The 15 Best Scuba Diving Sites in Hawaii
Ian Fortey Updated on June 7, 2021. In Scubaby
There are more places to dive in Hawaii than you could hope to visit in one trip. Even if you live in Hawaii, you could spend years visiting the Hawaii scuba diving spots. But if you do plan a trip, there are some real standouts you may want to check out. From wreck diving to sharks and whales, there is a ton to see. Grab your scuba fins and a scuba mask and check out some of the best scuba diving in Hawaii.
1. Molokini Wall
The Molokini Backwall is not for the beginning scuba diver. Only certified divers with some diving experience under their belt need apply. It’s about a 40 minute boat ride from Maui to get here but it’s definitely worth it. As long as you don’t mind remote dive sites. It’s also a two tank dive. Scuba enthusiasts can’t miss this wall dive.
The eponymous wall is staggering in height. It spans down an impressive 300 feet. Expect your dive to not go much lower than 80 feet, of course. Reef sharks abound in this area. White tip, black tip and gray reef sharks can be found in numbers. You’ll also run into some dolphins if you’re lucky. Not to mention manta rays. And, of course, plenty of other smaller fish. Turtles even swim by on occasion. If you like underwater photography, this is an ideal spot. The currents are usually mild and visibility is good. It can get over 100 feet quite often.
The wall itself is part of a volcanic crater. It extends out of the water up to 200 feet. The 300 feet below water makes it all the more impressive. At the right time of year, humpback whales make the trek through this area as well. You’re much more likely to hear them than see them. If that doesn’t sound all that impressive, then wait until you experience it.
There’s a second drift dive here as well. Drift dives are when you let the tide or current move you along. The crater is part of the Marine Life Conservation District. It’s been protected since the late 1970s. That means the reefs here are pristine and bursting with life. Aside from all the sharks and colorful reef fish, octopus and eels make this their home. Check it out for sure if you’re into drift diving. Above the surface the crater is also a bird sanctuary. So you can experience a one-two punch of animal conservation.
In total, there have been over 250 fish species catalogued in this area. Some of them are literally found nowhere else on Earth. So this truly is a unique dive that you can’t replicate anywhere else. If you’re visiting Hawaii on a dive trip, this really is a must-see location.
2. Old Airport Kona
The Old Airport located on Kona is a great spot for beginner divers. It’s even a great sport for snorkeling. It’s named for the airport located right next to it. This was, originally, Kona’s main airport. The park is a great place to set up for the day and has show facilities and picnic areas.
Once you’re in the water, be on the lookout for eagle rays, eels, and Hawaiian lionfish. This is a great shallow dive site. Depths are from the surface all the way down to about 60 feet. Expect to spend most of your dive between 20 feet and 30 feet. Out past a sand patch you’ll find arches and some caverns as well. Lava tubes and boulders are around this area as well. If you’re interested in seeing octopus, check those rocky areas.
This is a fun dive with a lot to see. It’s incredibly easy and convenient if you’re in the Kona area. Just remember, the park has business hours. You have between 7 am and 8 pm to dive. After that, they lock the gates.
3. The Cathedrals Dive Sites in Lanai
The Lanai cathedrals are well worth a dive trip. The Lanai cathedrals are caverns that have opened up to the water above. They were formed by collapsed lava tubes. Rocks have fallen out of the cavern ceilings which allow light from above to pass through. On a clear day, the light shines through from above. When it does, it illuminates the caverns, making a stunning visual. So stunning, in fact, it earned them the cathedral nickname. People have likened it to experiencing light through the high windows in an old church.
The sites are full of incredible topography. The volcanic formations are unique and plentiful. There are areas to swim through and stunning lava shoots. With dives that range from 15 feet to 65 feet there is something for everyone at these dives sites.
It’s not just divers that have taken to this area. Hawaii marine life here is plentiful and diverse. Sharks, turtles, dolphins and more abound. There have even been whales sighted in the area.
There are two cathedrals in the area. Cathedral one and cathedral two are usually done as separate dives. We recommend one as the best of the two, but you shouldn’t skip out on the other. The stained glass effect of light coming through the holes in the ceiling is remarkable.
4. Manta Ray Night Dive Kona
This is the big one. Possibly the most famous dive experience in all of Hawaii these days. The manta ray night dive is unlike any other dive experience. When you head out on one of these dives, you can expect to see just massive schools of manta rays. The point is to watch as they feed on zooplankton under the cover of darkness. These massive fish put on quite a show and on a good night you may see hundreds of them feeding when you head out. They will swim all around you sometimes. It’s quite an experienced to be in the middle of it all. The way manta rays move, especially in darkness, is unlike anything else you’ll experience on a dive.
No dive is ever guaranteed but many manta ray night dives actually do come with a guarantee. If you go out and don’t see the rays, most dive tours will offer you a second trip for free. That’s how confident they are that you will see something. And really, odds are you’re going to walk away happy after this one because it’s quite rare to not find the rays.
5. Pelagic Magic Kona
Sometimes called a black water dive, this night dive is a big one. When you head to Hawaii, you really want to try the manta night dive and the pelagic magic night dives. A typical pelagic magic dive off of Kona is so unique and exciting you’ll be telling friends about it forever. Night diving is a whole new ball game. You can find fantastic dive sites at night when boat diving that you’d overlook in daylight.
A boat takes out a small group of maybe six divers. Your destination is three miles offshore. You’ll be tethered to the boat with a 50 foot line. Then you go down to the length of your tether in pitch black darkness. What happens next can be seen in Youtube videos but you need to see it in person to really feel it.
Jellyfish start to feed around this depth on some tiny microscopic creatures. The dark ocean comes to life with a flurry of movement. Your dive lights are the only light source. The ocean floor will be lost from view so all you can focus on is the life right in front of you. Things like larval octopi and crabs. Many other tiny creatures you cannot see in the light of day. It’s like a whole different world and is really incredible. Definitely worth experiencing at least once.
6. Black Rock Maui
When you’re in Maui, you want to check out Black Rock. Hands down, this is one of the best shore dive spots in the state. Arguably one of the best in the country. At the north end of Ka’anapali Beach is where you will find this dive site. It’s suitable for both scuba diving and snorkeling. It’s also a popular cliff jump location. Shore diving is much easier for new scuba divers. And this is one of the top dive sties for shore diving in the Hawaiian islands.
Black Rock was formed as so many spots in Hawaii were by lava. It was one of the last places formed by underwater lava formations that made the island. As such, it creates a natural outcropping. The current can become strong here, so be aware. Also, there are steep drop offs in the water.
You can find many species of marine life here. Turtles and rays are commonplace. You may even run across some monk seal just relaxing here. Most of the tourists stick to the beach and cliff jumping. The dive site is often pretty empty.
The biggest downside to this dive is a weird one. Access to the site is easiest through the Sheraton hotel. That means you’ll be walking, in your gear, past all the tourists. If you don’t mind, then it’s no big deal. But it’s definitely a strange twist.
7. Golden Arches Kona
The Golden Arches are on Kona. This would likely be a much more popular dive site if the visibility were better. That’s not to say it’s bad here, but it is not consistent. Some days you can see a great distance. But other times the current and surge are not your friend.
Lots of reef fish call this area home. Whitetip reef sharks, moray eels, and even the occasional dolphin can be found here. As you can expect from the name, the arch here is also a sight to behold. It makes for some great photographs if you’re looking to take pics.
Because the arches aren’t heavily trafficked, it’s a gentle spot. Currents are not typically too rough here. It’s a decent spot for beginners to check out. With the abundance of marine life, including rare boxfish, there’s lots to enjoy.
8. Au Au Crater
This is one of the best crater dives around Hawaii. Oceanic whitetip sharks, large jacks and hammerhead sharks call this place home. They’re not guaranteed to show up, but they are common. You can also find turtles lazing about in the crater as well.
Unlike the bowl you might expect, Au’au is more of a V-shaped crater. The walls offer a great environment for all manner of marine life. Wall size ranges from 30 to 70 feet on one side all the way to 50 to 200 feet on another. You’ll also find a cleaner shrimp station and plenty of nudibranches. Even if the big fish don’t show, there’s a lot of check out.
If spinner dolphins are on your Hawaiian dive bucket list, here you go. Naia actually means dolphin. Located in Kona, this spot is home to plenty of butterflyfish and tangs. Also some stonefish and frogfish as well. But of course it’s the spinner dolphins everyone wants to see. There are no guarantees any will be here when you drop in.
In the summer you may run across some tiger sharks and eagle rays in the area. They share the waters with the dolphins but are not everyday staples. The dive site is located very close to Turtle Pinnacle, so you can knock out both dives.
10. Suck ‘em Up Lava Tube
How could you not want to dive at a place with a name like this? We can’t recommend this for beginners because of the ride involved. If you’re super new to scuba diving this can potentially cause some panic. But once you’re comfortable under the water, this is a must try. Pound for pound, this is one of the most fun dive experiences you will ever have.
Also called Suckem Up Cavern, this spot is made of lava tubes. What makes it unique is that the entrance to the cavern is wider than the exit. That means if the surge is strong enough, the exit will literally suck you out of the cavern. It spits you back up near the shore. If you’re into shore dives, it’s great. Amazing fun if you have never experienced cavern diving before. But, like we said, if you’re new it can feel a little scary.
Aside from the thrill, this is also a great scuba dive site. Lots of coral in the area and, if the surge isn’t bad, decent visibility. Pufferfish and whitetip reef shark have been spotted here. Scorpionfish and butterflyfish call this area home. If you want a unique scuba diving experience, give it a look.
11. Turtle Pinnacle
With a name like Turtle Pinnacle, it’s pretty clear what to expect here. But even knowing that the place is packed with Hawaiian green sea turtles won’t prepare you. See, the turtles come here for a specific reason. It’s not just nesting or feeding. It’s a cleaning station.
As weird as it sounds, this is where the Hawaiian green sea turtles come to get some beauty treatment. The surgeonfish in the area love algae. So when the sea turtles arrive, they swarm them to clean their shells. The turtles get cleaned up and the fish get a meal. The other big winners are divers. Few places in the world let you get this close to turtles.
Green turtles are very gentle and docile. But they are also a protected species. This area is a great place to observe, but you need to keep your distance. Harming one of these turtles is against the law. So it’s great to dive here, but remember to let the turtles do their own thing.
12. Three Fingers
Kauai is sometimes called the Garden Island. That’s where you’ll find Three Fingers. With visibility up to 60 feet, there is a lot of marine life to check out here. The fingers in the name were formed by lava. They extend a full 100 feet out from the harbor. It makes for a unique lava formation you won’t find anywhere else.
Turtles have been known to drop by Three Fingers from time to time. Expect dragon morays, wrasse, anthias and more here. The water here can be extremely calm and gentle. Parts are also pretty shallow. But there are some more complicated locations as well. Because of that, it offers a great opportunity for beginners as well as pros.
Keep your eye out for south swells. Those may reduce your visibility considerably. Most days, however, it’s pristine and clear.
13. Kahuna Canyon
You can find Kahuna Canyon near Mokule’ia. It’s on the north shore of O’ahu. Some people call it Hawaii’s Grand Canyon and when you get a look at it, you’ll see why. The whole area is spectacular and very unique. It’s not technically a canyon at all, but a crater. The entire area is a volcanic crater that extends down 100 feet. The top starts at 35 feet, and the whole thing extends a solid 600 feet.
The reason it’s called a canyon is because half of the crater is missing. The remaining half creates a massive canyon down to the depths. The pristine reefs are chock full of marine life. Expect to see Moray eels, parrotfish, amberjacks, lobsters and lots more.
Sharks do make passes along the canyon frequently, so keep your eyes peeled. Scuba diving through the summer months is best because visibility is high. The water is also pretty manageable at that time. In the winter months, things get choppy and scuba diving is not recommended.
14. Carthaginian II
If you’re in Maui scuba diving, you have to visit Carthaginian II. This one time sailing vessel was converted to a model whaling ship. It was used as a whaling museum for years to teach about the history of whaling. Then, in 2005, the ship was sunk. Now it serves as an artificial reef and is home to many marine species.
The ship rests at 97 feet and has fantastic visibility. Expect to see upwards of 100 feet when you head down. The current here is minimal and the dive offers great views. Trumpetfish, frogfish and more have made the ship their home. White tip reef sharks are common sights. You can also run across eagle rays and dolphins sometimes as well.
15. Fish Rain
Located on the south shore of Molokai, Fish Rain is a gorgeous reef. There are around 40 dive sites along this 30 mile reef. As you can imagine, you could spend a lot of time here. This is our recommendation for the most impressive one. As the name suggests, it’s bustling with life.
The coral found on Fish Rain is packed with colorful sea life. Parrotfish, triggerfish and more are everywhere. But if you like the big fish, this is definitely your spot. Keep your eyes peeled for Galapagos sharks and Hawaiian monk seals. You may even see tiger sharks in the area but don’t go expecting them for sure. Whale sharks and scalloped hammerhead sharks are around as well.
Fish rain arguably has the highest concentration of sea life in and around Molokai. Visibility is incredible as well. The big downside? Getting here. There is no easy way to access this spot. No roads roll out in this direction. It’s going to take you close to an hour to get here from Lahaina Harbor. That, combined with the rough seas, make this a more advanced dive.
Humpback Whale Dives
You may have heard that Hawaii is the best place to see humpback whales. This is true. Most of the humpbacks in the Pacific Ocean will make their way to Hawaii. Around 10,000 of them come here to give birth and raise their young. And there are many boat tours that give you a chance to view them. You cannot dive with the humpback whales, however. Any reputable boat tour will only allow the whales to be viewed from the boat. This is for your safety and the whales. Humpback whales are endangered. They need to be kept safe and viewed from a distance. Especially when they are mating and caring for their young. You don’t want to be in the water with an 80,000 pound whale if it doesn’t want you there.
Things to for Scuba Divers to Remember About Scuba Diving Hawaii
There is a ton of world class scuba diving in Hawaii. But with beauty comes some responsibility. Hawaii also has some dangerous spots. Dangerous marine life as well. Not all sharks are sandbar sharks. But by the same token you may run into humpback whales. There is beauty and potential danger in spades.
The Hawaiian island chain offers a range of locations. From the Big Island to Kailua Kona. The underwater world has some of the best dive sites anywhere. Calm waters for beginners. More trying spots for experienced divers. The best scuba diving sites are always the ones where you can relax and just have fun. Don’t dive outside your comfort zone and be responsible. Have fun out there.
Donna VanStralen on June 14, 2021
#1- it would be great if you could specify in each section which island the dive site is closest to. #2- The Black Rock dive most of us do is a drift dive. We drop our gear at the golf course and park nearby. We go in just to the right of the stream, and drift dive along the wall and the cliff. This is best because of the current and surge. Seeing monk seals here is a once in a lifetime experience.
Matt on November 6, 2021
Great article! Any recommendations for dive companies on Maui and Kauai?