One of the top things to do in Maui is a Molokini Crater and Turtle Town snorkeling trip.
You may know that Molokini is a sunken volcanic crater located three miles off Maui’s southwestern coast.
But what makes snorkeling Molokini special is its amazing water visibility. The water is so crazy clear, you can see all the thousands of colorful fish that make their home here up to 150 feet away!
As for Turtle Town, it’s a snorkeling spot where you can swim with giant Hawaiian sea turtles. (There are actually several “Turtle Towns” – but we’ll get to that later.)
Molokini snorkeling tours typically combine a stop at Turtle Town to – so you get to experience both in one excursion.
If you’re chasing down some of the best snorkeling in Maui, be sure to include a Molokini Crater and turtle snorkel experience in your itinerary when planning your Hawaii trip!
Snorkeling Maui: Molokini and Turtle Town
Over the years we’ve visited the island of Maui, we’ve enjoyed several Molokini snorkeling tours (and we’ve gone scuba diving at Molokini too).
On our most recent trip, we went snorkeling at Molokini and Turtle Town with Alii Nui Maui.
If you’re looking for the Mercedes experience, the Alii Nui is the most deluxe Molokini boat tour departing from Maalaea Harbor.
Hint: Lots of mimosas and champagne!
We’ll share all the delicious details about sailing on the Alii Nui catamaran.
But first, let’s start by telling you a little more about Molokini and Turtle Town and what you can generally expect on a snorkeling tour.
About Molokini, Hawaii
Shaped like a crescent moon, Part is submerged underwater, but the top rises 160 feet above the water, forming a rocky islet about a half mile wide.
A coral reef within the crater’s arms is a wondrous water-world for more than 250 species of tropical fish.
Above the water, Molokini is a bird sanctuary.
Seabirds such as wedge-tailed shearwaters and frigate birds nest on the rocky atoll and can be seen soaring overhead.
Below the water’s surface, the reef at Molokini lies at a depth of some 10 feet close to the inside of the crescent, sloping down to 25 feet or so the further away you go. It’s the perfect depth for snorkeling!
Because the crater is volcanic rock and so isolated, there’s no soil or sand around in the water.
When snorkeling or scuba diving within the crater’s sheltered waters, you can see up to 150 feet away – the water is that clear!
Molokini and its surrounding waters are a Marine Life Conservation District – and the range of fish species and other marine life found here is some of the most extensive in the Aloha state.
Black triggerfish? We noticed lots of them!
Moray eels? Yes, keep your eyes peeled.
Manta rays? That would be epic!
But the best place in Hawaii to see these mammoth shy rays is in Kona on the Big Island (we snorkeled with mantas in Kona on our UnCruise Hawaii trip).
About Turtle Town
There are actually several “Turtle Towns” along the south Maui coastline.
One is an underwater rocky outcropping offshore Maluaka Beach. Another is Turtle Arches (aka “Five Caves”), a series of large coral arches also along the southern coast of Maui.
Hawaii’s famous sea turtles are attracted to these particular spots close to the shoreline because they love to eat the seaweed and algae that grow on the lava formations here.
Don’t think itty bitty turtles, by the way.
Hawaiian green sea turtles (or honu) are the most common species on Maui.
They’re the largest sea turtles in the world with hard shells. They can grow as big as four feet in length and weigh over 300 pounds.
So we’re talking really big sea turtles!
And they’re not at all fazed by snorkelers. They often swim very close to you before gliding away.
Turtle Town and Molokini Crater snorkeling tours: What to expect
Are you getting excited?
Several tour companies offer Molokini Crater tours that combine snorkeling Molokini Island with one of the Turtle Town snorkel sites.
While a few boats leave from Lahaina Harbor, most Molokini boat tours leave from Maalaea Harbor on the south coast of Maui. The total excursion time is about 5 to 6 hours.
The departure time from Maalaea Harbor is usually early in the morning, around 6:30 or 7:00 am.
Yes, that’s early – and it’s hard to wake up early on holiday!
But, as with all the Hawaiian islands, early morning is the best time for snorkeling. That’s when the water is the most calm and clear.
By mid-morning, the trade winds usually start to pick up, the water gets choppier and visibility isn’t as good.
It takes about an hour from Maalaea Harbor to reach Molokini.
In general, most tours include about 45 minutes of snorkeling in Molokini Crater.
After your Molokini stop, your boat will cruise or sail to one of the Turtle Towns for a second snorkeling stop. You usually get to enjoy another 30 to 45 minutes in the water to snorkel with the sea turtles.
Snorkeling gear plus flotation devices will be included on your Molokini and Turtle Town snorkeling adventure.
Breakfast, drinks, fresh fruit and snacks are also usually provided.
But if you want a Mai Tai to celebrate on the way back to Maui, you may have to pay for that (depending on your tour, alcoholic beverages may be extra).
Bonus: Dolphin and whale sightings!
On your tour, you’ll probably be treated to the sight of Hawaiian spinner dolphins in the wild. They love to swim alongside the bow of a boat or in the boat’s wake.
Some pods can number as many as 30 dolphins!
As well, if you go in the winter months, chances are excellent you’ll see humpback whales too on your tour.
The season for whale watching in Maui is December to April – that’s when up to 12,000 humpbacks migrate to the island’s warm shallow waters to breed, give birth and nurse their young.
Fun Hawaii fact: Hawaii is the only U.S. state where humpback whales mate. (Even the whales find Hawaii romantic!)
What to bring on your Molokini snorkel trip:
Wear your bathing suit underneath your shorts or clothes.
And when packing for Maui, throw in reef-safe sunscreen as well as a rash guard or snorkel skin to protect yourself from sunburn. (Or you can buy these items on Maui when shopping for your Hawaii gifts and souvenirs – lots of stores sell swimwear and accessories for fun in the sun.)
If you tend to get seasick, bring some anti-nausea medication with you too, just in case…
Best Molokini and Turtle Towns snorkeling tours
Alii Nui Maui review:
The best Molokini tour from Maalaea Harbor is on the Alii Nui catamaran – it offers the most luxurious experience.
While the 65-foot catamaran can accommodate 100 passengers, the maximum number is capped at 45. There’s lots of space to lie out on the trampoline decking while sipping champagne!
Apart from being impressed by the Alii Nui reviews on TripAdvisor, one reason we picked Alii Nui Maui for our most recent Molokini crater tour was because they include complimentary transfers to and from your Maui resort.
(We only rented a car for some of the time during our Maui trip, so this was very handy – essential, actually, for getting to and from Maalaea Harbor.)
After checking in at 6:30 am, we boarded the Alii Nui.
As crew members prepared the boat for departure, passengers were served a full hot breakfast – scrambled eggs, bacon, banana bread, yogurt, fresh Hawaiian fruit and pastries.
There was plenty of seating at several small tables under cover, as well as on benches along the sides of the vessel.
Following breakfast, good quality masks, fins and snorkels were handed out. Some guests chilled out on the trampoline area at the front of the catamaran as we cruised the calm waters.
Before long, we reached the uninhabited volcanic islet of Molokini.
And how lucky were we!
We were blessed with almost perfect conditions.
The captain sailed around the back of the island. Molokini’s cliffs are steep on this side, and its back wall reaches straight down 250 feet below the water surface to the ocean floor. It’s a popular area for scuba divers when conditions are right.
Popping out around the other side, the Alii Nui then anchored in the sheltered inner curve of the caldera.
Wooden stairs were lowered into the water.
And Alii Nui “lifeguards” set off to sit on paddleboards in the water (with extra masks and bottles of defogger) to keep an eye on us, in case anyone needed any help.
Before entering the water from the stairs, we were offered yellow waist flotation belts or foam noodles.
Even though we’re very comfortable in the water (and have lots of snorkeling and diving experience), taking a noodle and placing it under our chests made it that much easier to float on the water’s surface, mask gazing down, with barely any effort.
We’ve already mentioned Molokini is renowned for its exceptional water visibility – and it didn’t disappoint. We could see up to at least 100 feet away in the rich turquoise blue water!
Yellow butterfly and Orangespine unicorn fish stole the show.
But we also spied an octopus crawling slowly on the reef.
Colorful parrotfish, needle fish, Hawaii’s state fish (the Humuhumunukunukuapua’a) and a large spotted eagle ray caught our attention too.
Back on the Alii Nui, we dried off with the fresh clean towels provided.
The bar was open and mimosas were served. (All alcohol is complimentary.) Hummus, dips, salsa, chocolate cake and other snacks were also offered.
We weren’t really hungry, having wolfed down that big breakfast just a couple of hours previously. But the chocolate cake was too yummy to resist.
And we don’t usually start drinking at 9:30 in the morning – really! But, we thought: Just one mimosa (made with bubbly and POG or passion-fruit, orange and guava juice) surely couldn’t hurt.
And then we sailed to Turtle Town near Makena Landing.
Offshore from Makena Landing on South Maui, the “Turtle Town” we anchored at is close to an area known as “Five Graves” (or “Five Caves”).
It’s named for the five headstones marking the graves of a family of Chinese laborers who were buried here along the Maui coastline.
This particular Turtle Town is a rocky pinnacle off the coast where green sea turtles are known to feed and hang out.
We were in the water for a good 10 minutes without seeing a turtle, though we could hear other snorkelers exclaiming they’d seen some.
We were almost ready to give up.
But then the biggest turtle we’ve ever seen (almost as long as a boogie board!) rose up slowly from the depths to peer at us just a few feet away. It looked so prehistoric.
With sunbeams shining through the water, dancing off the turtle’s humongous shell, the experience was quite magical!
After he (she?) languidly swam away, we were entertained by another equally impressive turtle, which nibbled at algae on the lava rocks underwater.
Thrilled to have encountered turtles, we swam back to the boat, where a hot lunch awaited. Pulled pork, pesto chicken, tortellini, garlic bread, Caesar salad and soft chewy macadamia-nut-and-chocolate cookies – no one was going hungry!
Happily satiated, everyone on the catamaran drank lots more bubbly served by the friendly crew, as the wind filled the sails and we sailed back to Maalaea Harbor on Maui.
Kai Kanani review:
Now there’s another catamaran, the Kai Kanani, which also offers deluxe Molokini snorkel tours.
It leaves from Maluaka Beach in Makena, further south of Maalaea Harbor.
The boat ride to Molokini is shorter, and if you take their Sunrise Deluxe Snorkel tour, they promise to be the first snorkel boat at Molokini.
You check in at 6:00 am – and you’re back on Maui by 9:45 am.
Kai Kanani tours include a delicious continental breakfast of warm cinnamon rolls, fresh strawberries and hot chocolate as the sun rises.
After snorkeling, you’re treated to egg frittatas, ham-and-cheese sliders and an open bar with mimosas and Bloody Mary’s.
Complimentary shuttle service from hotels and resorts in the Wailea area is also offered.
Other great Turtle Town and Molokini snorkeling trips
For a tour that’s less expensive than the Alii Nui and Kai Kanani, this Molokini and Turtle Town snorkel tour aboard the 55-foot Malolo catamaran includes the two snorkeling stops, a continental breakfast and deli lunch.
The Pacific Whale Foundation also offers good eco-friendly tours with a BBQ lunch onboard. Each trip is led by a marine naturalist, and profits support the foundation’s whale conservation efforts.
Molokini snorkeling reviews: Is Molokini worth it?
You might have read some disappointing reviews about Molokini Crater and turtle snorkel trips.
It’s no secret that over the years, the world’s coral reefs have suffered from the effects of climate change and overuse.
Molokini is no exception.
Each morning, upward of a dozen Molokini snorkel boats anchor within the crater’s shallow inner cove.
Some 600 to 800 snorkelers may visit the crater at any one time. In 2019, a bill was passed to limit the number of tour boats visiting Molokini at the same time to 12, but the governor vetoed the bill.
Years ago, when we first went scuba diving at Molokini, the coral gardens were healthy and blooming. And the wide variety of colorful tropical fish were abundant – we remember galaxies of fish! At least, that’s what we think we remember.
Today, it’s the same crystal clear waters. And the same marvelous visibility.
But it would be a lie to say the reef is glorious. It doesn’t have the same interesting coral formations or kaleidoscope of hues we’ve seen when diving in the Red Sea or the Caribbean. The colors are neutral (mostly gray, coffee and sand tones).
And the fish aren’t as plentiful as before.
Does that mean you shouldn’t book a Molokini snorkel tour? No.
Our latest Molokini snorkeling trip on the Alii Nui was wonderful. Look at all the creatures we still managed to spy!
Of course, the brilliant weather we were blessed with helped. We visited in mid-November – the sun shone and the water was calm and silky warm. And it had been almost two years since we’d last gone snorkeling.
For water babes like us, how could we not have an incredible time snorkeling on Maui!
Expectations and weather conditions will influence your experience.
Don’t go expecting the absolute best snorkeling ever. And if it happens to be a windy day and the seas are choppy, you may feel a bit unsettled (er, sick) on the boat ride. Not so fun…
If you go on the Alii Nui or any of the other Molokini snorkel tours covered here, the expert crew will do their best to show you a great time.
And if your day is anything like ours was – and you spot a huge sea turtle (or two!) – you’ll beam and shout “Yes! Molokini is worth it!”
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Photo credits: 10 to 12, 17, 19, 20, 28 Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | 2 to 4, 7 to 9, 13 to 15, 18, 24, 25, 27 David Parias | 5, 21 to 23 Kai Kanani