Kayaking Hawaii Waters
Hawaii kayaking, for me, is pretty close to paradise. Offering both a wide variety of scenic locations as well as varying ocean conditions, kayaking in Hawaii can range from a tranquil and meditative experience to an extremely thrill-oriented adventure!
Of course, Hawaii can’t deliver that image of gliding over a glassy lake which mirrors a towering snow-capped mountain, but we’ve got our own style of kayaking here in the islands that you’ll find easy to get hooked on!
Hawaii kayaking can take the form of fitness paddling, coastline treks, inter-island channel crossings, or sportfishing! What's your pleasure?
Having grown up around boats, and just about any ocean sport you can think of, kayaking was never really something I thought much about until just a couple of years ago. In fact, it was out of curiosity to try a new way to fish that I got really interested in kayaking! That being said, I have to admit I’m not one to get excited at the prospect of jumping into a kayak and paddling around except under certain conditions! Those conditions can make the difference between a mediocre way to spend a day and the kind of experience that memories are made of.
Kayak fishing buddy, Mike Ichiyama, probably didn't notice the beautiful view of the Makapuu Lighthouse during his half-hour bout with a marlin before it threw the hook! Of course, after losing the marlin, it must have been a long paddle back to the beach!
If you’re Hawaii Kayak Fishing, it’s the fish (or at least the anticipation of a strike) that provides the main source of enjoyment while other factors like the views become a bonus for the day. But if you’re just setting out with not much more than a paddle and possibly a camera, certain spots can make for a truly great time out on the water.
For example, get a kayak out in front of Waikiki and you might enjoy paddling around for an hour or two. Believe it or not, that's the extent of Hawaii kayaking for many visitors! But include a couple of offshore islands in your day’s agenda and you might spend an entire five hours without realizing it! Or paddle in waters where the depth is pretty consistent and you might find yourself nodding off every once-in-awhile. On the other hand, paddling over an ocean bottom which shows drastic changes in depth with massive coral heads or rock formations flashing beneath as you glide over the water’s surface. You’ll notice a level of fascination and excitement that’s pretty hard to forget. And the spotting of turtles, dolphins, whales, and various fish from your kayak is another big bonus that Hawaii kayaking offers.
Oahu’s windward coast, in my opinion, offers the best in Hawaii kayaking for some very important reasons - great scenery, an exciting coastline (I’ll explain in detail), and a mixture of bottom conditions that are guaranteed to put some welcome variety into your ocean journey!
Beginning on the island’s east shore, Waimanalo Bay with Manana Island (Rabbit Island) and Kaohikaipu Islandwell under a kilometer from shore, offers spectacular Hawaii kayaking when the wind is light.
Launching for your kayaking journey in Waimanalo Bay is easy from the small cove alongside the road known to residents as “Cockroach Bay”, or from the beach to the left of the pier just a few hundred yards from the cove.
Makapuu Point with it's well-known lighthouse is a key greeting for mariners arriving from the mainland west coast and a really nice sight as you paddle around the point in your kayak!
As you paddle out, the first thing you’ll notice are the many coral formations beneath you and a spectacular view of Makapuu Point and the Waimanalo Coast.
Then as you approach Manana Island and come around its northern end, you’ll see large ocean swells meeting sheer cliffs that give you an overwhelming sense of fragility as you paddle in what now is deep blue water. Manana and Kaohikaipu Islands are off limits prohibiting even the beaching of craft.
The sheer towering face of Manana Island's northern end reminds you of how fragile you are in your kayak as you paddle by and see the ocean rise and fall at its base some six to eight feet on a reasonably calm day!
Be sure to stay well outside of the islands as surf presents some treacherous conditions for anyone venturing close to their shores. Both islands sit close to the edge of an underwater ledge which drops from about forty feet to well over twice that depth.
Just when you thought the view of the coast was nothing short of amazing, a whale surfaces and exhales within yards from where you are. What a day to be on the water!
The deep waters all along this coast attract a good number of whales which have migrated here over the colder months and sightings of humpback whales are quite common in this area. It's not unusual to come across them kayaking and there aren’t many wildlife encounters that can come close to seeing a pod of whales surface within twenty five yards from you and your tiny kayak!
Traveling down the windward coast, you’ll eventually find yourself in Kailua Beach, probably the most popular spot for Hawaii kayaking due to the sheltered waters of Lanikai, and three islands all within close paddling distance. In addition to Kailua Beach Park, the adjacent Lanikai neighborhood has a number of public right-of-ways from which you can launch your kayak. I find the easiest to be Kailua Park as it’s closest to the kayak rental shops or their kayak drop-off spots.
Some of the best Hawaii kayaking is right in Oahu's Kailua Bay with three islands, an offshore rock, rugged sea cliffs, and lots of reef formations to explore!
The closest island is Popoia Island (Flat Island to us local folks), a bird sanctuary which is open to the general public. The right side (facing seaward) of Flat Island is a good place for elementary kayak surfing when the waves are small. However, the water surrounding the island gets very shallow during low tide and should be checked carefully before venturing into the surf zone! When the waves get larger in the Kailua area, kayak surfing should not even be attempted by novices as the shallows present a major threat to both you as well as your equipment.
As you explore the island, you’ll come across numerous holes, many of which are nesting areas for seagulls that you might see, even during the day, if you peek into the holes.
Looking southeast from Popoia Island are the picturesque Mokulua Islands (Na Mokolua - Twin Peaks) which have graced many posters and postcards publicizing Hawaii kayaking around the world.
These islands are also bird sanctuaries and landing is permitted on the larger of the two as is exploring its outer perimeter.
The island has a nice beach and, when the surf's up, incoming waves split upon meeting the island then meet right in front of the beach in an explosive backwash that can get you and your kayak airborne!
Inside of the islands are many large coral heads that will make you want to jump overboard with a mask and snorkel to enjoy some underwater scenery!
On the other side of the Kailua Bay (toward Kaneohe) is Mokolea Rock, which sits approximately a mile offshore.
On a calm day, kayaking out to the rock is a really enjoyable paddle as the water gets clearer as you head out and the bottom changes beneath you as you make your way to the bay’s outer reef then past the underwater ledge just outside of Mokolea Rock. About now you are in deep, blue water.
As you head toward Mokolea Rock, the entire shoreline to your left is that of Kaneohe Marine Corps Air Station. The entire shoreline for the base is a prohibited zone as are waters extending approximately a half to one kilometer from the shoreline.
Forming the northern boundary of Kailua Bay is Mokapu Penninsula, punctuated by Mokapu Point. Here is a dramatic, high cliff which drops into the ocean and into which enormous ocean swells crash. Just offshore is Mokumanu Island, a pretty eerie spot due to its size and dense population of birds.
A reef on the eastern side of the Mokumanu causes the incoming ocean swells to break creating a dangerous surf zone which should be kept at great distance. Between Mokapu Point and Mokumanu Island, the water depth decreases and the backwash from waves hitting the cliffs clashing with incoming swells create confused seas which we call the washing machine. Despite the spectacular views, I wouldn’t want to recommend this area to other than experienced kayakers as it’s not really a place that you’d want to practice righting after a capsize!
Around Mokapu Point is Kaneohe Bay, an entirely different yet equally spectacular area for kayaking! The bay offers sheltered waters with great expanses of shallows with clearly defined ledges which are fascinating to glide alongside.
The rugged Koolau Mountain Range provides a dramatic backdrop for kayaking in Kaneohe Bay and Mokolii Island offers a great destination for pictures of your Hawaii kayaking experience.
Within reasonable paddling distance for most in this bay is the state’s only real sandbar, Kipapa Island, and the famous Mokolii Island (Chinaman’s Hat). Both Kipapa and Mokolii can be landed on and explored and the sandbar during low tide is completely exposed and a popular picnic spot. The most common launching spots for kayaking in Kaneohe Bay are Heeia pier and Kualoa Park (the closest point to Mokolii Island).
Kipapa Island and the state's only sandbar offers some of the most interesting Hawaii kayaking experiences!
Despite its muddy shoreline, caused by the many streams which empty into it, Kaneohe Bay offers clear waters particularly when the wind shifts from the predominant northeasterly to southerly winds (Kona winds) making for exceptionally calm and glassy conditions. The protected waters of Kaneohe Bay also make it one of the safer areas for Hawaii kayaking.
Continuing along the windward coast beyond Kaneohe Bay, just past Swanzy Beach Park and the Crouching Lion Restaurant, you’ll come across another of my favorite Hawaii kayaking spots, Kahana Bay.
The bay offers a channel which makes for safe entry into the open ocean during high surf seasons and also has shallow areas which you can paddle over while viewing the bottom. Closer to shore are often waves that are gentle enough to do some simple kayak surfing, one of the popular offshoots of Hawaii kayaking.
One of the most interesting things about kayaking in Kahana Bay is the stream that enters the bay. The stream can be entered by paddling from the bay right into its mouth. You can paddle up the stream (although it might be a bit shallow during low tide) which is really a unique trip as you’ll work your way through low hanging trees to a point where you need to lie back on your kayak and back out as there’s not enough space to turn around. Although you’ll eventually get to completely fresh water, do not drink or swim in the water as streams in Hawaii are often tainted with high bacterial levels.
On the north shore, our favorite run is that between Haleiwa and Waimea Bay. And although any spot along the coast would lend itself well to kayaking, that stretch of shoreline seems to offer a bit of all the terrains from rocky shorelines to sandy beaches and a big bay.
Haleiwa also offers two rivers which you can enter from the ocean and explore. If you plan to do that run, on a typical tradewind (northeasterly) day, it’s a good idea to start in Haleiwa. You’ll fight the wind going toward Waimea and enjoy the paddle back rather than the other way around! Remember, always keep the “easy paddle” on the return leg!
If you’re going out to the west side, I’d encourage you head all the way out to Yokohama Bay, the last park before the road ends. Make sure the surf on the west side is “flat” as the shorebreak at any of the beaches on this side of the island can be a little tricky while launching or returning to the beach. On this side of the island is Kaena State Park and Kaena Point, the westernmost tip of Oahu. The sandy beach that is Yokohama Bay gives way to a rocky coastline that provides a great view of the towering mountain range that separates the north shore and west shores.
Beyond the point, the current gets quite strong. So unless you’re pretty experienced, I’d recommend going no further than the point. Here the waters are clear and also quite deep making it a great place for Hawaii Kayak Fishing if you should be so inclined!
The island of Kauai offers some of the best kayaking in the state due in large to its rivers and in particular the Na Pali Coast.
If you have the time and the desire, many consider Kauai's Na Pali Coast to be the ultimate Hawaii kayaking adventure. Although kayaking this spectacular coast is something I've yet to do, my brother-in-law, Ed Kawasaki, has done it and says it's everything people claim it to be. Check out his pictures from their one-week trip Na Pali Coast - Kauai
For those looking for a more mild adventure, Kauai's rivers like the Waialua River and Waimea River offer excellent inland paddling opportunities with a great deal of tranquility.
Kauai's Waimea River offers a more solitary environment for paddling than its famous sibling, the Wailua River which is much more traveled due to all of the rental and tour operations in the vicinity.
Aside from the risk inherent in any watersport, Hawaii kayaking has some added risks you should be well aware of. The islands rise dramatically from the ocean floors which cause a venturi-like effect for ocean currents that happen to pass through the Hawaiian chain creating a stronger current in certain areas than one might typically expect. Also, the winds in some areas can get gusty enough to make it difficult to paddle back to your starting point.
Always be aware of your drift and the wind direction to make sure your paddle back is less strenuous than your initial leg. Hawaii's warm waters and temperature have tempted many to venture further and remain out longer than they might typically be accustomed. Consult with local kayakers or kayak rental staffs before venturing out and your Hawaii kayaking experience should be a safe and memorable outing.
Good equipment, like a good seat, paddle tethers, and thigh braces all contribute to your comfort, safety, and boat handling capabilities. Surf to Summit manufactures some of the best kayak accessories like seats! When you're out on the water for five-plus hours or finding you need to return to the beach in breaking surf, the little things with which you outfitted your kayak will make a big, big difference! Take a look at their on-line store or remember the name when you're in a kayak shop.
If you'd like to hook up with a great Hawaii kayaking group check out Hui Wa'a Kaukahi Kayak Club. They put on great kayaking tours and events and are probably the biggest Hawaii kayaking group.
Interested in some Hawaii Kayak Fishing?