Snorkeling next to a Hawaiian green sea turtle, I lingered over a brilliant tangle of coral reef to focus for a moment on the sound of whales singing.
Several hundred yards off the west coast of Maui, at a popular dive location known as Olowalu, a small group of us were exploring a vibrant swatch of underwater terrain and enjoying frequent sea creature sightings with our Un-Cruise Adventures expedition leader, Brock Munson.
"There are several locations at Olowalu where green sea turtles go to have parasites and dead tissue or scales cleaned off their body by small fish," Munson said. "You'll often find a number of turtles at those cleaning stations, and that's a really interesting process to observe and a great instant-gratification spot for guests."
I'd joined the Un-Cruise Hawaiian Seascapes sailing at the height of humpback whale season, which generally begins in late November before winding down in May, so there were plenty of chances to hear the colossal mammals' remarkably clear underwater calls, but one has to work at it a little.
Hoping to give a wider berth to the protected sea turtle I'd just encountered, I hovered in place awhile before diving deeper to listen more carefully. And right on cue a soundtrack of whale songs filled my ears, accompanying the graceful turtle's unhurried exit into the darker blue ocean before me.
Thousands of humpback whales make an annual journey to the Hawaiian Islands to calve, nurse and breed, but the relatively shallow waters between Maui, Molokai and Lanai, where much of the Un-Cruise Hawaiian itinerary unfolds, are especially appealing to the marine mammals during the season's peak months of January, February and March.
Carol Thornton, a Virtuoso travel adviser and affiliate of Winnipeg, Manitoba-based Travel Professionals International, has sold a number of Un-Cruise products to clients, including the company's Aloha State sailing first launched in 2011, and said positive feedback is the norm. But she told me experiencing the Hawaiian Seascapes trip firsthand left a dramatic impression.
"I was head over heels about the product afterward," she said. "It just offered so much more than I had imagined."
The seven-day itinerary aboard the 36-passenger Safari Explorer makes stops on Maui, Molokai, Lanai and the Big Island of Hawaii, offering guests plenty of time to see humpback spouts, flukes and acrobatic breaches but also numerous opportunities to explore some of the state's best-preserved coral reef ecosystems.
"The underwater topography is incredible off Lanai," Munson said while discussing our snorkeling session at the island's Palaoa Point location. "With the rock pinnacle at this particular spot, you get this great big drop-off in really clear water with a 100-foot-plus visibility. That pinnacle acts as a nursery for small schools of fish, so you get a ton of them in one spot."
The trip's other underwater highlights included an unexpected close encounter with some Hawaiian spinner dolphins during a snorkeling excursion at the Big Island's Honomalino Bay and, of course, the scheduled nighttime dive with 10-foot manta rays just south of Kailua-Kona.
"The manta rays came right up to your face, and they practically touched you," said Peg Aikman, the owner of Cape Elizabeth, Maine-based Aikman Travel Xperts, an affiliate of Travel Experts in Raleigh, N.C. "It was like watching a water ballet."
Both Aikman and Thornton agreed, however, that the Un-Cruise Hawaii product offers more than extraordinary access to the archipelago's remarkable waters.
An introduction to the destination's drier natural beauty, often linked with an authentic look at Hawaiian culture, is another of the excursion's selling points.
The Explorer's stop in Molokai headlines the itinerary's collection of off-the-beaten-path and culture-heavy outings, featuring a traditional evening paina (a very intimate luau) with Hawaiian food and music after a daytrip out to the island's photogenic Halawa Valley to meet Anakala Pilipo, whose ancestors have worked the region's taro fields for centuries.
Calling the visit "incredibly authentic," Aikman said, that "unless you are led to a place like that, there is no way you're going to enjoy that kind of cultural exchange and get a real sense of how that way of life is passed down from generation to generation."
Those familiar with Molokai will remember the water blockade, made up of protesters on surfboards and small boats, which prevented the Safari Explorer from docking at the island's main harbor in November 2011.
According to Teri Waros, the owner of Kalele Bookstore in downtown Kaunakakai, the community is still home to that passionate resistance to development, but an overwhelming majority of residents support the vessel's regular arrivals because of the way Un-Cruise does business.
"Being limited to 36 passengers, everything about the Un-Cruise experience is intimate," Waros said. "[Un-Cruise] tends to draw the demographic that wants to understand on a deeper level the culture, the local way of life, the reasons people on Molokai fight so hard to protect it, [and] that just fits so well with what we offer here."
Aikman and Thornton each described their time on Molokai as a "spiritual experience" and said they thought pre- or post-trip stays of a couple of days would be a great fit for clients.
"This product is for people who really want to connect," Thornton said of the Un-Cruise Hawaii sailing. "And it could be connecting with the ocean through experiences like the snorkeling, the whale-watching or the manta ray dive. But it might also be an emotional connection with the culture and people much like what I experienced on Molokai."
Un-Cruise has shifted its upcoming Hawaiian Seascapes seven-day itineraries, which start around $3,595 per person and are offered November through April, to either begin or end on Molokai, rather than Lanai as previously. Visit www.un-cruise.com