Turtle Canyon, Oahu: Snorkeling & Catamaran Trips

turtle canyon snorkeling

This article is part of my guide for snorkeling on Oahu.

I covered snorkeling in Waikiki and its Top 5 beaches in the past. However, if you’re in the neighborhood, it’s definitely worth it to be aware of a hidden gem called “Turtle Canyon”. Waikiki is part of Hawaii’s capital city Honolulu, located on the southeastern part of the island Oahu.

Let me first explain what Turtle Canyon is all about before getting into the snorkel details. Let me just say this: If you’re looking for turtles, this is one of your best bets. And even better: It’s in Hawaii!

turtle canyon map
Imagery @2023 Airbus, CNES / Airbus, CyberCity 3D, Inc. / 3D Travel Inc., Maxar Technologies, U.S. Geological Survey, USGS, Map data @2023 Google

How to get there

Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (aka. Honolulu International Airport) is the main airport on Oahu, located in the south of the island. From there you could either hire a car, grab a taxi or use public transportation.

We always use Skyscanner, especially because there’s an option to combine your flight with some great deals on airport car hire. If you don’t have specific travel dates in mind, try their “Flexible dates” function (you’ll get this option once you select your departure date). That’s where we often find some great deals!

Once you’re in the area, your most obvious choice (and in my opinion best option) is to join a catamaran boat tour. Manakai is a well known company in the area. Their catamaran takes you from Waikiki to Turtle Canyon in about 10-15 minutes and the entire trip takes about 2 hours. They even provide snorkel gear (which is included in the price). You can either join them in the morning or afternoon. The crew knows exactly where the green turtles hang out. They also know where to find octopus, triggerfish, starfish and other interesting marine life.

What Is Turtle Canyon Exactly?

Turtle Canyon is a reef near Waikiki beach, about 10-15 minutes out by boat. The reef is located 20-30 feet below the surface of the ocean.

Green sea turtles love this area for several reasons: First of all, the reef is surrounded by loads of fish, especially small wrasses. These wrasses enjoy to eat algae and little parasites that live on the turtle’s shell. People often call it a “cleaning station” for sea turtles. I call it a “massage salon” based on how relaxed and almost hypnotic these turtles float around during the process. They even get their flippers cleaned! Another reason why sea turtles love the area is because it allows them to search for food. They enjoy to eat algae, seagrass, sponges and invertebrates. The reef also provides areas to rest after enjoying these delicious meals.

Furthermore, the warm water temperature around the reef is just as comfortable for sea turtles as it is for us humans. The average water temperature is somewhere around 76-81°F (which equals to 24-27°C).

Snorkeling In Turtle Canyon

Once your captain approaches the reef you’ll be able to easily enter the water by using one of their boat stairs. Everyone wears a snorkel vest, not just for safety but also to recognize each other. You probably see a few sea turtles sticking their heads out to grab some air, but the real magic happens underwater. Green sea turtles can grow up to 3-4 feet in length, even though some could be smaller.

As you’re snorkeling above the reef you’ll soon notice how they kind of “float” above the reef. Sure, 10-20 feet is quite a way down, especially if you’re not able to dive down a little. However, there’s nothing to worry about. Be patient because these turtles need to take a deep breath at the ocean surface regularly. So yes, they’ll get close to you sooner or later. Definitely worth a picture or video in case you snorkel with a GoPro or any other camera.

The water is clear most of the time, especially in summer. There can be days when the water is a little darker, especially when it gets mixed up with sand particles. Most of the time however you won’t be disappointed. Spotting somewhere between 5 and 10 turtles is very likely, especially when it’s sunny. Once you’re done or whenever you feel like having a break, the catamaran should be nearby to do just that. Even from the ship itself you can still observe the reef and the occasional turtle grabbing a breath.

About The Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles

Like I already mentioned, these green sea turtles can grow up to 3-4 feet in length. They are the biggest hard-shelled sea turtle on our entire planet and can live up to 60-70 years. Since they eat seagrass and algae, their cartilage and fat expresses a greenish color. This is what gives them their name. It’s not because of their shells. Hawaiian green sea turtles are an endangered species. Their population seems to slowly increase, which is a good thing, but it’s a slow process. It’s of big importance to keep your distance and to never touch them (there’s even a fine for that). Don’t feed them and avoid threatening movements. Simply observe quietly so they don’t get scared.

waikiki green sea turtle

Final Thoughts

Snorkeling in Turtle Canyon is mostly about observing the Hawaiian green sea turtles. Yes, there are some other fish to observe, but don’t get your hopes up too high in that regard. Don’t expect a colorful underwater world filled with corals and appealing reef fish.

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