It was a beautiful summer day on Maui. The skies were blue, the wind non-existent, and calm waters were predicted all day long. These pristine weather conditions all pointed to an epic snorkel day ahead. I chose snorkeling at Po’olenalena Beach in Wailea, known as one of the best snorkel spots on Maui. This beach is popular thanks to its long, picturesque stretch of sand- about two-thirds of a mile in length- that provides ample space for beach games, fishing, lounging, and body boarding.
Below the ocean surface, this beach is touted for the bustling lava reefs at both the north and south end. Green sea turtles and plenty of local Hawaiian fish frequent these flourishing coral formations that are easy to explore with a good snorkel, mask and set of fins.
Easy Beach Access
The 10 minute drive south from Kihei winds past the Shops of Wailea and the stunning resorts that line the coast of south Maui. The shady trees and lush landscaping along Makena Alanui make my jaw drop every time! After driving for 2.4 miles on this road, I turned right when I came to a large, obvious road sign for 'Po’olenalena Beach'.
The parking lot is directly off the road after this sign and very hard to miss. Po’olenalena translates to 'yellow head', which refers to a yellow-streaked rock sitting roadside on the golf course nearby. This has been a long-time landmark and is another indicator that you have arrived at the correct beach. There is usually ample parking here early in the morning. If the parking lot is full, you can also park makai (towards the sea) on the shoulder of the road outside the lot. Keep an eye out for tasty food trucks near the lot entrance for post snorkel snacks. I was lucky to grab a Maui Cookie Lady treat on my way out!
Setting Up for Snorkeling at Po'olenalena Beach
I was pleasantly surprised by how empty the beach was when I arrived at 9:00 am. This beach is just far enough from the condos of Kihei and resorts in Wailea to avoid large crowds. Even on busier days, this beach rarely feels congested due to the sheer amount of sandy shoreline available. Scoping out an area to set up my chair on the north end, I noticed kiawe trees framing the beach. Beware of their sharp thorns! Once you step on a kiawe thorn, you will forever be on the lookout for them in Hawaii.
As I surveyed the ocean, I noticed waves were building and causing very pushy waters. It is always wise to take a minute or two to watch the water before entering, as the waves here can pick up quickly. Once the water calmed down, I grabbed my snorkel gear rentals and headed into the translucent, shimmering waters. The soft sand extends far into the ocean here, which made it very easy to access the best snorkeling areas. I must have walked at least 10 yards into the ocean without feeling or seeing any rocks.
Once underwater, I swam to my right towards the lava formations. I kept my distance, as I knew the waves could pick up quickly and push me into the sharp rocks and coral. The ocean was alive with a mesmerizing tapestry of Hawaiian marine life. I swam through a vibrant school of unicornfish (kala), found a few moorish idols hiding behind porites coral, and watched a sea turtle leisurely basking by the rocks.
Swimming further, I noticed a brown surgeonfish, which can be difficult to spot due to their dull color. Dull may be the incorrect word, considering these are some of the smartest fish in the sea! They have larger brains compared to similar fish species, which enables them to exhibit complex cognitive abilities and problem-solving skills. One remarkable aspect of their intelligence is their ability to create mental maps of the reef. This smart fish can memorize specific locations, pathways, and hiding spots so they are able to avoid predators and escape to find their home. The dull color of the brown surgeonfish also allows them to be more inconspicuous than more colorful big-brained fish. Cool, right?!
Once I wrapped my way around the lava rock, I exited on a beach just north of Po’olenalena. I simply got out of the water on the next beach and walked back to where I started by following a rocky path, which made this snorkeling route very easy. Be sure to watch your step on this path, but also pause to look up for an excellent view of Pu’u Olai, the volcanic cinder cone just before famous Big Beach (Makena). The view was absolutely stunning!
Triple Turtle Sighting
Unbeknownst to me, I had an epic turtle sighting in store at the south end of the beach. I’m so glad I saved some energy to do some more snorkeling at Po'olenalena Beach! As soon as I swam out around the lava rock, I dipped my head underwater and saw 3 turtles floating right next to each other. A few fish were feeding off one of the turtle’s shells. Here comes another fun fact: sometimes, animals will work together for their mutual benefit. In these turtle 'cleaning stations', the fish eat algae and parasites off of the turtle’s shell. The turtle leaves with a polished shell, and the fish leave with a full stomach of nutritious algae. Multitasking at its finest! This sighting was a terrific way to end my adventure.
My day snorkeling at Po’olenalena Beach was nothing short of amazing. It was an idyllic summer day and the thriving marine life was a short distance from shore. Without a doubt, snorkeling at Po’olenalena Beach is a slice of snorkel heaven that should be on every Maui nature-lover’s must-visit list!