Finding a good spot where to see and swim with sea turtles in Oahu (Hawaii) is not as simple as it is to snorkel, where at any of the popular reefs it is fairly easy to find plenty of fish in clean, transparent water.
Where should you go? Which is the best place to see turtles in Oahu?
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What Species of Turtles Can You See in Oahu's Beaches?
The two types of Hawaiian sea turtles in Oahu most frequently seen in Turtle Bay are the green sea turtle and the hawksbill sea turtle.
The green sea turtle is listed as a threatened species under federal and state law.
Fortunately Hawaiian green sea turtles have shown a good population recovery in recent years, although they are still plagued with a papilloma virus that causes disfiguring tumors. Hawksbill sea turtles are sighted much less frequently than the greens.
How can you tell them apart?
Green turtles are the only herbivorous you'll find in the ocean, and if the one you happen to see is not eating look at its mouth. If it looks something like a bird's beak you're looking at a Hawksbill turtle.
Unfortunately for these turtles their shell is so beautiful that this turtle is often hunted for it.
How do you say "turtle" in Hawaiian?
- Ka laume
Turtle Watching Etiquette
Here are some general guidelines on how to behave around turtles. Remember that these are wild animals that don't see much threat on humans, which is unfortunately making them easy to catch or hunt.
- Stay out of the way, by at least 30 feet. Mama turtles are there for an important job. Let them do it unimpeded, both on the their way onto the beach and as they leave.
- Speak softly and move quietly. Loud noises bother turtles.
- Don’t use flash photography and turn off your flashlight when a turtle is near. Light can disorient a turtle.
- Leave your pet behind. Your dog doesn’t care about watching sea turtles nest, but the reptile might be bothered by the other animal.
- If you see a sea turtle on the beach outside of nesting season, call the authorities. It may be sick, injured or too cold — and in need of help, which should only be provided by experts.
- Watch out for baby turtles after they hatch. You don’t want to step on them. And leave them alone. The water may be far away for the tiny babies, but they’ll make it there just fine without any help.
- Don't touch them! Humans can transmit infections to turtles, even if they aren't such for us.
Should You Join a Turtle Watching Tour?
There are many tours in Oahu that can pretty much guarantee you will spot dolphins, sharks, whales (depending on the time of the year) and yes, turtles. In fact we were taken to a spot during our swim with dolphins tour in Oahu where turtles are always found.
Speaking about tours, a great one day tour that will get you familiarized with the island is the Oahu Circle Island tour.
This tour takes you (among many other places) through the North Shore of Oahu Hawaii, and shares a lot of travel tips and information about Turtle Beach and Haleiwa Beach, two beaches that should be in your bucket list if you want to see turtles in Oahu.
The experience was fantastic, as we had just swum with dolphins and it was the first time we were actually swimming with turtles as big as ourselves without them scared or intimidated.
The drawback to this is that the fantastic 5 hour tour does not come in cheap, costing around 200 usd p/p everything included.
There are however other tours that are not as long and cost around 100-150 USD. If you want to keep things simple this is a great choice as everything is done for you!
Further reading- How to Visit Hawaii on a Budget
Hanauma Bay is very close to Waikiki. In fact 2.5 USD will conveniently take you by bus (forget about the 15 usd p/p charter vans, they aren´t worth price) and the beach is beautiful, outrageously photogenic and an ideal place where to spend the day.
The water is very clean, there´s plenty of small fish swimming around and you might even see turtles, though this is not as common as you might infer from the brochures that promote the bay.
In fact there are far less turtle sightings here than when snorkeling Waikiki beach, where you will most probably spot even a small one from a distance at some point. Hence, the if you are looking to swim with turtles, look elsewhere.
The Best Beach Where to Find Sea Turtles in Oahu: Turtle Bay (Turtle Beach Oahu)
So where should you go if you want to swim with turtles in Oahu- for free? The answer is simple: aptly named Turtle Bay, close to Oahu's northern most tip. The bay is set right behind Turtle Bay Resort , in front of which there is free public parking and all the facilities you'll need during your day trip, including a shower where to rinse, snack bars and more.
We actually stepped in to check out the resort and liked it a lot. It has great views and a huge lobby with some cool surfing memorabilia. Wouldn't have minded spending a few days here!
This said, prior to make your way to the bay I suggest you check Kuilima Cove, right in front of the before mentioned Turtle Bay Resort. It is slightly more convenient to get to and spotting turtles there is quite common as well.
What to Bring
- Snorkeling gear
- Waterproof camera
- Rashguard- water can get cool
- Food- you'll save some money
- Surfboard- there´s some decent surf too when the swell comes from the right direction.
How to Spot Turtles in Turtle Bay
We were pretty excited about this because even though we had swum with turtles already we had not been around them as long as we wanted to.
We also knew that the best time of the day to see sea turtles in Hawaii is between 11AM and 1PM, meaning we were right on time.
If we found them here again we would have the chance to take some more pictures and maybe even touch them (this is not allowed during the tours), or perhaps shoot some video which would make up for a great souvenir.
The only setback we had was that we just had 1 hour before heading to Shark´s Cove for another brief snorkeling session and having to drive back to Honolulu as our departure flight was leaving that same afternoon.
We thus grabbed our gear (goggles, diving mask and snorkel, towels) and first decided to check Turtle Bay Hotel as it seemed appealing in itself. There were a few interesting pictures of famous surfers in the lobby and the large windows reminded me of a similar hotel we had spent a few hours at during a typhoon we endured in Taiwan a few months before.
But alas, it was the beach we were here for and quickly made our way to the sand.
Just as we we were walking to the water we saw a group of people standing in a circle in waste deep water, looking under the surface and vividly speaking about something they had just spotted.
A turtle? Could we be that lucky?
Sure enough, a turtle it was. Easily 1.2 meters (3.5 ft) long and more than half a meter wide it was munching some algae and minding its own business while we observed attentively.
I pulled out my underwater camera and shot pictures and video, some less than 20 cm away from it and hoping that the somewhat murky water (due to the rolling waves) would not ruin the session.
It was time for us to leave shortly after, and we were glad because the tip that had been given to us had turned out to be true. We were there for less than 1 hour and were able to see, photograph and film a wild turtle, very conveniently, and at no cost!
Getting to Turtle Bay
Turtle Bay is in the North side of Oahu, and while it is possible to go to Turtle Bay by bus it will take you a good couple of hours or more from Honolulu.
I recommend you rent a car (we found the cheapest car rental agency in Honolulu) and take the time to visit other places while there or along the way, including Sunset Beach, Shark's Cover or Waimea Bay.
The drive has some fantastic views and you are in for a great time. I know we had it!
Take Kamehameha Hwy East around the island and turn right on Kuilima Drive. Once you reach the area, first check out Kuilima Cove at the end of the drive as I mentioned earlier, as it's slightly more convenient and a great beach anyhow. If you don't see a turtle there then head back the way you came and turn right on the first road, towards Shaka Kayaks. Park the car somewhere and make your way to the beach. Aloha!
Other Beaches Where to Spot Turtles in Oahu
Turtle Bay is without a doubt the best place where to find turtles in Oahu, but there are others. These are some other spots travelers and locals have seen them relatively often, so if you can't make it to Turtle Bay you can try your luck here:
- Electric Beach Oahu This beach is on the western side of Oahu and is perhaps the second best option. The nearby electric plant warms the water, attracting plenty of marine life including turtles and spinner dolphins.
- Waikiki Beach. As mentioned before it's possible to spot turtles in Waikiki beach, despite the crowds of swimmers and surfers.
- Shark's Cove. On the North side of Oahu, the cove doesn't really have many sharks and is a popular reef for snorkeling. You'll see plenty of fish and perhaps Hawaiian turtles as well.
- Cockroach Cove is right by the Halona Blowhole. The ocean is usually rough here but when it's flat you can often see plenty of turtles in it.
- Laniakea Beach is your third best option. There's turtles on the sand very often and if this is the case you'll see more in the water, away from the tourists. A fantastic spot as well.
- Haleiwa The beach is usually crowded and the surf is often big, but when it isn't snorkeling Oahu's ocean is extremely rewarding with this area's clean water, and swimming with turtles is relatively easy.
So there you go. In a nutshell the best place where to see Hawaii sea turtles is Turtle Beach Oahu, and it isn't necessary to book a tour- but they are definitely more convenient.
Rent a car and drive with your family to Turtle Beach Hawaii for some great fun, or make it to one of the other spots I recommend.
Remember to respect the animals and have fun!
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