Big Island: A big hit for ecotourism


KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii -- With two national parks beside the calm waters of its Kona Coast and a third amid its active volcanoes, the Big Island offers a special haven for those seeking nature retreats and soft adventure.

Several ecotourism operators pay commission on excursions ranging from morning or afternoon snorkeling trips to naturalist-led dolphin and whale seminars and camping retreats.

In the latter category, Planetary Partners of Newbury, Mass., organizes corporate team-building as well as family retreats to the Big Island.

The trips feature snorkeling and camping at one of the national parks, along with hiking and camping in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The final night is spent in a hotel.

"These trips are for people who really love nature and want to live simply," said Joe Noonan, president of Planetary Partners. "It's about intimacy with nature -- living simply, playfully and in harmony with the environment. It's not super-demanding or rugged."

Noonan described the trip experience as "a 21st century tribe. We're immersed in the natural environment.

"For instance," he continued, "we camp on the beach on the Hawaii trips, and many mornings I've woken up to see dolphins leaping in the bay."

Planetary Partners' seven-night trips to Hawaii are priced around $1,000 per person, land only, with a four-person minimum. Commission is 10%.

Asked about the simple itineraries he favors -- where little is planned out besides exploration and meals -- Noonan, a former leadership training instructor for Outward Bound, said that "having an open schedule creates room for magic to show up."

Sea Quest Rafting Adventures here pays 20% commission on its morning and afternoon rafting and snorkeling trips to Kealakekua Bay, where Captain Cook's last stand is marked by a waterside monument, and the Place of Refuge in Honaunau Bay, where sea turtles abound.

Shawn Farish, owner of Sea Quest, said the turtles, which aren't particularly shy but generally stay about 10 feet away from snorkelers, are seen on "about 95%" of morning snorkeling trips.

"The turtles that live in Honaunau Bay, where we snorkel on our morning trip each day, have grown up with snorkelers in the water," Farish said. "Over the years, they have become less frightened of humans."

For snorkelers in Kealake-kua Bay, Farish said, "visibility is generally 100 feet or better, and the bay is so well-protected from the surf conditions that it is almost always flat, like a lake."

Along the way, the rafting trips explore the Kona Coast's sea caves and lava tubes, which were created by lava flowing to the sea and are often large enough to walk inside.

"The Kona Coast is dotted with dozens of sea caves and lava tubes," Farish said, "and we spend a good deal of our return voyage exploring these things up close and explaining the geology involved in their creation along with the history of the area and some of the colorful myths and legends."

For example, the name for the Place of Refuge came about because, according to Hawaiian tradition, "if you broke a law and made your way there, you were forgiven your sins," said Kurt Bell, one of the Sea Quest captains.

Sea Quest's four-hour morning tours are priced at $75 per person. The three-hour afternoon tours, which visit only Kealakekua Bay, are priced at $56 per person. Excursions are limited to six people.

Clients interested in observing and learning about dolphins can take a four-day seminar series with Claudia and Kevin Merrill, certified marine mammal naturalists who operate Dolphin Discoveries here.

The firm's next Wild Dolphin Adventure seminars will be held June 17 to 21. The program, limited to six people, includes lunch. The cost is $550 per person; commission is 10%.

Similar to Sea Quest, Dolphin Discoveries runs four-and-a-half-hour morning and three-hour afternoon snorkel boat trips to Kealakekua Bay.

The excursions, which include cold drinks, fruit and snacks, are priced at $74 per adult and $59 per child in the morning and $59 in the afternoon for adults and children.

The leeward side of the Big Island provides tranquil water conditions for snorkelers. Above, Kahalu'u Beach, Kona. Private snorkeling charters also are available, priced at $400 for morning trips and $300 for afternoon trips.

Kevin Merrill said the ideal seminar participant is someone who has interacted with dolphins before and wants to learn more and spend more time with them.

"It's a weeklong adventure, as opposed to just a few hours out on the water," he said. "It provides an opportunity to learn more about them, their characteristics and behavior."

Although federal law prohibits people from "swimming" with wild dolphins in Hawaii, Claudia Merrill said, "It is a very satisfying and memorable experience to view and photograph the dolphins and whales from the boat. Many people tell us their experience on the water with us was the highlight of their vacation."

Don't expect touchy-feely in the deep

WAIKOLOA, Hawaii -- Clients wishing to swim and physically interact with dolphins in Hawaii should know that the Dolphin Quest education centers at the Hilton Waikoloa Village here and Kahala Mandarin Oriental Hawaii in Oahu are the only places they can do that legally.

The Marine Mammals Protection Act requires people to observe wild dolphins and other marine mammals at a respectful distance, so as not to potentially disturb their natural behavioral patterns, including migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding or sheltering.

Hawaiian spinner dolphins, according to Billy Hurley, director of quest development with Dolphin Quest, are the ones commonly seen near the leeward coasts of all the Hawaiian Islands.

They come to lagoons and protected waterways like Kealakekua Bay off the Kona Coast, he said, to rest from their nightlong dives for small squid miles offshore.

"If an animal is in Kealakekua Bay to relax and rest from diving," Hurley said, "the last thing we should do is disrupt their rest. People should snorkel in Kealakekua Bay, but we should be responsible about how we interact with wildlife."

An opportune time for dolphin lovers to visit the Hilton Waikoloa Village is during the annual Dolphin Days festival of food, wine and music, to be held June 27 to 29.

For hotel reservations, call (800) HILTONS. For information on Dolphin Quest, call (808) 886-2875; e-mail: [email protected]; or visit

For more information on the festival or hotel, visit or -- P.F.

Book It: Swimming with dolphins

Dolphin Discoveries
Phone: (808) 324-0433
E-mail:[email protected]

Planetary Partners
Phone: (800) 220-6825
E-mail:[email protected]

Sea Quest Rafting Adventures
Phone: (808) 329-7238
E-mail:[email protected]

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