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Swimming with sea turtles in Hawaii would have to go down as one of the most beautiful and incredible experiences we’ve had together as a family. Taking a swim with sea turtles was an almost surreal treat and one that I would encourage you to add to your Big Island itinerary.

When we decided to go to Hawaii, I asked my friend Mary who lives on the Big Island… “Where can I swim with sea turtles?” As a local, I knew she would have the answer and she promptly gave me a list of where to see sea turtles in Hawaii. We saw a couple of Hawaii sea turtles sitting on the beach at Punalu’u on our way around the Big Island. We also stood right next to a sea turtle swimming in the lagoon at the Hilton Waikoloa Village. But the best experience by far was swimming with them over in Hilo!


Swimming with Sea Turtles in Hawaii


Swimming with Sea Turtles, Big Island, Hawaii


Where to Swim with Sea Turtles on the Big Island

The best place to swim with sea turtles in Hawaii’s Big Island is at Carl Smith Beach Park. Carl Smith Beach Park is on the east coast of the Big Island in Hilo town. This is not a sandy beach, rather a grassy park with rocks leading down to the water. There are plenty of spots where you can step into the water from the rocks or by climbing down the stairs.

The Hawaiian word for turtle is “honu” and you’ll quickly learn it as there is plenty of signage around about respecting the honu when you’re at the beach park. See below for my paragraph on how to swim with turtles safely and respectfully.

There is limited parking at the beach park and it was very busy the weekend we visited. Mostly with locals, rather than tourists, many of whom were picnicking in the park or having birthday parties under the gazebos. I can imagine that visiting during the week would be much less crowded. There are restrooms, showers and drinking fountains as well.

The lava rock and surrounding reef make the water very, very calm and easy for kids to swim in. The water was a lovely temperature when we visited in January, very easy to jump straight into the water.

The Carl Smith Beach Park is by far the best place to see turtles in Hawaii that we encountered on our travels. We did see turtles on the beach in a couple of other locations on the Big Island but the weren’t nearly as active or interested in humans.


Pictures of Swimming with Turtles in Hawaii

Here are some pictures of us swimming with sea turtles in Hawaii. As you can see I could not stop taking photos of Reuben and his friend T swimming with the turtles. It was such a beautiful experience! Being in Hawaii swimming with turtles is an absolute must-add item for your bucket list.


sea turtles hawaii big island

Watching the Hawaiian turtles swim in the shallow water at Carl Smith Beach Park on the Big Island of Hawaii.


green sea turtle swimming

It was fascinating enough just to watch them swim around in the clear water.


hawaiian green sea turtle

The turtles seem to enjoy the shallow water close to shore.


swim with the turtles, Big Island, Hawaii

The kids climbing down into the water to see the turtles up close.


Big Island, Hawaii swim with turtles

Reuben got a little scared when the turtle first started to swim near him and he backed right up against the rocks.


turtle beach big island hawaii

The boys quickly learnt they had to respect the turtles and to look but not touch.


where to swim with turtles

Lee jumped in for a quick paddle with the turtles. How could you miss out on this!


turtle beach hawaii big island

This turtle couldn’t get enough of the boys! He followed them around for ages, trying to nibble on Reuben’s green t-shirt. (I think he thought it was grass!)


Where to see turtles in hawaii

We spent close to an hour with this one turtle.


Swimming with Turtles, Carl Smith Beach Park, Hilo town, Big Island Hawaii

The turtle was nibbling bits of grass clippings floating in the water. The boys offered up grass clippings to the turtle which he gladly accepted!


What’s It Like to Swim with Sea Turtles Hawaii

Swimming with the turtles in hawaii was a dream experience. The turtles were just so friendly. We actually couldn’t believe how easy going they were and how interested in the children. The two turtles we saw seemed to have no reservations about swimming up and around us as we stood and waded in the shallow water.  Swimming with turtles wasn’t at all scary despite the surprising size of the Hawaiian turtles when you are up this close to them. Five-year old Reuben was completely comfortable in the water with this amazing sea creatures. Along with his friend T, the two of them probably spent close to one hour in the water with the turtles.

I think this photo says it all… pure joy!


Reuben's Pure Joy at swimming with turtles Hawaii

Pure joy at the thought of swimming with turtles!



Personal Safety and Respect for the Hawaiian Sea Turtles

Hawaii is one of the best places to swim with sea turtles in the world. This is in part due the the fact that Hawaiian green sea turtles are respected by the Hawaiian people and protected by both state and federal laws.  Please note take of all of the following guidelines for your own personal safety and the safety of the honu.

  • You should NOT touch the turtles.  I shouldn’t have to spell this out but no touching also means do not try to sit on or ride the turtles. Apparently it has happened before.
  • Let the turtles swim around you and near you at their leisure.
  • Don’t box the turtles in. Make sure the turtle has a clear path to swim away if it chooses.
  • Don’t chase the turtles.
  • Don’t feed the turtles anything they’re not already eating.
  • Do not disturb or approach turtles that are basking on the beach. 6 to 10 feet is a respectful distance.
  • If you see other tourists acting in a manner that is not appropriate, be sure to tell them to stop!


Read more:

My friend Mary who lives in Hawaii has a couple of informative posts on sea turtles in Hawaii that you might like to read.


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Showing 10 comments
  • Julie

    Great advice and thanks for including a link to the map. We visited Samuel Spencer beach just a bit down the road and the turtles were there too. But Carl Smith looks like a much better option.

  • The Adventure Ahead

    Amazing! This is super high on our bucket list. I have always had a thing for turtles, and this looks like an incredible experience. We always love reading about your adventures 🙂

  • Mara Kunkel

    So glad you added the safety tips, not only for humans, but also (and especially) for the honu. It definitely does happen where people try to ride them and such. On Kaua’i, at the more touristy beaches, the lifeguards even have to rope off the area where turtles or monk seals are resting on the sand. I’ve seen people cross the barriers to take pictures up close and even poke them with a stick!

    Glad to have found you all and looking forward to reading more of your adventures!

    • Bethaney Davies

      Thanks Mara! We love Hawaii. It’s a very special place and the wildlife there is very unique. We want to encourage other people to see it but to do so respectfully. It’s surprising how stupid some tourist can be!

      • Mara Kunkel

        LOL Bethany, I wasn’t going to use that particular word, but it is a very fitting description!

        Can’t complain because tourists are the bread and butter of our economy, but some days it is so frustrating!

        • Bethaney Davies

          I know! Sometimes it is a language barrier but mostly it is just a lack of common sense. I mean, who would try to ride a turtle?? Seriously! I can only hope people who read my blog take my advice to heart.

  • Ivory

    Is the beach also good for snorkeling? From the pics, it looked quite shallow.

    • Bethaney Davies

      It was shallow but we were right at the very start of the beach. It was shallow and calm quite a way out but you can definitely snorkel there. 🙂

  • Funlocity

    Swimming with turtles have always been on my bucket list! Thank you for the wonderful pictures and great advice for the safety of the honu as well!

  • Jen

    I love your comments on safety. I’m surprised to see you got so close to the animals, as every time we have visited the big island it is posted that you are to remain 20 feet away from turtles. Perhaps you visited somewhere that it was not posted? Looks like fun.

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