Hawaii is rightly lauded as one of the finest scuba diving destinations on the planet – and scuba diving in Honolulu, in particular. With crystal-clear waters, over 40 fantastic dive sites and some of the best preserved WW2-era wrecks you’ll find anywhere, there’s plenty to keep even the most seasoned of divers busy.
Honolulu and Oahu – What’s in a Name?
As a brief note of clarification before we get further into this article, it’s necessary to distinguish (or explain) what we mean when using ‘Honolulu’.
Honolulu is a city on the island of Oahu – but Honolulu is also a county, and it covers the entire island of Oahu. Thus, for the sake of clarity, ‘Honolulu’ will be used interchangeably with ‘Oahu’.
With that clarified, let’s look at the best diving spots on the island.
Best Dive Sites in Honolulu
A deliberately scuttled ship (the titular YO-257) sits at this dive site, sunk in 1989 to provide a tourist attraction for scuba divers. The 175-foot ship acts as an artificial reef, and the site is teeming with local marine life.
Green sea turtles can regularly be seen here, as well as schools of spotted eagle rays that regularly weave their way through the shipwreck. The shipwreck itself makes for easy pass-throughs, featuring wide cutouts at either end that allow divers to pass through without fear of getting stuck or snagging something.
A mere 70 feet from the YO-257 is a second wreck, the San Pedro. A 125-foot-long decommissioned hospital ship, she was also deliberately sunk in order to provide a further site of interest for divers. Despite being sunk later than YO-257 (in 1996), the wreck is less stable and it is too dangerous for divers to pass through.
In addition to the aforementioned turtles and eagle rays, both sites sport an abundance of butterflyfish, white tip reef sharks, octopuses and puffer fish.
Please keep in mind that you should only dive on and in wrecks with the proper training and certification.
The Sea Tiger
Once used to transport illegal immigrants, the Sea Tiger was a former Chinese trading vessel that was confiscated and sold. The new owners scuttled it in 1999 as part of a dive enrichment project.
The ship sits at roughly 90 feet underwater off the west coast of Honolulu. There is no small amount of local fauna located at the wreck: moray eels, white tip reef sharks, eagle rays and sea turtles can all be spotted here.
The Sea Tiger is well-preserved enough for wreck penetration to be possible; divers can enter via the hold or the bridge and explore the interior to a limited degree.
Somewhat misleadingly named (you’re neither more nor less likely to spot sharks here), Shark’s Cove is nevertheless one of the best places for scuba diving in Oahu/Honolulu. Caves and unique rock formations abound, and advanced divers may want to descend via a vertical lava tube called the ‘elevator’.
Wildlife in the area is as abundant as it is varied; divers can expect to see turtles, reef fish, nudibranches, slipper lobsters, flatworms, and if you’re very lucky, monk seals.
The lava-tube caves in the area make for some spectacular cave exploration, including the famous ‘blue room’. The number of swim-through caverns and tunnels in this area is exhilarating diving – if only suitable for more advanced divers.
Makaha Caverns is a stupendously beautiful spot for diving, filled with swim-through caverns and teeming with marine life of all shapes and sizes.
Many of the caverns divers can swim through feature perforated ceilings that allow sunlight to penetrate, making for some truly spectacular scenes as you make your way through them.
Turtles are frequently found sleeping in the caves throughout the day, and divers will often observe spiny lobsters and schools of puffers making their way through the caverns.
Makaha Caverns doesn’t see quite as many tourists as other popular dive spots in Honolulu, and so it’s a great spot to take in largely untouched, little-visited stretches of reef where colorful local denizens can be found in abundance.
One of the most famous sites for scuba diving in Oahu, Turtle Canyon is (unlike Shark’s Cove) aptly named – the site is a popular sea turtle cleaning station, and they can be found here in droves.
Turtle Canyon is perfect for divers of any skill level – depths are between 5-15 meters and it is close to the shore, making it an easy trip no matter how many dives you have under your belt.
As a turtle cleaning station, you’re pretty much guaranteed a sighting. Not only are sea turtles to be found in great numbers here, they’re quite habituated to divers, meaning it’s easy to get some really great pictures of the beautiful animals as they look for fish to clean their shells.
Turtles are not the only thing to be found at Turtle Canyon, however. There are plenty of small caves and crevasses in the area, and it’s very easy to see sleeping whitetips during the day.
Another deliberately scuttled wreck that’s an amazing experience for divers new and experienced alike, the U.S.S. Joshua lies near Hickam Harbor and lies at a depth of around 19 meters. Eels and octopuses have colonized the wreck, and its colorful sea life and comparative shallowness make it a popular site when scuba diving in Oahu.
Because the wreck lies on cement blocks, it’s really easy for divers to get up close and get a good look. The hull of the ship is overgrown with barnacles, and the aforementioned octopuses can quite often be darting in and out of the ship, making it very rewarding to get up close and personal for photos or simply to check it out.
Around the wreck, divers can occasionally glimpse sandbar and grey reef sharks; the occasional manta ray even ventures close by, if you’re lucky!
World War II Corsair Wreck
A rare Honolulu wreck that wasn’t put in the water on purpose, this Vought F4U Corsair didn’t actually go down during World War II but in the year after the war ended; experiencing engine trouble during routine exercises, the plane crashed into the ocean after the pilot was forced to abandon it.
The Corsair sits a little deeper in the water than most of the wrecks you can see when scuba diving in Honolulu – at around 35 meters – and so it’s really only accessible by experienced divers with advanced training.
Given the age of the wreck (it’s been sitting there for 76 years now) it’s in remarkably good condition. The cockpit and all the instruments are more or less intact, and some of the gauges are still covered by glass. Divers often squeeze into the cockpit for photo opportunities, in fact, but anyone doing this should exercise caution – Moray eels are known to tuck themselves in there.
Dive time at the bottom is necessarily restricted by how deep the Corsair lies, but divers should take the time to look around at things other than the plane – Galapagos sharks and garden eels can quite often be spotted here.
Located just outside Kewalo Basin, Nautilus Reef is a reef that’s a very popular spot with beginner divers for both its relative ease of diving and its spectacular sights.
Many species of sea fauna can be spotted here, including triggerfish, butterflyfish, turtles, and even the odd sleeping whitetip. It’s not uncommon to see octopuses making their way along the bottom, too, and there have been (very occasional) sightings of tiger sharks and even humpback whales!
The reef is an ancient lava field upon which hard coral has grown, making for some spectacular underwater sights as you make your descent. As mentioned, it’s a great spot for novice divers, reaching depths of only 12 meters – here you can easily gain more experience to avoid common beginner diver problems on the more advanced dives in and around Honolulu.
Best Dive Shops in Honolulu
Your dives are only as good as your dive shop; you can be in the most spectacular dive site in the world but if you’re diving with subpar gear and surly dive masters, none of that matters. It therefore pays to make sure that you’ve picked the best dive shop possible before getting in the water.
Honolulu Scuba Company
Located in Honolulu’s famous Waikiki district on the southern shore of the island, Honolulu Scuba Company offers an expansive array of scuba gear and accessories that will make for a dive like no other – they carry Poseidon, Oceanic, Akona, Silent Diving and much more.
The main shop has free parking, air refills of Trimix and Nitrox, and the capacity for full onsite servicing of all your scuba gear.
One of the best things about Honolulu Scuba Company is that they own their own boat, rather than subcontracting, and so they have complete control over their schedule and dive sites. Scuba groups are also kept to a manageable level, meaning you won’t be packed onto a boat with twenty other people.
Waikiki Dive Center
Waikiki Dive Center has been in operation for 41 years, and they offer full Open Water PADI courses – perfect for beginners eager to make their first dives into the crystal-clear waters of Hawaii.
The dive shop offers an array of scuba diving gear and also offers full servicing and repairs onsite, ensuring that you’re in tip-top condition before you make your next dive. The staff is extremely experienced, and dive groups are kept small on their US-Coast-Guard-certified boats. This makes your dives smooth, relaxed and stress-free.
Waikiki Dive Center prides itself on its honesty and straightforwardness regarding its dive fees – each dive fee comes complete with full diving gear and two tanks of air, guaranteed.
Aaron’s Dive Shop
At 50 years, Aaron’s Dive Shop is one of the oldest when it comes to scuba diving in Honolulu – and there’s a good reason for that.
Aaron’s offers a variety of services and equipment, and is a fully certified 5-star PADI instruction center. If you’re looking for a welcoming, professional entry into the world of scuba diving in Oahu, you could do much worse than Aaron’s.
Scuba gear servicing and repairs are offered onsite, meaning that those divers with their own gear can rest assured that everything is in the best possible condition before you hit some of Honolulu’s best dive sites.
Though it doesn’t quite have the pedigree of more established dive shops like Aaron’s or Waikiki, Kaimana Divers is nevertheless one of the best options when looking to go scuba diving in Oahu.
Kaimana Divers facilitate dives to a number of sites throughout Oahu, and their standard charters take advanced divers out in the morning and leave the afternoon for beginner or less experienced divers. All dives are two-tank and have surface intervals with snacks and other refreshments.
The dive shop is fully PADI-certified and offers Open Water, Advanced Open Water and Nitrox Specialty courses, meaning that there’s something for everyone but the most advanced divers (who can still avail themselves of the excellent dive sites, of course!).
And speaking of excellent dive sites – Kaimana Divers offers dives in the spectacular Shark’s Cove – a site that is, as we mentioned, perfect for novices and veterans alike – and they are one of the best shops servicing the northern shore of Oahu. If you’re in the mood for something a little different, they offer night dives, and it’s even possible to tie the knot at the bottom of the ocean with one of their wedding dives!
Whether you’re a complete newcomer to scuba diving in Honolulu or you’ve dived in its pristine waters before, we hope this article brought something new to the table and introduced one or two new dive sites (or even dive shops) to you.
Whether you’re just starting out and intend on diving Nautilus Reef or you’re planning on doing the Elevator vertical dive into the caverns below, there’s no end of fascinating places to visit when diving in Oahu, and you owe it to yourself to experience as many as possible while visiting Honolulu.