Whales and Snorkeling with Under the Sea Hawaii

As I planned our Hawaiian trip, I looked for a family-friendly boat cruise. Having been on less-than-wonderful boat tours before, I was concerned. On our last trip to Maui, my husband and I took a pontoon trip which, due largely to weather, was a grave disappointment: no snorkeling, no wildlife, lots of vomiting. And lots of money wasted. 

I knew what I wanted: knowledgeable guides, a small boat, flexibility, and a child-friendly environment. I found all of that and more with Under the Sea Hawaii. Captain Barbara Whitman Howell has a Master’s degree in Marine Biology and studied at Cornell University’s Shoals Marine Laboratory. Her crew all have strong academic backgrounds as well. Not only do they know their stuff, they know how to have fun, and they teach with enthusiasm. 

At 5:15 am my bleary-eyed family and I arrived at the Ko’Olina Marina on the southwest side of Oahu. We had chosen The Waking Ocean tour with a chance to see the last of the phosphorescent marine life as the sun rose. I will be honest: I was a little worried about booking a 6 hour tour with a 4 year-old on board. Would he be seasick? Would he enjoy it? Would he snorkel? Would they make the information accessible? But upon meeting Captain Barbara and Marine Biologist, Lynn Sutherland, my fears were assuaged.

The Under the Sea Hawaii crew was warm, welcoming, and genuinely excited for Bambino to be aboard. And, to our delight, we were the only passengers that day! Under the Sea Hawaii intentionally keeps their tours small: fewer than 10 people. Their boat accommodates more, but they aim for an intimate experience. That is one of the reasons I chose their tour. Some tour companies have as many as 50 people on board which, with a child, can lead to both logistical and safety concerns. But Under the Sea Hawaii recognizes that, and they cater to each group’s interests and composition.

 Captain Barbara at the helm with Lynn, an on-board Marine Biologist

Captain Barbara at the helm with Lynn, an on-board Marine Biologist

Once aboard the first question they asked was, “What do you hope to see today?” Bambino wanted to see sea turtles. My husband wanted to see dolphins. As for me: whales. I had been on several whale watching cruises and had never actually seen whales. But I also knew that we were there at the wrong time of year (early April) for good whale watching, so my expectations were tempered.

Over the course of the six hours we were aboard, Hawaii’s wildlife did not disappoint. We snorkeled with sea turtles and a huge array of tropical fish off of Electric Beach. Two Rough Toothed Dolphins showed up and played off the side of our boat for awhile. Then a huge pod of Spinner Dolphins -- Nai’a -- arrived and played in the boat’s wake. Mamas with their babies leapt in the waves and showed off their skills for more than an hour. We also saw two Pilot Whales; they kept their distance, but swam around the boat and dove deep below us. As we cruised a pod of White Spotted Dolphins joined us, and we were thrilled to watch them leap in our wake and dive under the boat. And then we spotted them: Humpback Whales. A mother, her calf, and a male escort joined us for about half an hour. I am not sure I breathed the entire time!

 Bambino's drawing of our boat trip with Under the Sea HAwaii

Bambino's drawing of our boat trip with Under the Sea HAwaii

To be clear: Under the Sea Hawaii can not arrange for dolphins and whales and sea turtles to show up. But their fantastic boat is nimble enough and responsive enough that we were able to be in places to invite these opportunities. And we happened to have a spectacular day of wildlife enhanced by their truly amazing boat. Under the Sea Hawaii sails an ecologically-responsible hydrofoil boat with a huge, curved glass bottom. One of only two boats like this in the United States, it feels a bit like a spaceship with a spectacular oceanic view. At high speeds, we sat in the front window of the boat watching dolphins leap and race just beyond our reach. Over the reefs, we bobbed in shaded comfort watching turtles and whales swim beneath the boat. Bambino, who got cold while snorkeling, saw as many fish and had just as much fun watching through the bottom of the boat as we did in the water.

Throughout our journey Captain Barbara and Lynn regaled us with stories of Hawaii’s unique ecosystem and the roles that the marine life we saw play. With Bambino they used clear and easy-to-understand language without talking down to him. And the overarching message was one of conservation and a love for the Hawaiian islands. By the time we left the boat, Bambino could easily identify a dozen types of fish or more, and he was full of facts about them. His favorite: Hawaii’s state fish, the Humuhumunukunukuapua`a.

As we cruised back into dock at the end of our voyage, my husband and I agreed that our Under the Sea Hawaii experience was the highlight of our time in Hawaii -- and frankly, one of the most amazing experiences in our lives. And while it is more expensive than a standard whale-watching cruise, you get what you pay for. We had an amazing day at sea. 

 
 

Location

Under the Sea Hawaii cruises depart from the Ko Olina Marina (near Marriott’s Ko Olina Beach Club and the Disney Aulani Resort)

 windows at the front and the bottom

windows at the front and the bottom

Cost

$300 per person (The Waking Ocean)

We booked online and took advantage of a 15% discount in doing so.

There are several other options for shorter trips and trips at other times of the day. The cost varies accordingly.

 The unique Under the Sea Hawaii Boat

The unique Under the Sea Hawaii Boat

Who will love it?

Novice snorkelers and experienced alike. Photographers. Children and families. Even those who don’t want to get into the water will have a wonderful time.

 Checking out the reef below through the glass bottom

Checking out the reef below through the glass bottom

Notes

Under the Sea Hawaii provided a lovely array of food and beverages. I had packed snacks and water, but we didn’t need anything. Everything was fresh, organic, and some was even homemade. It was delicious! Additionally, we took our own snorkeling gear, but that wasn’t necessary. They have fins and snorkels to use if needed. Wear your swimsuit and sunscreen, and prepare to have a wonderful time!