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Kayaking through paradise

Murder. Intrigue. Sharks. Kealakekua Bayʻs marine sanctuary has it all. Everything except a road to get there, anyway. Just over a mile-long paddle from the Nāpōʻopoʻo pier gets you to an ancient Hawaiian canoe launch on the north end of Kealakekua Bay where only a few companies have permits to land. It’s one of the best snorkeling spots in the entire state of Hawaii. So forget what they tell you, this is one experience where you’ll want to look down.
We’re talking calm, protected waters. Fifteen hundred foot sea cliffs. Underwater visibility of over 100 feet. Can you pronounce the name of the Hawaiian state fish yet? Well, get practicing. You’ll want to know it by name when you say hello to humuhumunukunukuapuaʻa. It lives alongside over 250 other marine species youʻre about to meet.

Take a Spin Around the Bay

The water in the bay is relatively shallow along the shore — exactly what draws Hawaiian spinner dolphins during the day. These are a subspecies of Gray’s spinner dolphins and range from about four-and-a-half to six-and-a-half feet long. Theyʻll spend all night hunting underwater to depths up to a thousand feet below sea level. Come daybreak, they’re ready to rest. Protected waters and a sandy ocean floor along the coast means there’s less chance of a surprise attack from predators, while providing a place for young dolphins to socialize and play.

They’re called spinner dolphins for a reason. The animals can often be seen launching themselves out of the water and making up to seven full turns before falling back into the ocean. As of late 2021 it’s illegal to get within 50 yards of a dolphin, so swimming with them is a no-go. But don’t stress, sometimes there’s a reef shark or two in the mix to capture that money shot with the GoPro.

Making Hawaii Home

If you've spent any time in Kona's surf scene, you've likely met Frank and Brock. They own Kona Boys, which features a surf shop in Kealakekua, a beach shack at the Kailua pier, and guided tours to Kealakekua Bay. Established in 1996, the duo has been at the helm since 2000. Essentially, they represent the ultimate tropical fantasy—forgoing the corporate path you're "supposed" to take to chase their dream in Hawaii. They've turned Kona Boys into a community staple by focusing on supporting and preserving cultural traditions, staying connected to history, and giving back—all while catching as many waves as they can.


Ke ala ke kua translates to the path of the gods. It may seem like simply a paddler’s paradise, but take a few breaths and look at this landscape. You’re in the widest bay on an island archipelago ringed mostly with jagged lava rock. Yeah, the coast faces mostly west in Kona, but the north end of this bay extends so far out that it faces the rising sun in the east. Direct all-day sun creates the perfect scenario for massive coral growth and gives us water that’s in the top 2% of the planet for visibility. The calm waters draw all sorts of marine life. Each whale season sees at least one humpback giving birth in the bay.

This was the seat of ancient Hawaiian royalty. The remains of Hikiau Heiau, a sacred temple, still sit at the south edge of the bay. Kaʻawaloa, an ancient Hawaiian village, was in the north. Every year, this was the site of massive Makahiki celebrations. When Makaliʻi, or the pleiades, rises in the east when the sun is setting in the west, Makahiki begins. It’s a time to honor Lono, who brings prosperity, and other Hawaiian gods marked with peace, sports, and ceremonies, but this heiau was just as important the rest of the year.


Sheer cliffs are pockmarked with ancient sacrificial burial sites. It was an honor to have someone in the family place the bones of Hawaiian aliʻi or royalty at a burial site, but the price was their life. Commoners would get lowered down the cliff edge, find old lava tubes to lay remains to rest, and then wall up the entrance from the inside. A small exit was their escape, but they didn’t go far, just a fall to their deaths on the rocks below. The entire bay is full of ancient burial sites making it one of the most sacred places on the island.

Captain James Cook landed here in 1779 in what was the first extensive contact Hawaiians had with white people. It’s also where he met his demise. There are stories of a suspected stolen boat from one of Captain Cook’s fleet. You read that he was salty after being denied a trade of wood bordering a sacred burial ground. He took the high chief Kalaniʻōpuʻu hostage, a strategy that had worked for him in past voyages around the world. This time it didn’t turn out as he’d planned. Was a musket fired? Did a perfectly-aimed rock hit Captain Cook square in the head? Will we ever truly know every last detail? What we do know is that he was killed on the shore. The white obelisk stands near the spot where he died.

Find Your Morning Magic

Check in at the Kona Boys shop on Hawaii Belt Road in Kealakekua where you’ll get oriented and fitted for gear. Grab a coffee on the way to Nāpōʻopoʻo Pier and soon you’ll be in the water. You’ll paddle the mile or so across the bay with a stop to watch for dolphins and, from November to March, humpback whales. Kona Boys is one of three companies with permits to operate kayaks and can land vessels on the shores at Kaʻawaloa. Now it’s snorkel time. You’re in the right place if you want to see where the octopus and reef sharks hang out. Your guides know all the nooks and crannies where they hide. Talk story as you nourish yourself with a locally catered lunch, then paddle back across the bay to your car. Gear rentals are for 24 hours, so head down to Honaunau Bay next and keep that snorkel momentum going. Bring reef-safe sunscreen, water shoes, and rash guards if you have them. You can stash valuables with your guide — no need to donate your car keys to the fishies.