Molokini Crater snorkeling is THE best snorkeling in Maui!
Maui, the second largest of the Hawaiian islands, is famous for its beautiful beaches, mountains, volcanoes, rainforests, and culture.
Maui is also home to some of the best snorkeling spots in the world, where you can see colorful tropical fish, coral, sea turtles, and other marine life.
THE best snorkeling in Maui is at the Molokini Crater!
Molokini Crater is a half-circle shaped island that was formed by a volcanic eruption a long time ago. The volcano is not active anymore, so don’t worry about lava or smoke.
Snorkeling at Molokini Crater is an amazing experience because the protected crater basin water is crystal clear and calm, and you can see to depths of 150 feet!
With over 250 species of tropical fish, different types of coral, and other marine animals, such as sea turtles, octopus, eels, crabs, starfish, and more, Molokini Crater is a snorkeling paradise!
In this blog post, we will tell you everything you need to know to about Molokini Crater so you can enjoy this incredible snorkeling experience!
Visiting Maui and enjoy hiking? Check out this amazing Bamboo Forest and Waimoku Falls Hike on the fabulous Pipiwai Trail!
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What is Molokini Crater?
Molokini Crater is a crescent-shaped volcanic crater, the remnants of one of the seven volcanoes that formed the prehistoric island of Maui Nui.
Molokini Crater is actually one of three volcanic calderas in Maui County, along with Haleakala Crater on Maui and Pu’u Ola’i on Kaho’olawe.
It is small, about 23 acres, with a highest point of 160 feet, and a diameter of about half a mile.
The crater is partially sunken in water, with a stunning coral reef protected by the rocky sheltering arms of the crescent.
Where is Molokini Crater?
Molokini Crater is about three miles offshore from the south coast of Maui, in the Alalakeiki Channel between the islands of Maui and Kaho’olawe.
On a clear day, you can see Molokini Crater from some places on the Maui coastline, like Makena Beach or Wailea Beach. It looks like a half-moon or a smiley face on the water.
To get to Molokini Crater, you need to take a boat from Maui. There are different places where you can catch a boat, like Makena, Kihei, or Maalaea.
The boat ride takes about 30 minutes to an hour, depending on where you start and how fast your boat is. Sometimes, you can see spinner dolphins or humpback whales, two of Hawaii’s iconic marine animals, on the way.
How was Molokini Crater Formed?
Molokini Crater is the remnant of a volcanic crater that erupted about 230,000 years ago. It is one of the seven volcanoes that formed the ancient island of Maui Nui, which later split into the present-day islands of Maui, Kaho’olawe, Lana’i and Moloka’i.
The volcanic eruption was triggered by the movement of the Maui landmass over a hotspot in the tectonic plates, a source of intense heat and magma in the Earth’s crust. The eruption spewed lava, ash and cinders into the air and sea, creating a circular cone of volcanic material around the vent.
The cinder cone that formed around the vent grew into an island above sea level.
The crater cone was a full circle, however, the cone was not symmetrical, but lopsided. The southern wall of the cone was steeper and thicker than the northern wall.
Eventually, the northern wall gave way, creating an opening to the ocean. The seawater rushed into the crater, cooling and hardening the lava inside.
The result was the world-famous Molokini Crater: a crescent-shaped atoll with a partially submerged crater basin that houses an amazing coral reef.
Why is Molokini Crater THE Perfect Spot for Snorkeling?
Molokini Crater is a world-renowned snorkeling spot, the best Maui snorkeling, and, probably, for all of Hawaii!
Molokini Crater has incredible underwater visibility
The circling arms of the Molokini shelter the inner area that hosts the coral reef from waves and currents. The Pacific Ocean water over the coral reef is crystal clear and perfectly calm, resulting in phenomenal underwater visibility!
Under the right conditions, you can see clearly up to 150 feet under water!
Molokini Crater is a marine sanctuary
Molokini Crater is a marine sanctuary (declared a Marine Life Conservation District in 1977), protected by the government. No one is allowed to fish, hunt, or harm the animals or plants that live there.
Marine life and diversity have flourished with the protection. There are more than 250 species of fish (some endemic to the crater, found nowhere else in the world!), 38 hard coral species, and over 100 species of algae.
With years of conservation and constant exposure to visitors, the fish are very comfortable with snorkelers and divers.
Molokini Crater offers a wide range of coral reef
The water is not very deep inside the crater basin (roughly 15-50 feet), offering a wide range of depths for underwater exploration.
The back side of the crater is perfect for advanced divers, with the sheer outer wall offering thrilling depths of over 300 feet, and a totally different underwater world!
Molokini Crater has something for every one, from first-time beginning snorkelers to professional divers.
How to get to Molokini Crater? Kinds of Boats
Molokini is a beautiful volcanic island that has amazing coral reefs and marine life, but it can be reached only by boat.
Different kinds of boats can take you to Molokini, depending on your preferences and budget.
I personally recommend the catamarans because they are more comfortable and offer more amenities than the zodiacs. They also have more variety of snorkeling sites than the private charters.
Catamarans are large, stable, and comfortable boats that have plenty of space for passengers and equipment. They usually have restrooms, showers, shaded areas, and food and drinks on board.
You can opt for small group (more expensive) or large group (cheaper) catamarans.
Zodiacs are small, fast, and agile boats that can get closer to the shore and the reef. They are more adventurous and exciting than catamarans, but also more bumpy and wet.
They usually have fewer passengers and no amenities on board. Zodiacs are great for thrill-seekers, experienced snorkelers, and anyone who wants a shorter and cheaper tour.
Check out pricing and availability on these two 5-star, top rated tours:
- The Molokini Crater and South Maui Coast Adventure from Kihei is a small-group tour that takes you to the back wall of Molokini.
- The Molokini Crater Zodiak Adventure Snorkel and Turtle Cove Swim takes you to Molokini Crater and Turtle Cove in a super raft.
Private charters are boats that you can rent for yourself or your group, and customize your itinerary and activities. They can be catamarans, zodiacs, sailboats, or yachts.
They usually have a captain and a crew who will take care of everything for you. Private charters are great for special occasions, privacy, flexibility, and luxury. Some examples of private charters that go to Molokini are Super Raft, Trilogy, Alii Nui, and Kai Kanani.
Check out pricing and availability on this private charter: Super Raft – Private Charter Maui 3 Hour Snorkel to Coral Gardens or Molokini.
How to Explore Molokini Crater? Snorkeling, Scuba, Snuba
Molokini Crater coral reefs are a stunning underwater seascape with crystal clear water, and there are many ways to explore the reefs.
Molokini Crater Snorkel Tours
Snorkeling tours are the most popular and common tours to Molokini Crater. They usually include a boat ride, snorkeling gear, instruction, and sometimes food and drinks.
Snorkeling gear is simple: a face mask, a snorkel breathing tube and feet fins. You can snorkel inside the crater, or at other nearby spots like Turtle Town or Coral Gardens.
Snorkeling tours are great for beginners and families, as they are easy and fun. Even non-swimmers can participate with the appropriate flotation devices.
They usually last for 3 to 5 hours, and cost around $50 to $150 per person.
Molokini Crater Dive for SCUBA
Certified Scuba divers who want to explore the deeper parts of Molokini Crater can take Molokini Crater Dive Boat tours. They usually include a boat ride, diving gear, instruction, and sometimes food and drinks.
You can dive inside the crater, or at the back wall, which is a vertical drop of hundreds of feet.
Scuba diving tours to Molokini Crater are great for experienced and adventurous divers, as they are challenging and thrilling. They usually last for 4 to 6 hours, and cost around $100 to $200 per person.
Molokini Crater SNUBA tours
For people who want to go beyond surface snorkeling and explore deeper parts of Molokini Crater, Snuba, something in between snorkeling and scuba diving, may be an option.
Snuba is a hybrid system that allows you to breathe underwater without carrying a tank. You wear a mask, fins, and a regulator that is connected to a hose that goes up to a raft on the surface.
You can go down to 20 feet and stay there for up to 30 minutes.
Snuba diving tours are great for curious and intermediate divers, as they are simple and exciting. They usually last for 3 to 4 hours, and cost around $80 to $120 per person.
Check out pricing and availability on this all-inclusive Pride of Maui tour that offers SNUBA at an additional cost.
The Best Molokini Crater Snorkel Tours
Molokini Crater is one of the most popular tourist attractions and there is no shortage of Molokini tours.
Which Molokini Crater tours will give you the best experience?
Molokini Crater is likely to be a highlight of your visit to Maui, and I strongly recommend you splurge a bit to make it a most memorable experience.
I highly recommend the Sunrise Deluxe Snorkel tour from Kai Kanani: this leaves from Maluaka Beach in Makena (closest point to Molokini Crater), getting you there well before the other tours.
On the way back, they stop at Turtle Town for another snorkeling session.
Another excellent choice is Alii Nui’s Molokini Deluxe Snorkel tour from Ma’alaea Harbor, with a second stop at Turtle Town.
Which Molokini Crater tours are budget friendly?
Pride of Maui, Malolo, and Calypso offer popular, budget-friendly tours including:
These tours are family-friendly, but note they can be crowded.
The all-inclusive Pride of Maui tour provides meals, snacks, drinks, alcohol, SNUBA (at an additional cost) and snorkeling equipment.
The Malolo has an underwater professional photographer with a variety of packages to choose from.
The Calypso is a triple-decker catamaran with a glass bottom viewing port, and a professional underwater photographer.
Which Molokini Crater tours are great for groups?
If you have a large group of up to 15, I recommend Super Raft – Private Charter Maui 3 Hour Snorkel to Coral Gardens or Molokini. This private experience may work to be just a bit more expensive, but will let you customize for special occasions.
Which tours are great for adventurers / thrill seekers?
These two zodiac tours are great for thrill seekers.
The Molokini Crater and South Maui Coast Adventure from Kihei is a small-group tour that takes you to the back wall of Molokini.
The Molokini Crater Zodiak Adventure Snorkel and Turtle Cove Swim takes you to Molokini Crater and Turtle Cove in a super raft.
Things to Know Before Booking Your Molokini Tour
Morning tours are better
Early morning tours are the best: you get crystal clear water at its calmest. The trade winds pick up later in the morning and underwater visibility drops.
Depending on the wind and water conditions, later tours may get re-directed to other locations from Molokini Crater.
Makena departures are closest
Why not get to Molokini Crater faster in the morning, and avoid the crowds, spend more time exploring the reefs? Makena departures can cut as much as 30 minutes from the boat trip.
Molokini Crater snorkel tour can be combined with other things
Combining Molokini Crater with Turtle Town (or Turtle Cove or Turtle Arches) is very popular. This works well if you have limited time in Maui.
What can you see at Molokini Crater snorkeling?
Molokini Crater is such a popular snorkeling destination because of the amazing variety and beauty of what you can see there: many kinds of coral, colorful tropical fish and other marine life.
Molokini Crater has one of the most diverse and healthy coral reefs in Hawaii. Coral reefs are underwater structures made by tiny animals called coral polyps that secrete calcium carbonate to form hard skeletons.
At Molokini Crater, you can see over 38 species of coral, some of which are endemic to Hawaii, which means they are not found anywhere else in the world.
Common coral species you will likely see include:
- Brain coral, which looks like a wrinkled brain
- Cauliflower coral, which looks like a bunch of white flowers
- Finger coral, which looks like a cluster of fingers
- Rice coral, which looks like grains of rice
- Antler coral, which looks like deer antlers
The coral provides habitat and food for many fish and other animals, and helps filter the water and protect the coast from erosion and waves.
The coral at Molokini Crater is also very fragile and sensitive. You should never touch, step on, or break the coral.
Note: Please use reef-safe sunscreen, regular sunscreen contains chemicals that can harm the coral.
The Tropical Reef Fish
Molokini Crater has over 250 species of fish, many of which are tropical reef fish that live among the coral.
Tropical reef fish are fish that live in warm, shallow waters near the equator. They are usually small and colorful, with patterns and shapes that help them blend in with the coral or stand out from predators.
Want to be able to identify the reef fish? Check out our Hawaii Fish Snorkeling guide to the different kinds of fish found in Hawaiian coral reefs!
Some of the tropical reef fish you can see at Molokini Crater are:
- Butterflyfish, which have bright colors and stripes that look like butterfly wings
- Angelfish, which have flat bodies and long fins that look like angel wings
- Parrotfish, which have beak-like mouths that they use to scrape algae from the coral
- Triggerfish, which have spiny fins that they can lock in place to defend themselves
- Surgeonfish, which have sharp spines on their tails that they use to cut their enemies
The tropical reef fish feed on algae, plankton, worms, or other small animals. They hide in crevices or holes in the coral, or sometimes dart out in the open water.
The tropical reef fish help control the algae growth on the coral and keep it healthy. They also provide food for larger fish and other predators.
The Iconic Hawaiian Marine Life
Some of the iconic Hawaiian marine animals you can see at Molokini Crater (or on the way to and from the crater) are:
- Spinner dolphins, which are small and playful dolphins that can spin in the air when they jump out of the water
- Humpback whales, which are huge and majestic whales that migrate to Hawaii every winter to mate and give birth
- Hawaiian green sea turtles, which are gentle and friendly turtles that have greenish skin and shells
- Monk seals, which are rare and endangered seals that have brown fur and whiskers
If you don’t get to see Hawaiian green sea turtles at the Molokini Crater, make sure you check out Turtle Town Snorkeling in Maui!
Other Marine Life
Molokini Crater has many other kinds of marine life that are less common or less known, but still very fascinating:
- Octopus, which are smart and curious animals that can change their color and shape to camouflage or communicate
- Eels, which are long and slender fish that have sharp teeth and can hide in holes or crevices
- Crabs, which are hard-shelled animals that have claws and legs that they use to walk or grab things
- Starfish, which are star-shaped animals that have tube feet and spines that they use to move or feed
With so much to see, no wonder snorkeling at Molokini Crater is one of the best things to do in Maui!
I think Molokini Crater is one of the most amazing places in the world, and my snorkeling experiences there have made some unforgettable memories.
The Birds of Molokini Crater
Molokini Crater is also a haven for many seabirds, and is federally owned and protected as a Hawaii State Seabird Sanctuary.
On and within the rocky terrain of the island atoll, you can find nesting seabirds. Molokini Crater offers a safe and sheltered place for seabirds to breed and roost.
The island is surrounded by clear and calm waters that are rich in fish and plankton, providing abundant food sources for the birds.
Birdwatchers should keep a look out for these species of birds that are known to frequent Molokini Crater:
About 1,000 to 1,500 pairs, seen mostly March to October. They are large shearwaters with thin beaks that feed on fish and crustaceans.
They nest in burrows on the island and fly out to sea during the day.
About 50 to 100 pairs, seen mostly April to September. They are small petrels with long wingspans and pointed tails.
Petrels feed on planktonic creatures on the ocean surface. They nest in crevices on the island and are nocturnal or crepuscular.
Uncommon year-round. They are elegant white birds with long tail streamers and yellow bills.
They feed on fish and squid by plunge-diving. They nest on ledges or in holes on the island.
A few roost year-round; more (high count: 131) from July to September. They are large black birds with long wings and forked tails.
They feed on fish, squid and other seabirds by snatching them from the air or water surface. They do not nest on Molokini, but on nearby islands like Kaho’olawe.
A few present year-round, possibly associated with colonies on Kaho’olawe. They are brown-and-white birds with long bills and webbed feet.
They feed on fish by plunge-diving. They nest on flat or sloping ground on islands.
Other seabirds seen in Molokini Crater or nearby include the laysan albatross, Hawaiian petrel, red-tailed tropicbird and red-footed booby.
As an amateur birdwatcher, I love visiting Molokini Crater! On my last boat tour, I was lucky to have a fellow birdwatcher as a crew member, who pointed out many of the bird species.
Best Time for Molokini Crater Snorkeling
While you can snorkel at Molokini Crater all year long, if you want to have the best snorkeling experience at Molokini Crater, you need to know when is the best time to go there.
The Best Time of the Year
The best months to go snorkeling at Molokini Crater are from December to April. These are the winter months in Hawaii, but they are not very cold.
The average water temperature is about 75°F, which is comfortable for most people (though some may want to use a wetsuit or rash guard).
The winter months are also the best time for whale watching in Maui. Humpback whales are amazing animals that migrate from Alaska to Hawaii every year to mate and give birth.
Watching a 60,000 pound humpback whale breach the surface of the water by launching its giant body into the air is simply amazing!
The summer months from May to November are also the rainy season in Hawaii, and rain can make the water cloudy and choppy, reducing visibility.
The Best Time of the Day
While Molokini Crater is open for snorkeling from sunrise to sunset, the best hours to go snorkeling at Molokini Crater are from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m.
These are the early morning hours, but Molokini Crater is well worth the early wake up call. The early morning hours are when the water is at its calmest and clearest. You can see very far underwater, sometimes up to 150 feet.
The water is also not very crowded with other boats and snorkelers, so you have more space and peace.
The early morning hours are also when the marine life is at its most active. You can see more fish, coral, turtles, and other animals swimming around and feeding.
You can also see more colors and details on the coral and fish, because the sunlight is not too bright or too dim.
Late morning and afternoon hours are when the water is at its choppiest and cloudiest. The water is also more crowded with other boats and snorkelers, so you have less space and peace.
Tips for Preparing for a Molokini Crater Boat Tour
Check with your tour whether you need to bring water, soda and snacks. Also, check with the tour on what gear they will provide.
Depending on the weather, you may want to supplement the gear provided with additional gear like a wetsuit or rash guard.
Wear your swimsuit under your clothes
Makes it easy to get ready for snorkeling. Some boats may not have changing facilities.
Use reef-safe sunscreen
Regular sunscreen contains chemicals harmful to the delicate corals. Use reef-safe sunscreen and apply liberally, the Hawaiian sun is harsh!
Bring a couple of towels
Towels will come in handy after the snorkeling session and after showers, if any!
Bring underwater digital cameras and video cameras
The underwater seascape is amazing, and you can capture it with underwater cameras. Some boat tours offer rentals, others may have professional underwater photographers.
Bring medicine or natural treatment for motion sickness
Sea sickness / motion sickness is not uncommon, especially if you are planning on a zodiac tour, so be prepared either with medication (may make you drowsy) or natural alternatives that work for you like ginger candy. Try keeping your eyes fixed on the horizon.
Molokini Crater: FAQ
Do you see sharks at Molokini Crater?
Yes, Molokini crater is in the ocean and there are sharks in the ocean. The common sharks you see are whitetip reef shark, whale shark, and grey reef shark.
How long is the boat ride to Molokini?
The boat ride to Molokini Crater is anywhere from 30 minutes to roughly an hour depending on your departure point and type of boat.
More Maui Travel Inspiration
If you have a Maui vacation on your radar, check out some of our other helpful guides to build the perfect Maui itinerary!
- Tips for Whale Watching in Maui (When to Go!)
- The Complete Guide to Haleakala National Park, Maui
- A Guide to the Pipiwai Trail in Haleakala National Park, Maui
- Turtle Town Snorkeling in Maui with Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles
- 13 Places for the Best Snorkeling in Lahaina and West Maui
- Best Stops on the Hana Highway in Maui
- Guide to Waianapanapa State Park and the Black Sand Beach
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