Although there are theories that Spanish or Dutch sailors might have stopped here much earlier, the first documented European to arrive was Captain James Cook. He and his crew on the HMS Resolution and HMS Discovery sighted Kealakekua Bay on the morning of January 17, 1779. He estimated several thousand people lived in the two villages. On January 28, he performed the first Christian service on the islands at a funeral of a crew member.

“Ka’awaloa in 1779” by John Webber, artist aboard Cook’s ship, documents Cook entering the bay during the Hawaiian celebration Makahiki. This was a traditionally peaceful time of year, so he was welcomed and given food. Cook and his crew stayed for several weeks, returning to sea shortly after the end of the festival. After suffering damage during a storm, the ships returned two weeks later, on February 14. This time relations were not as smooth.

After the theft of one of Resolution’s small boats by a native Hawaiian, Cook attempted to lure Hawaiian chief Kalani’opu’u aboard to hold as hostage until the boat was returned. A skirmish ensued during which Cook was struck in the head and stabbed, near the spot where he had first set foot on the island. This death was depicted in a series of paintings “Death of Cook.”

A large white stone monument was built on the north shore of the bay in 1874 on the order of Princess Likelike and was deeded to the United Kingdom in 1877. The chain around the monument is supported by four cannons from the ship HMS Fantome, each placed with their breaches embedded in the rock in 1876. It marks the approximate location of Cook’s death.

The monument is unreachable by road; this remote location is only accessible by water or an hour-long hike along a moderately steep trail. Many visitors have rented kayaks and paddled across the bay, about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) from its southern end, however as of February 1, 2013 a moratorium prevents kayaks, stand-up paddle boards, surfboards and bodyboards from entering the bay. The pier at Napo’opo’o can be accessed down a narrow road off the Hawaii Belt Road. The beach sand was mostly removed by Hurricane Iniki in 1992.

Hawaiian Spinner Dolphins frequent Kealakekua Bay, especially in the morning. The bay serves as a place for them to rest and feed, and as a nursery for mothers and their calves. Due to the calm water conditions, extensive coral reef, and thriving underwater life, Kealakekua Bay offers some of the best snorkeling and diving in Hawaii. The shallow waters adjacent to the monument are best for snorkeling and scuba diving. About 180 acres (0.73 km2) around the bay was designated a State Historic Park in 1967, and it was added as a Historic District to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 as site 73000651. The 315 acres (1.27 km2) of the bay itself were declared a Marine Life Conservation District in 1969.

Tours At This Location

Morning Snorkel Tour

Depart Keauhou Bay sailing down the Kona coast to snorkel in the pristine waters near the Captain Cook Monument in Kealakekua Bay and “Red Hill.” Breakfast and lunch included.

Afternoon Snorkel Tour

Snorkel in crystal-clear, Kealakekua Bay, home of the Captain Cook Monument. You can also whale watch during the winter months. Light snacks included.

Here’s an interesting article on the Captain Cook Monument by Hawaii.comSea Paradise Sailing and Snorkel offers a morning snorkel tour in Kealakekua Bay near the Captain Cook Monument which is considered one of the best snorkeling spots on the island of Hawaii.

British Sea Captain James Cook, thought to be the first Westerner to set sight on the Hawaiian Islands, spotted the islands of Oʻahu and Kauaʻi on Jan. 18, 1778. Two days later, he anchored in Waimea Bay off Kauaʻi.

The Death of Captain Cook

Almost a year later on Jan. 17, 1779, the explorer found his way to the Big Island, where he would be killed at the hands of Hawaiians. He anchored his ships in the sheltered waters of Kealakekua Bay where the annual Makahiki Festival, which honors the fertility god Lono, was in progress. Thinking Cook might be Lono himself, the Hawaiians welcomed him with open arms and honored him with a great feast.

On Feb. 4, Captain Cook left the Big Island only to return about a week later after a severe storm damaged one of his ships. This time the Hawaiians, who had discovered Cook was not a god, were hostile. A skirmish broke out and Cook with four of his sailors died near the village of Kaʻawaloa. In 1874, Cook’s fellow countrymen erected a 27-foot obelisk in his memory.

Now a Popular Snorkeling Location

Today the site is a popular location for snorkeling due to its clear and calm conditions.  Dolphins, manta rays and tropical fish are commonly seen in these waters.