West of Hanalei at the western end of the north shore of Kauai, the snorkeling at Ke'e Beach is one of the most beautiful places to snorkel on Kauai, especially during low tide. But while the above water scenery is spectacular, the water clarity in the main lagoon is poor and there is very limited marine life now. Starting in 2011, the winter surf action has brought s...
West of Hanalei at the western end of the north shore of Kauai, the snorkeling at Ke'e Beach is one of the most beautiful places to snorkel on Kauai, especially during low tide. But while the above water scenery is spectacular, the water clarity in the main lagoon is poor and there is very limited marine life now. Starting in 2011, the winter surf action has brought significant sand into the snorkeling lagoon resulting in a big reduction in water depth. Subsequently, the water clarity is greatly reduced as gentle wave actions kicks up the shallow sands. This effect has only continued in the years since. What used to be an excellent snorkeling dive site is now really not that spectacular. But, it is hugely popular and is where most snorkelers hangout. There are just a couple growths of cauliflower coral, mushroom coral and lobe coral providing habitat for some convict tangs, butterflyfish, parrotfish and humuhumunukunukuapua'a (Hawaiian state fish aka rectangular triggerfish).
Little do all those lagoon snorkelers know, but the snorkeling outside the fringing reef is truly spectacular. It’s actually five star world-class. But it isn’t for beginners and requires the right surf and tide conditions. It can only be accessed at high-tide on days with little or no surf. You can start snorkeling in the lagoon and then cross the fringing reef diagonally northwest to the wall. Once you reach the edge of the fringing reef, the water depth drops from 2-3 feet down to 20 feet. You will find extremely healthy coral head formations with large schools of huge reef fish. This wall provides feeding habitat for green sea turtles, where you may find 20-30 turtles from 2-4 feet wide feeding at one time. You may also encounter white-tipped reef sharks circling the coral towers. Keep an eye on your time on site as you still need to get back in over the fringing reef with enough water depth. And, keep an eye out for monk seals which are known to frequent the area.
From September through May, the surf off Ke'e Beach is affected by seasonal northwest swells that kickup the large waves and generate strong currents so make sure to exercise caution. Ke'e Beach snorkeling is best at low tide when the surf is then blocked by the exposed reef. While some may like the state park life guards, experienced snorkelers may find them to be alittle too restrictive. For experienced snorkelers, when guards are off duty, try heading out of the lagoon during calm waters at low tide to the outer edge of the reef. Turn right and stay close to outer edge. There are green sea turtle feeding zones where you can see dozens of turtles feeding. Keep a sharp eye for the black tipped reef sharks.
In the Spring of 2018, there were heavy rains that damage the primary access road, Kuhio Highway, from Hanalei west to Ke'e Beach. As of May 2019, the road is still closed to tourists, and locals can only proceed through at scheduled caravan times. The projected reopening is June 2019, or later. The Hanalei Colony Resort has been used as rescue housing and a temporary school, while their laundry/pool building is also rebuilt.
To reach the snorkeling in Kauai by air, fly into the Lihue airport (LIH). There are direct flights from Los Angeles, Denver, San Francisco, Seattle and Honolulu. While most visitors to the island rent a car, it is possible to use the public bus but keep in mind that its small and slow. Plus, most of the main snorkeling beaches are well off the bus route requiring some hiking. If you do rent a car, make sure to leave the inside empty when at the beach to avoid attracting break-ins.
To reach the snorkeling at Kee Beach from Lihue, head northwest on SR56 (Kuhio Highway) to Princeville. Continue west on SR560 to through Hanalei to Kee Beach (milepost 10). There is a newer North Shore Shuttle van service from Hanalei out to Ke'e Beach which is smart to avoid the congested parking issue. While there is an exceptional amount of parking within a mile away, it fills up shockingly fast. Definitely get there very, very early (before 8am). The parking area also serves the surprisingly popular Kalalau Trail where the hikers start very early in the day to avoid heat and rain. There are now showers and restrooms onsite near the beach.
If you haven’t been to Ke’e Beach since before the big storm in Spring 2018, there have been big changes to the access for Hā’ena State Park. Non-native Hawaiians can no longer just drive into Hā’ena State Park to visit Ke’e Beach or the Kalalau Trail. To reduce the heavy road traffic, you will now need to pre-purchase one of the limited parking passes from the state park website (http://dlnr.hawaii.gov/dsp/parks/kauai/haena-state-park/), or reserve a timed space on the new shuttle bus from their website (https://kauainsshuttle.com/). Both reservations include a state park entrance fee, too. Prepayment on the website is required since there is no cash accepted by the drivers.
Starting in June 2019, the Kaua’i North Shore Shuttle will operate between Princeville Shopping Center and the Hā’ena State Park (Ke’e Beach) with stops along the way including County lifeguarded beaches. There will be a temporary Park-And-Ride located at the Waipa Foundation just west of Hanalei. The Kaua'i North Shore Shuttle is a visitors primary service system for the Hā’ena State Park which includes the Ke'e Beach area and Kalalau Trail access at the end of the road. For overnight users of the Kalalau Trail, there is no longer overnight parking permitted in Hā’ena State Park, so all campers will have to use the Kaua’i North Shore Shuttle to enter the park along with specifying the arrival and departure bus times.
Before snorkeling at Ke'e Beach, make sure to check the current surf report. The waters off Kauai are known for potentially strong currents, high surf and rogue waves. Luckily, there are excellent up-to-date surf reports that can provide guidance on these adverse conditions. WIth the usually rolling surf, it is strongly discouraged to use open-tube snorkels which are common at snorkel rental locations -- only use snorkels with a dry-top splash-guard and a sump purge-valve in the mouth piece. In addition to changing surf conditions, a Ke'e Beach snorkeling dive may expose you to sharp coral reefs and you may encounter sharks, such as whitetip reef sharks, galapagos sharks and tiger sharks. Most snorkeling shark attacks in Hawaiian waters tend to occur near spear-fishing snorkelers, so be aware of the activities of others in the water.
Overall, Ke'e Beach is the 3rd most popular snorkel dive spot of all 23 snorkeling dives in Kauai. Several of the better snorkeling spots are nearby Ke'e Beach including Milolii State Park and Nualolo Kai State Park.
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