Snorkeling alongside Hawaiian green sea turtles, or the Hawaiian honu, tops the list of adventures for many Maui visitors. The island delivers this bucket list experience by way of Turtle Town, a stretch of coastline on the island’s southern coast where turtles tend to congregate in the waters near shore.
But how exactly does one get to South Maui’s renowned Turtle Town?
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll dive deep into the joys of snorkeling Maui, known for its friendly Hawaiian green sea turtles and vibrant marine life. Whether you’re a first-time snorkeler or a seasoned underwater explorer, this post will:
- navigate you through the best snorkeling spots in Turtle Town
- provide essential tips on gear and safety
- introduce you to other must-visit snorkeling locations around Maui
So grab your fins, and let’s embark on a journey to discover the underwater treasures that make Maui a snorkeling haven like no other.
Featured image credit: Daniel Crevier (Kihei, HI). All rights reserved.
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In this post:
- The allure of Turtle Town
- Prime snorkeling locations
- Choosing the right snorkeling tour
- Essential gear and equipment
- Snorkeling safety and etiquette
- Tips for an unforgettable snorkeling experience
- Beyond Turtle Town: other must-visit snorkeling spots
The allure of Turtle Town
Turtle Town is a unique gem in Maui’s snorkeling crown, renowned for its serene beauty and the exceptional opportunity it offers to swim with majestic Hawaiian green sea turtles. This natural underwater oasis stands out as a must-visit locale for every ocean enthusiast.
Where is Turtle Town, exactly?
Depending on who you ask, the answer may differ. Some say Turtle Town is at Maluaka Beach. Others say Turtle Town lies in front of Po‘olenalena Beach, or Chang’s Beach. In reality, Turtle Town is wherever the honu decide to converge! We think of Turtle Town as the stretch of Maui’s southern coast, starting from around the south end of Chang’s Beach to the black sand beach of Oneuli at Makena State Park.
Can you find Hawaiian green sea turtles outside of these areas? Absolutely! But this stretch of coastline offers some of the best snorkeling opportunities with turtles on the island.
Unique features of Turtle Town
Turtle Town’s allure lies in its intricate coral formations and the protected bay that creates a sanctuary for marine life. Unlike other snorkeling spots in the Hawaiian Islands, Turtle Town offers a high chance of turtle sightings due to the abundance of algae growing on the rocks and coral reefs, which serves as a primary food source for the turtles. When the water is calm, snorkelers of all levels have a chance to float above the reef, observing the turtles in their undisturbed state and natural habitat.
Maui’s marine life: a turtle haven
The Hawaiian green sea turtle, known as the honu, is the star of the show in Turtle Town. These creatures, often seen in large numbers around Maui, are not only a symbol of good luck in Hawaiian culture but are also a testament to the successful conservation efforts under the Endangered Species Act.
Snorkelers often find themselves in close encounters with these serene animals, observing their daily routines in the clear water. Turtle Town’s marine biodiversity extends beyond the honu, with tropical fish, occasional sightings of manta rays, and during certain times of the year, the awe-inspiring humpback whales.
Best time of the year to snorkel at Turtle Town
Unlike humpback whale viewing, which is seasonal, the Hawaiian honu live around Maui year round. For the optimal snorkeling experience at Turtle Town, we recommend the early morning when the water is most tranquil. The summer months typically offer the calmest conditions, but it’s the winter season that might allow the rare sight of humpback whales in the distance.
Regardless of the season, Turtle Town provides a snorkeling adventure that is both an incredible experience and a privilege, offering a glimpse into the rich underwater life of Maui.
Prime snorkeling locations in Turtle Town
Exploring Turtle Town’s top snorkeling havens
In my travels across the Hawaiian archipelago, Maui’s Turtle Town has a special place in my heart. Turtle Town is the place where I first swam in the same waters as graceful honu.
Each snorkeling spot listed here has its own character. These are the best places for snorkeling at Turtle Town.
Nahuna Point: a snorkeler’s retreat
Nahuna Point (sometimes known as Turtle Point, Five Caves, Five Graves, and Turtle Arches) is a haven where the lava rocks offer shelter and sanctuary for marine life. The morning waters here are generally calm, but it gets choppy by midday.
While we’ve seen snorkelers access this section from land, it’s a rocky entry. Instead of a beach, like the other snorkeling sites on this list, you’ll find a large lava rock outcropping.
Nahuna Point juts out from the coastline, so waves get rough as they hit the rocks. Your safest bet, particularly for beginner or infrequent snorkelers, is to join a snorkeling boat tour. In the morning, it’s common to see tour boats moored offshore with snorkelers in the water nearby. Divers and paddle boarders are also a common sight.
With the daily human activity in this area, Hawaiian sea turtles in this section seem particularly calm around humans.
Best snorkeling access: By boat tour. Experienced snorkelers may access the water via a rocky entry point on the north side of the lava rock outcropping
Water depth: Approximately 20 to 50 feet
Parking: Limited street parking on Makena Road
Bathroom facilities: None on site, but walk five minutes south on Makena Road to Makena Landing Park for bathroom facilities, including an outdoor shower
Makena Landing: underwater serenity
Makena Landing Park is one of our favorite and best spots for beginner snorkelers seeking an experience with Hawaiian sea turtles. My first time at Makena Landing, a green head bobbed up out of the water to look at me as I stood on a paddleboard on the calm cove’s waters. I can only imagine how many I would have seen if I were in the water.
With its sandy beach and protective cove, the water entry here is smooth. While it may be a busier spot than Nahuna Point, there are still plenty of honu to see while snorkeling at Makena Landing. By midmorning, expect to find the parking lot completely full — divers, kayakers, and paddle boarders all converge on this popular park. If the lot is full, keep driving south, where additional street parking is available.
At Makena Landing, turtles often frequent the shallower waters, and if you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of the shy moray eels peeking from their rocky hideaways. Facing the water from shore, swim to the right from the beach entry point for your best chance at encountering majestic honu. You’re also likely to see honu resting onshore.
Best snorkeling access: From shore, although you may see tour boats moored nearby. If you’ve had enough of snorkeling, kayak and paddle tour operators set up shop along Makena Road, on the south side of the park
Parking: Free parking lot, street parking nearby
Bathroom facilities: Yes, including flushing toilets and an outdoor shower
Maluaka Beach: a turtle’s playground
Maluaka Beach is most commonly associated with Turtle Town, as it’s frequently where honu magic happens. With a larger sandy beach than Makena Landing, Maluaka Beach also feels less crowded — and less touristy, despite the nearby luxury condos being built nearby.
One of the local tour catamarans launches directly from this beach in the early hours, then returns midmorning to drop off passengers. Otherwise, Maluaka Beach and the surrounding waters typically stay quiet.
For the best chance at encountering turtles on your snorkel adventure, head to the south end of the beach, near the rocks. You’re also likely to see an array of colorful fish, black crabs, and sea urchins.
Best snorkeling access: From shore. Head to either the south or north side of the beach, near the lava rock
Parking: Limited parking spaces on both the north and south sides of the beach. There are only 4-5 spots on the north side, so we recommend heading straight to the south side parking lot
Bathroom facilities: Yes, flushing toilets and an outdoor shower on the south end of the beach
Chang’s Beach / Po‘olenalena Beach: an oft-overlooked jewel
Hidden behind the Makena Surf Condos, Chang’s Beach is emerging from its covert status to become a favorite among snorkel enthusiasts. The beach greets you with soft sand that makes for an easy water entry, appealing to both nervous beginners and seasoned snorkelers alike. Once in the water, a surprising amount of coral reef is within an easy swim, providing a natural habitat for a variety of marine life.
Here, Hawaiian green sea turtles are often sighted just a short distance from the shore, so you don’t have to venture far for an encounter. While Chang’s Beach used to be a well-kept secret, its rising popularity is a testament to the quality of snorkeling experiences it offers.
Good to know: The drum circle that used to reside at Little Beach at Makena State Park has since moved to the north side of this beach. You may also encounter beachgoers in the nude, particularly on the north side
Best snorkeling access: From shore, swim toward the south, toward the lava rocks
Parking: Two parking lots, including a larger gravel lot near the north end and a smaller, somewhat hidden parking lot on the south end of the beach
Bathroom facilities: Portable toilet, no shower or running water
Choosing the right snorkeling tour
While you can certainly snorkel Turtle Town without a guide, we recommend a tour with a local expert, especially if it’s your first time visiting Maui.
Selecting the right snorkeling tour can be as crucial as choosing proper snorkel gear. Maui has more than its share of Turtle Town tour companies, each promising an experience of a lifetime. Here’s what you should know for choosing the right snorkeling tour for you.
Overview of Maui snorkeling tours
With the number of tour providers on Maui, you’re sure to find one that fits your needs. These are a few things to consider before booking a snorkeling tour.
Timing: Since Turtle Town currents are calmer in the morning, most tours start before noon. Some vendors offer tours that last a few hours to a full-day oceanic experience.
Food: You may be offered snacks, beverages, and meals, particularly during longer tour excursions. Shorter tours may not offer refreshments.
Boat tour or a guided swim/paddle board/kayak from shore: Since it’s possible to reach Turtle Town from shore, guided tours from land are an option. Local guides often know where the turtles congregate at certain times of the day, and they can point you in the right direction. It also helps to have another set of eyes with you, for both turtle watching and for safety purposes.
On the other hand, boat tours offer the benefit of a guide along with the opportunity to snorkel at multiple turtle locations — without the effort and fuss of swimming or paddling from shore.
Tips on selecting the best tour for your needs
When choosing your Turtle Town escapade, consider what you value most. Are you looking for educational insights from marine biologists? Perhaps a family-friendly atmosphere with all snorkeling gear provided? Or are you leaning toward a tour that offers more than just snorkeling, maybe a chance to sail or whale watch as well?
Check for certifications and safety records, read reviews, and don’t hesitate to ask for recommendations on social platforms or from staff at your local accommodation.
Highlighting top-rated Turtle Town snorkeling tour companies
A few names stand out when it comes to snorkeling tour operators in Maui. Here are a few that have excellent reviews.
Paddle On! Maui
For those who want to paddle board AND snorkel with turtles, I highly recommend Paddle On! Maui.
I booked their company because I was traveling with my sister and teenage niece during a recent trip. While we are all capable swimmers, we’re fairly novice in the ocean. For safety purposes, I felt more comfortable having a guide with us — and it was convenient not to have to rent gear separately.
They’re the perfect choice if you’re a beginner paddle boarder, snorkeler, or both. We booked a private tour, so it was just the three of us. It was well worth it!
Kai Kanani is renowned for its luxury catamaran and exceptional service, often being the first to reach the snorkeling spots — particularly Molokini — in the morning.
Pride of Maui
Another Molokini and Turtle Town tour operator, this tour provides breakfast, lunch, and an open bar after snorkeling. There’s even a slide at the back of the boat for kids (or kids at heart).
- Read reviews about Pride of Maui
- Book the ‘Maui Snorkeling Molokini Crater and Turtle Town aboard Pride of Maui’ tour
Essential gear and equipment
In Turtle Town, the right gear can mean the difference between an okay snorkeling trip and a great one. This is what you should consider when it comes to choosing the right snorkeling gear for you.
Basic snorkeling gear needed
The snorkeling essentials you’ll need include a mask, snorkel, and fins. A good-quality mask should fit snugly without being too tight, offering a clear view without fogging up. The snorkel, preferably with a valve that keeps water out, is your lifeline for easy breathing. Fins should be comfortable and the right size to propel you through the water with minimal effort.
Consider a flotation device if you’re not a confident swimmer, or if you don’t swim in the ocean frequently. I personally snorkel with a flotation belt or boogie board. A boogie board is nice because you can dive a little deeper while staying attached to the board.
Renting vs. buying gear
If you’re taking a tour, most providers will have gear for you to use as part of the tour package. But if you’re planning to snorkel multiple days, renting or buying gear could be a better option. If your tour guide’s gear doesn’t fit properly (say water leaks into your mask), your snorkeling experience will suffer as you constantly resurface to adjust your mask or snorkel.
For those new to snorkeling or visiting Turtle Town for a short period, renting gear is a convenient and cost-effective option. Rental shops are plentiful in Maui, and they offer the advantage of trying out different gear types without the commitment of a purchase.
However, if snorkeling is more than just a one-off activity for you, investing in your own gear might be the best route. Owning your gear ensures a perfect fit, better hygiene, and the potential for long-term savings. Whether you rent or buy, ensure the gear is of good quality and suits your level of snorkeling expertise.
Snorkeling safety and etiquette
In 2023, Maui was reported to have the most snorkeling fatalities in the state of Hawaii. And in the past decade, more people died in the state while snorkeling than swimming and surfing combined.
I’m not trying to deter you from your snorkeling adventure — only encourage responsible ocean practices. Before dipping your fins into the water, keep these marine safety tips in mind.
Safety is at the top of my mind every time I venture into the water, as I personally experienced a scary riptide once while snorkeling in Cozumel. Remember, the ocean is nature, and nature can be wild and unforgiving. And for those snorkeling from Maui beaches without a lifeguard on duty, safety is even more important.
General snorkeling safety tips
Know your limits. Safety begins with respecting your physical abilities. If you’re not a strong swimmer, don’t shy away from using a flotation device. If you’ve never snorkeled in the ocean, practice before venturing too far from shore. Even better, hire an expert guide to assist you.
On one snorkel tour, I let my tour guide know that while I’m able to swim, I’m not the strongest swimmer. Knowing this, she kept a close eye on me and made sure we didn’t venture beyond my swimming ability.
Two (or more) is better than one. Always snorkel with a buddy, and keep an eye out for each other as you explore.
Be aware of ocean conditions. Currents, waves, and winds can change rapidly. Checking the weather forecast and heeding any warnings from local authorities or tour operators can prevent many accidents. Around Maui, The Snorkel Report is a must-have guide to ocean conditions around the island.
Take breaks. Ensure that you’re well-rested and hydrated before venturing into the water, and stay near the shore if you start to tire. Fatigue can be a real danger in the ocean.
Respecting marine life and coral reefs
Don’t touch the coral reef or harass marine life. The marine life and coral reefs aren’t just tourist attractions; they’re vital parts of an ecosystem that we’re privileged to visit. These structures are alive and very fragile, and damage to them can have long-lasting effects on the entire marine habitat. Similarly, refrain from feeding or touching the fish and other marine creatures. Human interactions can disrupt their natural behaviors and diet.
Wear mineral-based sunscreen, not chemical sunscreen — it’s the law. While on Maui, choose the right type of sunscreen to protect both your skin and the marine ecosystem. Beginning in 2022, Maui County banned the use and sale of chemical-based sunscreen (without a prescription).
Mineral-based sunscreens containing ingredients like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide sit on top of your skin and reflect UV rays. Chemical sunscreens, on the other hand, absorb into your skin and can leach harmful chemicals into the water. These chemicals, particularly oxybenzone and octinoxate, can contribute to coral reef bleaching and harm marine life.
By opting for a mineral reef-safe sunscreen, you’re actively preserving the vibrant life that makes snorkeling in Maui so extraordinary. Remember to apply sunscreen well in advance of your swim to ensure it has time to bond to your skin and reapply as directed, especially after towel drying.
Guidelines for interacting with sea turtles
The Hawaiian green sea turtles are a wonder to behold, but they’re also a federally protected species. While it’s tempting to get up close, always maintain a respectful distance to avoid causing them stress. Chasing or attempting to ride the turtles is harmful and illegal. Instead, float calmly and let them approach on their terms.
Photography is a wonderful way to capture the moment, but flash photography is discouraged as it can disorient the turtles.
By following these guidelines, we contribute to the preservation of the Hawaiian honu and ensure that these magnificent creatures continue to thrive for generations to come. These guidelines also help ensure our own well-being while protecting the integrity of the marine environment. Snorkeling in Turtle Town is an opportunity to observe and learn, to be guests in a world that operates on its own terms, and to carry the responsibility of conservation with every swim stroke.
Tips for an unforgettable snorkeling experience
Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced snorkeler, these tips can make your Turtle Town adventure even more memorable.
Best practices for beginner snorkelers
If you’re new to snorkeling, start by getting comfortable with your gear on land or in shallow water. Practice breathing through your snorkel in a calm, shallow area before venturing deeper. As a beginner, I even practiced my snorkeling techniques in the safety of a swimming pool.
Keep your movements gentle and relaxed; frantic splashing can tire you out and disturb marine life. Always be mindful of your surroundings, including other snorkelers, water conditions, and wildlife. Remember, there’s no rush — snorkeling is about enjoying the underwater world at your own pace.
Advanced techniques for experienced snorkelers
For the seasoned snorkeler looking to enhance their experience, focus on refining your technique. Practice efficient finning to conserve energy and improve mobility. Dive a little deeper to explore different perspectives of the reef, but always be aware of your breath and limits. Learning to equalize your ears will make deeper dives more comfortable.
Capturing great underwater photos
Underwater photography is a fantastic way to share and remember your snorkeling adventures. If you’re using a camera or phone, ensure it’s in a secure, waterproof case. For the best shots, approach your subject slowly and calmly to avoid startling them.
Experiment with angles and compositions, and remember to respect the no-touch rule with marine life. Practice makes perfect, so take lots of photos and enjoy the process.
For the best photos, download photo editing software to color correct your images. When underwater, cameras capture the overwhelming blue and green tones of sea life but lose colors such as reds, oranges, and yellows in the process.
Beyond Turtle Town: other must-visit snorkeling spots around Maui
While Turtle Town is a snorkeling paradise, Maui’s coastline is dotted with numerous other spots that are just as enchanting and worthy of exploration. Each location offers its own unique snorkeling experience, different yet equally mesmerizing as Turtle Town.
Molokini Crater: a snorkeler’s dream
Molokini Crater, a partially submerged volcanic crater, is a world-renowned snorkeling location. Its clear waters and rich marine ecosystem make it a must-visit. Because of its distance from Maui, you will need to join a boat tour to snorkel here.
Unlike Turtle Town, which is famous for its green sea turtles, Molokini offers a chance to see a broader range of marine life, including over 250 species of fish, some of which are found nowhere else on Earth. Every trip to Molokini’s waters is a unique adventure. (During one snorkel tour, we caught an incredibly rare sighting of a whale shark.)
Black Rock Beach: a kaleidoscope of marine life
Located at the northern end of Ka’anapali Beach, Black Rock Beach is known for its abundant marine life and excellent snorkeling conditions. The beach is more accessible than some of the more remote spots in Maui, and its waters are teeming with tropical fish, making it a vibrant alternative to the turtle-centric Turtle Town — although you’re likely to encounter honu on this side of the island, too. The rocky outcrop that extends into the ocean is not only a great spot for snorkeling but also a popular place for cliff jumping.
Honolua Bay: Maui’s snorkeling gem
The bay’s protected status as a Marine Life Conservation District ensures that its underwater world remains pristine and teeming with life. In fact, it’s a popular stop for snorkel boat tours.
When snorkeling from land, the lack of sandy beaches and the more rugged approach to the water (it’s rocky) means Honolua Bay remains less crowded than other popular beachside spots, offering a more serene snorkeling experience.
While you may spot a few turtles here, Honolua Bay offers a chance to explore a more diverse underwater ecosystem. The bay is a snorkeling paradise, especially during the summer months when the water is calmest and clearest. It’s a haven for a variety of fish species, and snorkelers often get the chance to see other marine creatures, such as squid or octopus.
Snorkeling at Turtle Town is an experience like none other
For an experience you’ll cherish for years, I encourage you to explore these underwater treasures that Maui offers. Each snorkel spot around the island holds its own story and secrets, waiting to be discovered and cherished. Your snorkeling adventure can be as diverse and vibrant as the marine ecosystems you’ll explore.