I love sea turtles and I love to snorkel. Yet somehow, these two things have never managed to collide with each other. I’ve been on numerous snorkeling trips, resulting in sea turtle sightings for others in the group. But for me? Nope.
So when I saw a brochure for Turtle Canyon on a recent trip to Honolulu, Hawaii, I jumped at the chance to once again try my hand at getting a glimpse of the elusive sea turtle in its natural habitat.
Situated on the island of Oahu’s south shore, the world-famous neighborhood of Waikiki is best known for its famous white sand beach, high-rise hotels, and designer shops that line Kalakaua Avenue. It’s also one of the best places for snorkeling with turtles in Oahu at the incredible Turtle Canyon.
Turtle Canyon is a nature preserve and snorkeling site known for the large numbers of sea turtles that float above the reef while the reef fish swim around them and clean their shells. It’s basically a car wash for turtles! When the turtles come up to breathe, they can even be seen by spectators relaxing on the boat!
The Turtle Canyon reef formed thousands of years ago when volcanic activity was rife in and around Oahu — evidenced by the large lava-formed, rock-encrusted fingers rising from the shallow shores of Waikiki. Small boulders, coral heads, and plenty of sand between these rocky fingers make great homes for all kinds of marine life. While this site and its impressive geological formations attract aquatic life, it’s not full of colorful coral like Hanauma Bay, another popular snorkeling spot on Oahu. Here the turtles are the star.
At around 20 to 45 feet deep, Turtle Canyon is a little deep for snorkelers, but you won’t be disappointed. The crystal-clear water has excellent visibility, my husband and I had no trouble seeing the sandy bottom of the canyon, and turtles often come up to the shallows swimming among snorkelers seemingly without fear.
1. Hire A Tour Operator
There are numerous tour operators in Oahu running trips to Turtle Canyon and they all leave from Kewalo Basin Boat Harbor. I would recommend taking a cab or Uber to the marina. If you drive, parking is $1 per hour, and pay machines accept cash and credit cards. Please refer to the Kewalo Basin Boat Harbor Map for parking areas.
Pro Tip: Parking is incredibly limited, so if you decide to drive, allow yourself plenty of time to find parking and get to the boat.
2. What To Bring
Sunscreen is a must and it needs to be reef-friendly to comply with Hawaii’s laws. Apply it liberally. The sun’s rays can penetrate the water when you’re snorkeling, leaving you with a nasty sunburn if you neglect this step.
Drinks and refreshments provided on tours vary widely from operator to operator. I always like having a water bottle and some light snacks with me, just in case. A towel is nice to dry off after snorkeling, and a coverup came in handy for the windy trip back to the harbor. If you have one, a dry bag is a great place to store these items and secure car keys if you’ve driven. A camera is nice to have — we used a GoPro to get some fun videos of the turtles swimming around us.
3. Snorkeling Tips
Snorkeling is pretty easy to learn, even for a complete novice. Guides will review the basics and a few safety items, and you’ll be in the water in minutes. All of the necessary equipment, masks, fins, and flotation devices, will be provided by the tour operator.
Most tours offer in-water guides who can assist snorkelers with equipment or point out turtles and other marine life in the area.
Pro Tip: To see as much marine life as possible, it’s best to swim to a spot away from others, then relax and float face down. Kicking and thrashing in the water will startle most marine life, and you’ll have a much better experience observing calmly and quietly.
4. Avoid Seasickness
Nothing will ruin your fun like a bout of seasickness. Generally, the ocean is calm near Waikiki. Still, if you are prone to seasickness or aren’t used to being aboard ocean-going boats, it may be a good idea to talk with the pharmacist about preventative measures.
As I’ve gotten older, I tend to feel dizzy while snorkeling. I generally take Dramamine about an hour or so beforehand to avoid any chance of feeling ill.
5. Turtle Etiquette
It’s important to remember that when you enter the water, you are entering the turtle’s home.
As a guest, you should aim not to disturb, frighten, or harm the turtle. To ensure this, you must follow a few simple guidelines. Don’t pet or touch the animal in any way. It’s not only bad form; it’s illegal as sea turtles are protected under federal law. Touching the turtle can be stressful for the animal and can result in a very stiff fine in Hawaii.
Don’t feed sea turtles. The food you offer the turtle could be harmful to the turtle and hurt the turtle’s short-term health. Also, if the turtle gets used to getting food from humans, it can lead to habituation, interfering with its ability to procure food.
Pro Tip: We booked the last tour of the day. Most of the other tour boats left the area before our snorkeling time was over, allowing us to enjoy the space with fewer people for the latter part of our tour.
After you’ve gotten your fill of snorkeling, you can climb back on the boat and get ready for a lovely ride back to the harbor, cruising along Waikiki’s gorgeous coastline. We enjoyed fantastic views of Diamond Head and even saw some spinner dolphins.
All told, we saw over ten different turtles. One swam toward me, peering at me with curiosity. The encounter made me wonder who was observing who. Turtle sightings are practically guaranteed at this spot, and many tour operators offer to reschedule customers for free if they don’t see one during their trip.
If you want to swim with sea turtles, I recommend visiting Turtle Canyon on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. My husband and I had an excellent afternoon and I can finally say I swam with sea turtles.
For more information on traveling to Oahu, check out these articles: