How To See Turtles on Maui
There is nothing more magical than seeing turtles on Maui! The green sea turtle, or honu, is the more prominent species of turtle in Hawaii. Sea turtles have been around for over 180 million years, and are one of the few species to have outlived the dinosaurs!
Honu hold a very special place in Hawaiian culture. The Hawaiian Honu represent longevity, safety, and Mana (spiritual energy) and are considered to be a form of ‘aumakua or ancestral spirit, offering lifelong protection, wisdom and guidance. Seeing one (or many) in real life while visiting Maui can easily become a highlight of your trip, and we’re here to help!
We’ve enlisted our friends at Boomkanani Adventure Club to provide some extra tips about seeing turtles in Maui’s waters. They are constantly hanging out with honu on their Hobie pedal-kayak tours, and know a few things about where to go and when to see turtles in the water!
What kind of turtles are found in Hawaii?
The main five species of turtles in Hawaii are:
- Green sea turtle or “honu”
- Hawksbill or “honu’ea”
- Olive Ridley
How to respectfully and ethically view turtles on Maui?
The green sea turtle is listed as a threatened species under federal and state law, while Hawksbill sea turtles are listed as an endangered species. There are laws in place to protect sea turtles in Hawaii. Although there is no specific law on the exact distance, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and Hawaii’s DLNR (Department of Land and Natural Resources) recommend that everyone stay at least 10 feet (3 meters) from all sea turtles for their protection and your safety. This means no touching, feeding, posing unsafely close by, and for goddess’ sake, do not ride a turtle. Yes, that must be said.
Sometimes this distance isn’t possible. Maybe they’ve come up by you while you’re snorkeling, or maybe you wake up from a beach nap and they’ve cozied up nearby (yes, this has happened to me on an empty beach)! Safely move away from the creature as carefully as possible, with no sudden movements that might disturb them. When this distance is not maintained, you could be stuck with a hefty fine, and very upset locals.
How big do turtles get in Hawaii?
The Hawaiian Honu is the largest of all hard-shelled sea turtles and typically get up to 3-4 feet long, weighing about 300-350 pounds!
How to see turtles on Maui?
There are a plethora of options for viewing sea turtles while on Maui. You can rent snorkel gear, implement these tips, and go on a mission to see your first honu! You can sail away on a boat cruise where the crew will bring you to an area off shore where they typically encounter green sea turtles, like a turtle cleaning station. Or our favorite method is hopping on Boomkanani’s kayak tour, where you can leisurely pedal your way along the shoreline, exploring the typical areas that turtles are spotted.
Boomkanani’s Tips: Choosing a kayak tour over a boat comes with many benefits! A kayak snorkeling tour is eco-friendly, making it safest for wildlife and patrons alike. Going out on a kayak minimizes hazardous chemicals and noise pollution that can interrupt wildlife, allowing better preservation of the unique ecology of the Hawaiian islands. Kayaking is also perfect for those who don’t want to swim with the turtles, but seek a closer interaction. These large water crafts are extremely safe and top of the line. Perfect for quiet, safe viewing of sea turtles and any marine animal you come across!
It is also not uncommon to see turtles basking on the beach. There are a few beaches with a higher chance of seeing this phenomenon. Because everyday is different due to weather and ocean conditions, so it is not always a guarantee. Where WILL you see turtles without fail? Maui Ocean Center! As Hawaii’s largest aquarium, Maui Ocean Center has an entire section called the Turtle Lagoon. You can see honu from above water, on land, and in the water, without getting yourself wet!
Where to swim with turtles on Maui?
Remember to keep a 10-foot distance as best as you can when getting in the water with sea turtles. Sometimes a happy surprise (or a startling surprise) happens where a honu is suddenly right next to you in the water. Try to give them space and breath deep while experiencing their magic and calming energy. There are few things as truly relaxing as watching a green sea turtle bobbing in the current below the surface.
Below is a list of beaches and snorkel spots where I have swam with turtles multiple times. But do remember that there is no guarantee of turtle sightings.
On the West side of Maui, just 3 miles North of Kapalua, is Honolua Bay. This is part of a Marine Life Conservation District, so the ecosystem is protected and beautiful, which makes it a thriving area for sea turtles. Honolua Bay is also home to some of the best surfing waves in Hawaii. When there are large waves, the visibility is not great at Honolua Bay for snorkeling and spotting honu, so check the surf conditions or ask a local prior to going out.
Pu’u Keka’a or Black Rock on Ka’anapali Beach
Located at the North end of Ka’anapali Beach, the volcanic rock protruding into the water’s edge has been nicknamed “Black Rock.” This area is extremely well known for snorkeling and seeing green sea turtles. It is a perfect spot for novice snorkelers because it offers an easy entrance, just a few steps from the sandy beach and you’re in the water ready to snorkel! After you’ve explored for a bit, watch the brave souls cliff jump off of Black Rock and into the water below.
There is an abundance of marine life along the reef of Olowalu. This is located 4 miles South of Lahaina, nearby the famous pie shop called Leoda’s. This area of Maui has a beautiful reef and is great for snorkeling because of its shallow waters and protection from the wind. Parking is limited to the side of the highway, so prepare accordingly and do not leave your valuables in the car. This is the main location that Boomkanani runs their kayak tours out of.
This name garners some confusion as it encompasses a region of South Maui. It includes the diving area called “5 Graves” or “5 Caves,” Makena Landing Park region, and Maluaka Beach. There are many lava caves underwater in this region, something that the sea turtles love to swim around in and dine on the seaweed. Also present are turtle cleaning stations around Turtle Town, where small surgeonfish come up to the honu and clean their shells. We highly recommend a boat snorkel tour with Kai Kanani, where they often stop at Turtle Town after their Molokini voyage.
Where to view turtles from above water on Maui?
If you or your party aren’t looking to get strapped down in snorkel gear and thrown into the water, but you still want to see turtles on Maui, there are various beaches where I often see turtles basking in the sun.
On the North Shore of Maui sits another beach perfect for surfers and turtles alike. On the north end of Ho’okipa Beach, there is a protected region for sea turtles to lay out. You will be amazed at the number of turtles nestled next to each other here. You can view the turtles from the beach park above, or on the sand before the barrier. At first they first appear like rocks on the beach, until your realize that you’re looking at multiple turtle shells! The Hawaii Wildlife Fund is posted up to ensure the protected barrier is not crossed, answer any questions, and provide education. They shared with me that at one point they counted up to 185 turtles at once!
Ku’au Beach Park
Not to be confused with Ku’au Cove which fronts the infamous Mama’a Fish House restaurant, Ku’au Beach Park is just South, right off of Hana Highway. Often gone unnoticed, this beach has a nice calming slope to the cove, but is quite small. What this beach lacks in size, it makes up in its special guests often found basking on the beach. Most times I have visited this beach, I see 2 or more turtles laying out in the sun.
Oneloa or Ironwoods Beach
Another quiet beach just off the radar is Ironwoods Beach, or Oneloa Beach in Kapalua. I am often visited by a turtle, joining me in the sun! This can be a very windy beach with shallow waters, making it great for surfers, but those conditions don’t often bring a big crowd of beach goers. When I think of where I’m most often surprised with a honu slowly making its way to shore, this is that beach!
Maui Ocean Center
And lastly, the one place where you can see turtles in the water, outside of the water, and from above, is Maui Ocean Center! Located in Ma’alaea (Central Maui), the Turtle Lagoon has 6 turtles out at a time for you to view safely from dry land. This 3-acre facility is the largest living tropical reef aquarium in the Western Hemisphere, so be sure to enjoy the many other marine wildlife presentations and areas throughout the aquarium during your visit.
When is the best time to see turtles in Hawaii?
Turtles are abundant in the waters of Hawaii year-round. But, there are certain conditions and times of the day when you are more likely to see turtles! When the sun is shining down on the water, it lights the sea up which provides the most clarity to be able to view the honu. Turtles prefer calmer seas, so you won’t see them bobbing around in the middle of a storm. Try catching them in the heat of the day as they basking on the beach.
Boomkanani‘s Tips: Try to go on a search for honu mid-day when the ocean is at its most calm, and it is the warmest outside. Between 11am and 2pm is the best time to view turtles from the water or shore.
What gear is needed to see turtles in Hawaii?
Rent a snorkel set from a nearby snorkel store. You will be provided with a mask that properly fits, a pair of fins according to your shoe size, and a mesh bag to carry them in. Some visitors stop at Costco on the way to their accommodation and purchase a set for their whole trip! If you choose this option, please be mindful of our landfills and find a way to gift your set to the next family coming in or check if your accommodation has a donation bin.
Be sure to purchase mineral sunscreen during your time on Maui. October 1st, 2022 marks the ban on non-mineral sunscreen in Maui county (unless you have a prescription). Classic sunscreens contain toxins that damage the coral reef, fish, and sea turtles. Sunscreens containing any of the following are harmful to Maui’s reefs:
Do not trust the bottles claiming to be “Reef-Safe,” as they sometimes still contain these toxins. Ensure your sunscreen does not have any of the above ingredients and look for mineral sunscreens made with “non-nanotized zinc oxide” or “titanium dioxide” instead. Spray sunscreen is also a huge pollutant on Maui and not appreciated by the locals. Spend the extra time to put on mineral sunscreen to help protect our vulnerable reef!
Boomkanani‘s Tips: Some visitors upgrade to long fins for the best agility possible in the water. To document the epic encounters that you’ll experience, an underwater GoPro or waterproof iPhone case is a great idea. Boomkanani’s special adventures are complete with personalized guides and high-end equipment, but you are encouraged to bring food and drinks on board the kayaks (the guide will show you the best tips for keeping everything onboard). It is also nice to avoid any lotions or toxic body products prior to water tours for the safety of our ocean and reefs.
Now head out on your honu search on Maui and we hope you head home with unforgettable memories of your time here on Maui!
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