Two naturally-formed lava rocks platforms lead snorkelers into the electric-turquoise waters of Honaunau Bay, which give way to reveal a colorful, rugged seafloor bustling with all sorts of marine life.
This is hands-down the best snorkeling spot on the island, dubbed by locals as simply “Two Step” after the two giant stairs found at the peninsula’s farthest point which lead its visitors down into the water. This is the easiest and safest spot to get in and out, and a supreme lack of other viable ocean access means that on busy days, a crowd of people can often be found milling around the shore. Some are waiting their turn to make the descent, while others are simply exploring the checkerboard landscape of pock-marked lava rocks with shallow tidal pools inhabiting the low points in between.
Sunbathers, tide pool explorers, fishermen and families with small children all sprawl across the rocky shore, hoping to spot the camouflaged shells of giant sea turtles who crawl up on the rocks to warm themselves in the sun, or the frenzied leaping of spinner dolphins, or the signature cloud of white sea spray marking a passing pod of humpback whales. On shore, there seems to be marine life around every corner, and beneath the surface snorkelers and scuba divers are absolutely surrounded by it.
Colorful, strange-looking fish with mesmerizing neon stripes dart in and out of the crevasses of massive colonies of reef-building coral, whose underwater structures come in mindbogglingly complex shapes: from fingers to brains, heads of cauliflower to grains of rice, mounds, lobes, antlers, cups. The seafloor is strewn with them; the building blocks of this underwater world, without which all the marine life darting about couldn’t survive. There are octopuses, sea horses, sea stars, urchins, eels and jellyfish scattered about, some clung tightly to the sides of coral domes, while others creep along the sea floor hunting for food.
And the variety of fish species is even more dizzying: Emperor fish, butterflyfish, boxfish, filefish, goatfish, parrotfish, needlefish, pufferfish, soldierfish, trumpetfish and countless more. Marine biologists and novice tropical fish enthusiasts alike have a field day exploring the reefs surrounding the bay, who within just a few minutes of strapping on the mark usually can chalk up a dozen or more species sighted. Schools of tiny bright orange fish engulf snorkelers and then immediately scatter with just one kick of their fin, while the shadow of a large blacktail snapper is projected against the white coral, causing small fish to flee every which way as it passes. All of this makes Two Step a fantastic opportunity to see Big Island’s vast, brilliantly colored underwater world which surrounds the island and serves as an integral part of its food-chain, and to learn a great deal about native Hawaiian fish.
The fish-watching at Two Step is so legendary that there’s usually a disorganized line of snorkelers completely decked out in face masks, fins and underwater cameras slowly filing toward the steps, patiently waiting their turn as their peers navigate down the slippery rocks and, when the critical moment comes, launch themselves off the platform into the water and start paddling. At the same time, snorkelers who made the leap half an hour ago queue up just offshore, hoping to catch one of the gentle, bobbing waves lazily making their way in and ride it back onto the platform.
Those entering the bay use the swelling waves in a similar way, often kneeling on the lower step until a large enough surge comes in, laps at the rocks, and then gently carries them away from shore and into the snorkeling grounds. Timing the waves like this to get in or out can be a little nerve-wracking at first, but thanks to the ever-present line at the steps, there’s plenty of opportunity to watch others’ technique before the critical moment comes. Many snorkelers making their way to the steps can be spotted wearing water shoes or “booties” – this is because spiky sea urchins sometimes like to make their homes within holes in the platforms, and nothing ruins a vacation faster than an urchin barb through the foot sole.
Endangered Turtles and Dolphins – Give Them Their Space!
Those sea turtles not actively sunning themselves on land can usually be seen gliding around the coral fields and underwater canyons of ropey lava rock, while dolphins are sometimes seen farther offshore in the deeper waters of Honaunau Bay. Both the Hawaiian green sea turtle and the Hawaiian spinner dolphin are endangered or protected species, and state law doles out stiff punishments for swimmers who chase, harass or even get uncomfortably close to them. So, observe them from afar, appreciate their natural beauty and tread lightly in their habitat, since human interaction can disrupt feeding and mating habits and negatively impact their population numbers.
Upon descending the steps and entering the bay, keeping to the left will give snorkelers the best chance of spotting turtles in action, as the water gets slightly deeper on this side – around 20 feet. This depth, along with the seafloor’s matrix of healthier-looking coral, makes for a more ideal habitat, and it’s this region of the bay where turtles are usually found lazily swimming around while their peers rest in the sun up on the rocky bank.
Most dolphins are usually hard to spot in open water during the day since they feed at night and rest during daylight hours. Their “resting” consists of shutting down parts of their brain and slowly cruising near the surface in protected waters, like those in Honaunau Bay, where they don’t need to be as alert for predators. This is why dolphins are often spotted here, and make for an incredible, one-in-a-lifetime experience for visitors. This is especially the case when spinner dolphins come in close to shore and begin their famous acrobatic displays where they leap out of the water and do front-flips.
Even as far away as 200 feet from shore, with water over 25 feet deep, there is still plenty of marine life, rainbow-colored fish and coral-packed seabed to explore. On the opposite side of the bay from the turtle grounds is a large underwater sandy area, and along its edge “aloha” is written with pieces of cement blocks in the sand – a landmark for snorkel-clad visitors that makes for a great underwater photo.
Amenities at Two Step are very limited – a small parking lot, a few picnic tables, portable toilets, and no concessions, drinking water or showers. Resourceful bay-goers will bring an extra jug of fresh water to rinse the salt off after a swimming or snorkeling session. Bring a picnic and set up on benches or beach towels along the rocky shore beside the gaggle of sunbathers, but just don’t come expecting to find much shade – most of the bay’s coast is featureless black lava rock, with just a small hedge of trees near the road.
This means that Two Step is one of the destinations on Big Island which absolutely requires some type of sun protection, from sunhats to light, loose-fitting shirts to sunscreen. Those opting for this last option should keep this in mind, though: Hawaii’s coral reefs are in a critical state of decline, caused partly by careless beach-goers who continue to use sunscreen made with reef-destroying chemicals. The chemical known as “oxybenzone” is the primary culprit, but several other common sunscreen ingredients can be harmful to coral health as well. So, opt for “reef-safe” sunscreen or products whose ingredients labels doesn’t include chemicals known to be reef toxic.
How To Get There:
Two Step is open daily from 7am to 9pm, with parking available a short walk away along Honaunau Beach Road just before the entrance to Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park, also known as “City of Refuge”. Two Step and its surrounding area comprises the right side of the bay, while City of Refuse makes up the left. It’s an intriguing national park created to honor an ancient Hawaiian historical site where criminals, defeated warriors and civilians fleeing persecution could seek refuge. It spans across 182 acres and features many traditional carved wooden statues, palm-frond roofed structures and the reconstruction of a Hawaiian temple known as a “heiau”.
Honaunau Beach Road is accessible from the direction of Kona Town and Captain Cook via Highway 11, otherwise known as Hawaii Belt Road or Mamalahoa Highway. Less than 10 miles south of Captain Cook, turn right onto Keala O Keawe Road and continue down the hill for another 3.5 miles until the left turn for Honaunau Beach Road appears on the left. Follow Honaunau Beach Road for several hundred feet until the entrance to the National Historical Park comes into view. Park beside the road just before the park’s entrance in one of several informal parallel and pull-in parking spots, and then walk down the one-lane side alleyway to the coastline where a group of snorkelers waiting to jump in can usually be spotted at the far edge.