Orca offers wild ride off Big Island

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HONOLULU -- An Orca tour is a thrill ride on water.

Orca, a 28-foot, 14-passenger rubber raft, zips over ocean waves with the speed of a startled gazelle.

Be warned: This is not a graceful voyage. It's like being in a Jeep on a pothole-filled back road -- your clients will feel every bone-jarring bump. Salt spray will sting their eyes, and the wind will whip through their hair with gale force.

It's a trip that leaves Orca's passengers breathless -- and the true-blue adventurers among them yearning for more.

Orca departs twice daily from Keauhou Bay on the Big Island, bound for Kealakekua Bay, located 6.5 miles south on the Kona coast.

During the 50-minute ride, the raft flirts with creatures of the sea -- flying fish, spinner dolphins, pilot whales and, from December through April, magnificent humpbacks that migrate from the chilly Aleutians to breed and give birth in the temperate waters of Hawaii.

Kealakekua Bay is notable for more than its beauty. On Feb. 14, 1779, British explorer James Cook was killed in a skirmish with natives on the north shore of the bay. In 1874, a 27-foot obelisk of white marble was erected in the captain's memory near the place where he fell.

Designated a Marine Life Conservation District, Kealakekua is home to spectacular coral gardens and approximately 80% of the fish species found in Hawaii. Its temperatures hover around 80 degrees year-round, and visibility is typically 100 feet.

"It's like swimming in a giant aquarium," said Deron Verbeck, Orca's captain, who also is a U.S. free-diving champion. "I love being in the water, and I've been to many beautiful snorkeling and diving locations around the world.

"Kealakekua ranks among the best of them."

As participants snorkel, Verbeck circulates among them, pointing out the abundant marine life that feeds and plays in the bay's coral reefs.

"Many of our guests come from inland regions and have never seen ocean creatures like these in their lives," he said.

Verbeck peppers the trip with stories about geological and historical landmarks along the Kona coast, many of which only can be seen from the sea.

Because of its small size and maneuverability, Orca brings passengers closer to sea caves than any other vessel afloat.

Other viewing highlights include smooth and coarse lava flows, a holua slide on a graded mountain slope and a "magic sands" beach that appears and disappears with the rise and fall of currents and swells.

"Orca is not for everyone," said Verbeck. "But those who do go find it's a history, geography and marine biology lesson rolled into one tour."

The four-hour Morning Adventure tour ($73 for adults, $60 for children ages 6 to 12) begins at 8:30; the three-hour Afternoon Adventure ($55 for adults, $45 for kids) departs at 1 o'clock, Tuesdays through Sundays.

On Mondays, the Morning Adventure is scheduled from 8 o'clock to 11:30 (afternoon rates apply), and the Afternoon Adventure is offered from noon to 4 o'clock (morning rates apply).

Prices include a light snack, soft drinks, snorkeling gear and instruction. Commission is 10%. The tours are not offered to kids under age 6, pregnant women or people with back problems and other serious health conditions. Those prone to motion sickness also should think twice.

For more information, call (800) 677-9461 or visit www.fair-wind.com.

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