When I arrived at the Lahaina Harbor pier to check-in for
Ultimate Rafting’s ocean-rafting excursion, I looked around, hoping
to get a glimpse of the raft on which I’d soon make a four-hour
At an adjacent slip, dozens of passengers boarded a large cruise
boat, next to which the 30-foot raft, when it eventually pulled in,
looked considerably dwarfed. But the rows of seats assured me that
at least the vessel would be comfortable and, hopefully, it would
be seaworthy as well.
Ultimate Rafting allows a maximum of 16 passengers on its
outings and, surprisingly, nearly everyone, obviously ready for
adventure, chose a spot on the outer rim of the inflatable pontoon.
No one opted for the middle seats with the backrests, and the
shaded seats under a canopy in the rear were only sought later in
As we exited Lahaina Harbor, with the stunning mountains as a
backdrop, the young boat captain and company owner, Joshua Munns,
let on some speed. The group grasped hats and cameras in one hand
and the safety rope in the other. Shirts billowed in the wind as
the twin engines cranked to speeds upward of 45 mph.
The raft, which has a rigid hull, is the same type of vessel
used by the Coast Guard for search-and-rescue operations.
“Rafts are boats,” Capt. Munns said. “People think they aren’t,
but they are.”
It took all of 10 minutes for us to get in prime whale-sighting
range, where on-board marine biologist, Melissa Meeker, displayed
her passion for Hawaii’s sea life.
“The thing we really emphasize is the eco-experience, although
it is an adventure experience, too,” Meeker said of the tour.
Suddenly, two whales breached above the water, their tails
slapping back under. Next to our raft, their immensity was quickly
put into perspective. Adult whales can span 45 feet and weigh
90,000 pounds. A baby whale, or calf, can measure 15 feet and weigh
as much as 3,000 pounds.
The raft afforded everyone a 360-degree view. Still,
whale-watching etiquette called for those seated on the side of the
boat where a whale was spotted to remain seated, so passengers on
the other side could stand and take in the same view. Mostly,
everyone just leaned over the sides of the raft to get as close as
possible and to best frame their photos of the numerous female
whales accompanied by their calves and male companions.
Munns powered the boat toward neighboring Lanai. The coastline
along the largely undeveloped island, a former sugar plantation,
provided some spectacular snorkeling opportunities.
At our first destination, we were greeted by a pod of about 40
spinner dolphins doing full-body flips in the air. The slender,
four- to six-foot dolphins swam alongside the boat leaping wildly
above the surface.
Each time a dolphin jumped, Munns instructed everyone to shout
“Hana hou!” the Hawaiian phrase for “do it again” to encourage an
encore. (Apparently, the dolphins regularly leap twice in
succession, even without the prompting.) When asked why the
dolphins leap and spin, Meeker responded that researchers don’t
really know the reason. But Munns simply declared, “because they
After their close-ups, the dolphins departed, allowing us to
continue on to Sweetheart Rock, with its caves, arches and many
fish to explore. Only one other boat was in the vicinity.
Ultimate Rafting provided snorkeling equipment and lessons, if
needed. Equipped with mask and fins, it was easy to drop over the
side of the raft into the water. Meeker served as a guide for
anyone interested in spotting and identifying the numerous
Getting back onto the raft was even easier, thanks to a boarding
ladder at the rear. Before heading to another snorkeling spot, we
enjoyed some refreshments sweet banana and chocolate breads, plus
fresh papaya and pineapple slices.
After a second round of snorkeling, everyone was ready to return
to the harbor, which we seemingly did at full throttle. My wet
bathing suit mixed with the occasional ocean spray gave me a slight
chill. While the ocean was relatively calm, the raft caught air on
some waves. The group was quiet and relaxed the whole way to
Lahaina, their heads tilted back to soak in the warm sun.
Though the four-hour outing seemed complete, Capt. Munns was not
quite done showing us the sights. He took us to a spot where giant
green sea turtles, up to four feet in length, abound. They surfaced
all around the boat, and the clear blue ocean water provided great
On that high note, everyone agreed, it was time to call it a
day. Our faces were glowing from the wind, the thrill of the ride,
and the extraordinary sights seen in such close proximity.
The four-hour Lanai snorkeling trip costs $99 for adults and $49
for kids. For a shorter rafting experience, the company offers 1½-
to 2-hour sunset and seasonal whale-watching tours, from Dec. 1 to
May 1. Prices start at $35 for adults and $19 for kids, ages 6 to
12. Travel agent commission available.