Rafting the Blue Water

A Maui company gets small groups close to the action

By: Karla Aronson

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 journey. 

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 the day.

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 can.” 

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 fish. 

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 visibility.

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.