One Black Sand Beach in a Sea of Lava


Exploring the black sands of Punalu’u beach

The Big Island of Hawaii consists of a whole lot of lava. And what color is lava? It’s black. With so much lava lying around it is bound to make some sand. So what was all the fuss about? Why did people say there were only a few black sand beaches on the island? We drove all over the island and there was lava rock everywhere. Weren’t black sand beaches all over the place too?

Well, no. More often than not they were a mix of black and white sand. Heck, I only saw one truly white sand beach at Kua bay. I’m sure there were more, in fact I saw pictures of them, but they seem to be the rarity on the island, not the norm. The same went for a truly genuine black sand beach. This island was not shaping up to be what I expected.

So why are the black sand beaches so famed? Well for one thing they are rare. Not many islands are active volcanoes and have lava flowing into the ocean. For another, it is true that not many of the beaches are actually fine sand. The one near our rental house was made up of mostly small black rocks with just a few spots of sand. According to our guidebook, a genuine black sand beach is “created when a chunky a’a lava flow meets the ocean and shatters into small pieces on contact with the water. These small chunks are quickly pulverized by the ocean, forming a delicious black sand.”

We headed down to Punalu’u Black Sand Beach least we miss our chance to see this truly black beach. As Mike loved to point out to me, once the lava stops flowing the black sand erodes into the ocean and won’t be back. Obviously I needed to see what all the fuss was about.

The fuss is worth it people. The water was a bit too cold and rough for our family to really dive into. The top layer was cold fresh water bubbling up just offshore. There was also a nice breeze whipping across the sand. Of course this didn’t stop Dek from diving right in. Thank goodness I had a disposable swim diaper in my bag. When will I ever learn to just keep that kid in a swimsuit the entire time we are in Hawaii?

The beach wasn’t overly crowded. We were visiting late in the afternoon. Most of the west side day-trippers were long gone. There were a few people camped out, but mostly just shutter bugs looking to score a great shot of the turtles sunbathing on the beach.

A note about the turtles: There are signs clearly stating that federal law protects the animals and you must keep your distance. Respect that please. I saw too many people with huge zoom lenses almost standing on top of the sea turtles. This is not necessary. How close to a turtle’s eyeball do you really need to get with a 200mm lens in order to get the shot? Even with my measly 135mm zoom I was able to get some nice images of these loveable sea creatures.

We ventured down the beach and into the tide pools so Dek could do a little digging while Mike and I took turns exploring the lava rocks jutting out into the sea. Water crashed over the lava creating mini waterfalls. I found a turtle trying to turn himself around in a tide pool. I’m not sure if he was coming or going. He didn’t seem to know either as each incoming wave knocked him around.

A sea turtle getting no where fast

After taking my required 1,200 shots of the beach and my son, I sat back and enjoyed the view. Sure I had mocked the fact that the whole island is made of black sand, but sitting there on that beach giving my feet a much need exfoliation I realized I had been wrong. This right in front of me was what people marveled at and came home talking about. The refined sand made by a tumultuous mother nature had created a beach worth exploring and learning about.

My toes dug deeper into the sand as the sun set and the other visitors headed back to their hotels. This was good living. This was why people flocked to the islands. This was a black sand beach at its best.

Sunset over Punalu’u Black Sand Beach

Know Before You Go

  • Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, between mile marker 56 and 55 on HWY 11 (south of Hilo)
  • Restrooms are available
  • Picnic tables are on sight
  • Water shoes or flip-flops are highly recommended if you are doing any exploring. The lava rocks that go out into the water and around the beach can be very sharp.
  • Guidebook- Hawaii: The Big Island Revealed
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Showing 15 comments
  • Lisa

    What a cool experience – Love the turtles! We saw them swimming alongside our boat on a snorkeling trip in Maui – the girls would have loved to have seen them up close like this!

    • © Keryn Means/ walkingon travels

      Lisa- It’s funny because for a week when we were on the Kona side of the island everyone else kept saying they saw sea turtles everywhere. I hadn’t seen a one. Then we get to this beach and they are everywhere. Literally. It was a very cool experience. And of course Maui had the humpback whales, which was it’s own amazing nature experience when we were there when Dek was much smaller. One day I’ll have to post pics from that too.

  • Leigh

    Lucky you seeing all those sea turtles and having what sounded like a fabulous day on a gorgeous black sand beach. You’ve done a great job choosing these shots out of your 1200 photos.

  • These are such beautiful and precious pictures! We totally missed this beach when we were on the Big Island. Another reason to go back. =) We did manage to see some sea turtles elsewhere. Those people encroaching on the turtles’ personal space need to be hit on the head with those signs.

  • Nancie

    I love the turtles. I remember going to a black sand beach years ago on Maui; a very unique experience. Looks like you had a great day.

  • Bob R

    Thanks especially for posting the pic of the people who obviously felt that certain rules don’t apply to them. I’m all for pushing the envelope or sometimes stretching the rules, but NEVER in these kinds of situations.

  • InsideJourneys

    That black sand could take some getting used to, especially for someone used to white and pink sand beaches. Nice shots. Looks like you had a wonderful time exploring and digging your toes into the sand.

  • jenny@atasteoftravel

    Loved your photos.They bought back memories for me of the first time my girls saw black sand in Hawaii. Coming from OZ they couldn’t believe it but loved getting completely covered in it! Shame we missed the turtles!

  • Sabrina

    The turtles are beautiful! I’ve never been to a black sand beach. Must be a completetly different experience than the white sand beaches I’m used to.

  • Laurel

    I can see why you took so many photos. I would love to visit a black sand beach and the turtle is adorable – just too bad that so many people weren’t respecting the signs or the turtles.

  • What beautiful photos of the beach and turtles! I would love to see a black sand beach next time I’m in Hawaii. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Becca@R We There Yet Mom?

    Your pictures are absolutely stunning!! I can only imagine putting my toes in the black sand and admiring the view as you did. And the poor sea turtles – those photogs with their enormous zoom lenses are unbelievable! Funny you caught that picture!

    Hope you are well! Happy Easter!


  • Jessica

    Turtles! I love turtles! I definitely want to see a black sand beach someday-maybe today!

    • © Keryn Means/ walkingon travels

      Jessica- I thought of those pictures you posted of those teeny tiny baby turtles while I worked on this post. Can you believe those little guys you saw might grow as big as the ones I saw one day!?