There’s plenty of buzz going around about which ocean excursion companies do and don’t practice environmental responsibility. It comes with the turf: Hoards of visitors are good for tour businesses, yet not particularly for the fragile ecosystems they count on for income. Sail Hawaii’s Wildside Tours are an operation one step ahead of the curve in this regard.
Operating out of O`ahu’s Waianae Boat Harbor, Tori and Armin Cullins team up with national wildlife research organizations and non-profits, in addition to hiring graduate students with masters degrees in marine biology to lead open-ocean excursions. What does this mean for the average visitor looking to go out for a sail on Hawaiian waters?
“It means they’re not only going to have the opportunity to learn something, but they are going to have the most updated information about marine life while enjoying a day in one of the most spectacular environments on the planet,” said Tori Cullins.
On a recent excursion, we met crew member Melissa Evans-Shontoski. After handing us a life jacket and a bagel with cream cheese, it became fairly clear that she wasn’t your standard snorkel cruise deckhand. Evans-Shontoski recently completed her masters thesis on the subject of human-dolphin interaction—something we were all hoping for on our sail from Waianae. She focused both on the impacts on the species of spinner dolphin that inhabit the near shore resting grounds on O`ahu’s west side, as well as the economic factors for Hawaii tourism.
We took the opportunity to discuss with her, and Cullins, about the experiences people can expect onboard a Sail Hawaii excursion. [For an up-close and personal story about one dolphin excursion with Wild Side, click here: http://www.bonhawaii.com/swim-wild-dolphin-oahus-west-side-0]
Each morning of the week, two vessels depart Waianae Boat Harbor at 7:30 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. They are six and sixteen passenger vessels (respectively). Crews explicitly inform their clients of two things up front: They will have a safe, enjoyable time on the tranquil waters that stretch up the coastline, and they might have an opportunity to swim with wild sea life.
“What is integral is that we don’t guarantee that people will interact with dolphin,” Cullins clarifies. “Unlike other tour operators, we don’t impose on the habits of the wild.”
Specifically, Cullins explained, that upon spotting a pod of wild dolphin, the captains will gauge the interest level of the creatures before stopping the boat and allowing guests in to the water. On occasion, dolphin will swim away from the boat, making it clear that they don’t care to interact with humans. Likewise, continues Cullins, it’s not uncommon during whale season to see a mother and baby humpback calf in the water, completely surrounded by 5 boats.
“We won’t even go near them in that scenario, even if it’s the only whale we see all day—although it’s hardly the case,” said Cullins. “It’s all on the animal’s terms, is what we like to say. There’s plenty to do out here, which is why we don’t guarantee people can get in the water with dolphins.”
Plenty to do indeed. This year, Sail Hawaii has recorded 5 pods of pilot whales that live off the coastline, which are frequent visitors to the boat’s peripherals. There are teems of reef fish to observe. Sail Hawaii has also partnered with Cascadia Research (out of Seattle) who perform biopsy and satellite tagging of false killer whales in the Hawaiian Islands. The specie has been in rapid decline since the 1980s, when over 1,200 such animals were found in local waters. They now number less than 65.
A second crewmember, Kara Benson, is also a masters graduate with a degree in marine biology and a focus on dolphin, specifically. Benson aides in the educating of guests on the variety of ongoing research being done in Waianae’s tranquil, azure waters. Coming down the pipeline for Sail Hawaii is a third vessel, in early 2010, that will offer 3-day intensive wildlife trips to multiple islands.
“Much like the surf boats in Bali that are very popular right now, we are going to offer three-day excursions for people who want a little more than the basic ‘Wildlife 101’ tours,” said Cullins. “We’ll go to hotspots off Lana`i, Moloka`i and so on.”
Until then, we encourage readers to visit the above link to a single experience had with Wildside—and head west for a beautiful day on the water. [Cullens adds that those with a strong background in marine biology and ocean voyaging interested in employment should contact her directly by clicking on the link below.]
"Much like the surf boats in Bali that are very popular right now, we are going to offer three-day excursions for people who want a little more than the basic ‘Wildlife 101’ tours." —Cullins