to offer superior visibility.
Since Kauai gets more rain than Maui, the water visibility tends to be worse which is one of the reasons why Maui edges it out as the better option. Both islands have numerous beach locations that you can snorkel from.
Maui has numerous beaches along its western shore that are found in protected bays and are easily accessible by road, so you can rent a car and head there on your own schedule.
Due to the natural protection that a bay offers, the waters are clear and calm year round. They are the ideal location for relaxed snorkeling with vibrant corals and a multitude of tropical fish. It’s a great starting point if you’re bringing your whole family and everyone has differing skill levels.
More experienced snorkelers may want to do some advanced open water snorkeling, and Maui offers a great selection of that as well. We do not recommend non-swimmers do any open water snorkeling until they have improved both their swimming and snorkeling skills.
Kauai island is largely rainforest-covered and contains the largest number of separate beaches of any Hawaiian island. Unfortunately, many of these sites are inaccessible by road, so unless you’re okay with snorkeling from a boat, the number of options is actually reduced.
Despite our spiel on how western facing snorkel sites tend to be better, Kauai bucks the trend and its top snorkeling sites are located on its north, south, and east coasts. Since these sites are more exposed, snorkeling in Kauai tends to be more difficult compared to snorkeling in Maui. Prepare to deal with swells and strong currents.
Furthermore, the sites located at Kauai’s north shore tend to be inaccessible during the winter, and southern sites are sometimes inaccessible in the summer, so you may have even less options depending on the season.
Which island has more shore snorkeling sites?
Maui has more shore snorkeling spots thanks to its long coastline and greater number of easily accessible beaches.
Additionally, as we mentioned above, Maui sites tend to be accessible year-round, whereas Kauai has more restrictions on accessibility. Depending on what time of the year it is, Kauai may only have a limited number of spots open, so Maui is the clear winner here.
Furthermore, due to the limited number of spots and rougher sea conditions, snorkeling sites in Kauai tend to be more crowded and more dangerous for a beginner. It’d be better to stick to one of the protected bays in Maui to get started with snorkeling.
Are boat tours available?
Yes, indeed. Both islands have boat operators that provide boat snorkeling trips which is a fantastic option for those who want to snorkel in a group setting and under the careful supervision of the guide/instructor.
Arguably the most popular boat trip offered in Maui is the renowned Molokini Crater Marine Sanctuary. This site is located inside a sunken, dormant volcano crater that also has some of the best water visibility for snorkeling anywhere in the world.
Since Molokini is a fair distance away from the main island in deeper waters, it’s also an opportunity for snorkelers to see more marine life that can only be found all the way out here. You don’t have to worry about water conditions since the crater is naturally sheltering you most of the time, providing near perfect conditions.
The boat trips to the Molokai Islands and Lanai from Maui are also solid options and are the best way to access these islands’ serene and quiet snorkel spots.
As we mentioned, Kauai has more snorkeling sites that require a boat trip in order to access. However if you do decide to check them out, you get to see stunning locations like Poipu in the southern coast, and the rugged northern Na Pali coast.
You can also check out the gorgeous Niihau Island which is located about 18 miles off-shore from Kauai. The journey there can be choppy, and you should take steps to prevent seasickness. However, the drift snorkeling experience is to die for.
Which island is more beginner-friendly?
There are great beginner snorkeling areas in Maui and Kauai, but it’s fair to say that Maui has more beginner-friendly sites due to its abundance of protected bays and calmer water conditions.
If you are a beginner, or want to introduce your kids/friends/family to snorkeling, then we recommend starting off either in a bay or going on a guided trip. If you go on a trip, you have the benefit of an experienced guide to teach you the basics and you can stay near the group so you don’t get lost.
Plus, it’s very important that beginners wear a life jacket or a snorkel vest to help them stay afloat. The difference between these two is that a life jacket can’t deflate, whereas a snorkel vest can, so experienced snorkelers can deflate it and duck dive if they want to.
Wearing a buoyancy aid allows snorkelers to float effortlessly without expending any energy at all. It also acts as a lifeline if the water conditions get rough and you would struggle to stay afloat without its help.
Regardless of which island you snorkel at, you should always adhere to safe snorkeling practices. Snorkel with a buddy, wear a flotation device, don’t touch or feed the marine life, wear reef-friendly sunscreen, and so on. It’s mostly common sense.
Take note of the water conditions and check up on local information so you can somewhat predict if it’s safe to snorkel or not. If you aren’t sure how to do this, ask a local or a dive shop employee for their opinion.
Which island has more marine life diversity?
Both Kauai and Maui are home to a plethora of marine life. It helps that Maui has more coral reefs including three protected Marine Natural Area Reserves (Kahekili, Ahihi-Kinau, and Honolua Bay), though Kauai is no slouch either. In these protected reefs, you can find the most vibrant and diverse hard corals.
The reefs in Maui tend to be the ideal depth for snorkeling as well (3 – 10 m). Kauai’s reefs are, on average, smaller and with poorer visibility, however it has its gems as well which you can check out when you go on a guided tour.
Both of these islands are packed with marine life that will keep even the most enthusiastic fish tracker busy for days. Though you can see them in both islands, Maui is especially famous for spotting sea turtles. There is even a snorkel site along the southern coast of Maui named “Turtle Town.”
The Molokini Crater can be accessed by boat from Maui, and it lets adventurous snorkelers see anything from the smallest reef life to large species like manta rays and whale sharks. Molokini is honestly one of the best snorkeling sites in the world where you can see a wide variety of marine life.
If you’re visiting Kauai, then you will want to check out Niihau Island for its extensive variety of marine life as well. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of a rare Hawaiian Monk Seal.
So, Maui vs. Kauai: which island should you go to? To be honest, they are both excellent snorkeling destinations, but if you could only pick one, then we recommend Maui.
Maui has a wider variety of snorkeling sites that are easily accessible, in calm and pristine water, and with a huge variety of marine life to see. It’s an excellent all-around choice that will give most people a satisfactory snorkeling experience.
Kauai also has great snorkeling areas, however they are mostly accessible by boat and better suited for advanced snorkelers. The waters are more likely to be rougher, and depending on the season, some of the areas will be closed, so it’s harder to give Kauai a recommendation when compared to Maui.