Turtle Canyon snorkeling tours are among the most popular excursions in Oahu!
Snorkeling with Hawaiian green sea turtles, or honu, is on the bucket-list of many a first-time visitor to Oahu. In fact, we try and do a Turtle Canyon tour every time we visit Waikiki, because it’s so much fun!
If you love observing marine life and want the opportunity to view the majestic Hawaiian green sea turtles at leisure, you will want to consider a Turtle Canyon snorkeling tour.
In this article, we tell you about the top tours to consider if you are looking to snorkel Turtle Canyon, plus helpful tips for an enjoyable snorkeling experience.
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Why Snorkel Turtle Canyon?
You can see the endangered Hawaiian green sea turtles in many places in Oahu even without setting foot into the water, like at Laniakea Beach on Oahu’s North Shore.
But swimming or snorkeling with turtles is an entirely different experience.
And Turtle Canyon, true to its name, is one of the best places in Oahu to snorkel with turtles.
Located a short distance from shore in Waikiki, Turtle Canyon is a nature reserve that’s a known “cleaning station” for sea turtles.
So what’s a turtle cleaning station? It is a reef where turtles go routinely to have their shells cleaned of algae by fish.
Patient, silent swimmers are treated to an extraordinary show at Turtle Canyon. It’s an amazing sight to see a crowd of reef fish swarm around a turtle and dine off the algae on its shell!
You may see bright yellow tang, damselfish, angelfish, and many other varieties of other reef fish swim up to pick over the shell when a turtle arrives at the station, assumes position, and hovers.
The reef at Turtle Canyon features crystal-clear water, and though this reef isn’t known for its colorful coral, like nearby Hanauma Bay, you are pretty much guaranteed sea turtle sightings here.
One thing to note is that the water is pretty deep at Turtle Canyon — between 15 and 40 feet. While this is more than typical snorkeling sites and you are mostly way above the reef, you still want to be careful about not stepping on coral.
Turtle Canyon not only offers spectacular turtle-watching opportunities, it’s also convenient to access via boat tours from Waikiki. If you don’t have a car, the boat launch pier is a quick Uber ride.
How do you get to Turtle Canyon?
Turtle Canyon lies offshore from Waikiki on the southern shore of Oahu.
The snorkeling site at Turtle Canyon is only accessible by boat. The good news is that there are a number of tour operators that offer guided Turtle Canyon snorkeling tours.
Turtle Canyon snorkel tours typically depart from Kewalo Harbor, just a short drive from Waikiki.
Best Turtle Canyon Snorkeling Tours in Oahu
If swimming with sea turtles is on your wish-list for Oahu, here are the very best Turtle Canyon snorkel tours from which to choose!
1. Turtle Canyon Snorkeling Excursion
On this super popular Turtle Canyon tour, you’ll depart from the Kewalo Basin Harbor in Honolulu and cruise along the south Oahu shoreline to the snorkeling site at Turtle Canyon.
The tour is led by an experienced guide (your tour leader), who will offer a brief lesson on snorkeling safety and tell you a bit about the local marine life, before you start your guided snorkel.
Snorkeling gear and light refreshments are included.
Keep your eyes peeled en route to the snorkel site and back as you may see spinner dolphins, flying fish, and even humpback whales (in the winter) from the boat.
This two-hour Turtle Canyon snorkeling excursion offers several departures each day, including an early morning (7 a.m.!) departure.
If you are okay with an early wake-up call on vacation, it is surreal to be at Turtle Canyon early in the day when the waters are calm and it is much less apt to be crowded. We’ve done this excursion both in the morning and in the afternoon and we much preferred the morning tour.
You need to know basic swimming but the crew is super helpful and friendly. I am not a great swimmer and they gave me a flotation device so I could experience the turtles close up.
Kids 3 and older can participate, and the group size is limited to 40 participants.
2. Turtle Canyon Snorkeling Adventure in Waikiki
This highly-rated tour includes a boat excursion from Honolulu to the snorkeling site in Turtle Canyon, followed by the chance to sunbathe on a floating platform afterwards!
This excursion lasts for two hours.
Their morning departure is at 8 a.m., still early enough for relatively calm ocean conditions and lower crowds. There are two other departures each day, one in the late morning and one in the early afternoon.
Snorkeling equipment, flotation devices, and snacks are included.
If you will arrive in your rental car, parking is available at $1.00 per hour.
One of the pluses of this Turtle Canyon snorkeling tour is that the group size is limited to 20 participants, perfect for a more relaxed excursion.
The captain and crew are rated super helpful and patient with beginner snorkelers. They guide you to the best spots to view the large green sea turtles, in addition to the schools of fish.
3. Catamaran Turtle Canyon Snorkeling Tour
Looking for a catamaran cruise to Turtle Canyon?
The Mana Kai double-hulled catamaran takes you on a relaxing cruise of the coast of south Oahu on your way to Turtle Canyon.
Departure is right from Waikiki Beach! You just arrive at the Duke Kahanamoku Statue and then directly walk down to the water, where the boat will be waiting.
Limited to 25 participants, this smaller-sized Turtle Canyon snorkeling tour allows for a personalized experience. Snorkel gear is provided.
The cruise is family-friendly, even allowing infants. Kids 4 and under that want to snorkel get a break on the price but need to bring their own snorkel gear.
Crew members are helpful in locating marine life. Apart from the green sea turtles, they may also show you octopus, starfish, and the like.
4. Hawaiian Sea Turtle Snorkel Sail Turtle Canyon Tour
On this popular snorkel sail tour from Waikiki to Turtle Canyon, you will climb aboard a power catamaran and sail along the coast to the snorkel site.
Look for dolphins, and humpback whales in the winter as you cruise to Turtle Canyon and on the way back.
You’ll also be able to snap photos of the iconic Waikiki skyline from the water.
One reason to pick this cruise is that turtle sightings are guaranteed: if you don’t see a turtle, you’ll have the opportunity to go on a second cruise.
But honestly, it’s very rare that you visit Turtle Canyon and don’t see any turtles at all.
This is a large catamaran, capable of holding up to 80 people.
A mid-day option includes lunch, but there’s also a morning departure if you prefer to visit when it’s quieter at the cleaning station. You also have a transport-included option you can pick.
The morning tour includes snacks and beverages and last 2 hours, the midday lunch tour lasts 3 hours and includes two alcoholic drinks per person.
The tour departs from Kewalo Harbor.
5. Semi-Private Turtle Canyon Snorkel Boat Tour
If you are limited on time but still looking for a quality Turtle Canyon snorkeling experience, consider this small-group semi-private Turtle Canyon snorkeling tour.
The total excursion time is just 90 minutes, and the tour is limited to a maximum of just 6 people.
They have several departures from Kewalo Basin Harbor, including a 7 a.m. morning tour.
You’ll zip to Turtle Canyon in a fast 32-foot inflatable Zodiac boat in just 10 minutes. The boat ride itself is a thrilling adventure!
Once at Turtle Canyon, you’ll have 45 minutes to one hour to snorkel and swim with turtles and fish before the exhilarating boat ride back.
The guides are very helpful and will point out turtles and other marine life. Snorkeling equipment is included.
This Turtle Canyon snorkeling tour requires a moderate level of physical fitness, and children below 5 years are not allowed. The tour is however suitable for beginner snorkelers.
Snorkeling and Water Activities Gear Checklist
Though you can rent snorkeling gear or use the ones that come with tours, we invested in our own gear, mainly due to Covid-19 (why take the risk?).
- Snorkeling Gear Set: We love our Cressi Light Weight Premium Travel Snorkel Set for All Family, compact and easy to pack, great fitting, and very clear underwater. The Zenoplige Mask Fins Snorkel Set is a great budget option.
- Sunscreen: Hawaii’s sun can be harsh. Avoid sunburn with sunscreen compliant with Hawaii’s 104 Reef Act. The Sun Bum Original SPF 50 Sunscreen Spray, moisturizing with Vitamin E, is our go-to when we travel to Hawaii. Apply liberally and regularly!
- Underwater Camera: Want to capture Hawaii’s incredible underwater seascape and marine life? Your best budget option is the Fujifilm QuickSnap Waterproof Disposable Camera, reasonably cheap with good underwater photos! If you want high-end photos and video, you must invest in the premium GoPro HERO12 – Waterproof Action Camera, (waterproof to 33 feet)!
- Inflatable Life Jackets: If you’re planning paddle boarding, canoeing, kayaking and other water sports, and prefer your own life jacket, consider one of these two US Coast Guard approved options: the Onyx M-16 Series Belt Back Manual Inflatable Life Jacket or the Onyx A/M-24 Automatic/Manual Inflatable Life Jacket.
- Water Shoes: Some of Hawaii’s beaches have sharp lava rocks or coral reefs, good water shoes will protect your feet (but please do not walk on the reef!). We use the Merrell Hydro Moc rubber shoes (men’s, women’s), great for slippery rocks. If you prefer sandals, we recommend the Keen Newport H2 Closed Toe Water Sandals (men’s, women’s).
- Waterproof Waist Pack: Keep your rental car keys, cards, and phone dry and safe while you swim or snorkel with a dry bag. We love this 2-pack AiRun Tech Pouch with waist strap. The transparent one is touch-screen friendly!
Tips for Turtle Canyon Snorkeling
Pick an early morning tour for fewer crowds
Turtle Canyon is a very popular snorkeling site, since turtle sightings are virtually guaranteed.
Many tours head to this popular turtle cleaning station everyday, so expect the snorkel site to be crowded during the day.
Your best chance of a relatively relaxed experience is to pick an early morning tour.
Pick early morning also for calmer waters
Another reason to choose an early morning departure is that ocean conditions here generally tend to be calmer in the mornings.
While the ocean in south Oahu is usually not super choppy, you’ll get relatively better conditions, waves wise, in the mornings.
Underwater visibility also tends to be better in the mornings.
Allow time to find parking
If you have a rental car and will drive to the boat departure area, give yourself a little extra time to find parking, especially during the day.
Paid parking is available by the tour departure points, but spots can still be challenge to find.
Finding a parking spot is easier early or late in the day.
Use a rideshare
If you’d rather not deal with parking hassles, get an Uber or Lyft to the tour departure point.
Since it’s relatively close to Waikiki, you will able to get a ride back without issues. In the worst case, you can take a taxi back.
Don’t forget reef-safe sunscreen
Don’t forget to wear sun protection. Even under water, it’s easy to get sunburned.
Hawaii does not allow sunscreens with certain ingredients, so make sure you bring reef-safe sunscreen with you!
Take seasickness medication beforehand if necessary
While the waters around Waikiki and Turtle Canyon are not known for being too turbulent, people still get seasick.
If you are prone to seasickness and usually take medication for it, then remember to pack the medication and use it before the trip.
Follow guidelines for observing turtles
Hawaiian green sea turtles, the species most commonly seen at Turtle Canyon, are listed as endangered creatures, though their population has recovered a good bit in recent years.
Hawksbill turtles are seen much less often and are also listed as endangered.
When observing turtles on a guided tour, follow your tour guide’s instructions. Tour guides are usually pretty good about guiding snorkelers good views of the marine life while still keeping the turtles protected.
Maintain a minimum viewing distance of 10 feet. Do not touch turtles or attempt to feed them.
In general, floating quietly is the best way to see turtles and other marine life. Abrupt movements are likely to scare the marine life, so be as still as possible.
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