When travel advisor Keiko Mori first moved to Hawaii, she was already smitten with the Aloha State. But she did not expect to become immediately captivated, and build one of her core products around, one of the state's cherished native animals.
In 2010 Mori was living in Utah and had just lost her job in the life insurance industry in the wake of the Great Recession. She had always loved to travel and enjoyed planning her own itineraries, so she enrolled in some courses in travel planning and launched her home-based business.
"I was invited to attend the Hawaii Travel Exchange in 2014 in Maui, and it ended up being a great opportunity where I met a lot of sales managers and supportive Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau staff," she said.
As she got to know the Aloha State as an agent, she fell hard for the tropical islands. So in 2016, she packed up and moved to Oahu's Diamond Head area, where she runs Kittie Travel.
"I really loved the Islands and saw an opportunity to be a Hawaii specialist," she said. "Whenever I was here I was so happy, and I decided I should move. It meant I was more personally connected to the destination and could obviously stay up to date on all the developments."
Just a year later, a Hawaiian monk seal named Rocky gave birth right on Waikiki Beach, where the mom and her pup, Kaimana, stayed for more than a month. Hawaiian monk seals are one of the world's most endangered species, with roughly 1,100 left in the wild, and are endemic to the archipelago. Rocky and Kaimana were celebrities, with galleries of gawkers and spots on the nightly news.
"When the monk seal gave birth to the pup on Waikiki, I just had this overwhelming sensation and really fell in love with them," Mori said. "Since then I've learned everything I can about them and how to support the work to protect the seals."
Mori visited with local National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration teams working with the seals and learning more about the Hawaii Marine Animal Response efforts at conservation. She then developed her own tour focused on the Hawaiian monk seals that she has been offering for the last three years.
"It's not a tour where you just bring the client to the beach and look at seals for a little while," Mori said. "We teach them everything. The history of the seals in the islands, their behaviors, how to tell them apart from seal lions, and male or female. We talk about conservation efforts and how to help protect them. Now that I've been doing this for three years, I know where the monk seals like to hang out."
Mori, who is originally from Tokyo, offers the tours in English and Japanese, and there are a handful of different options ranging from four to six hours that are designed for different group sizes and age ranges.
While Mori has found a niche with the monk seal tours, she does a variety of other bookings, including advising clients headed to Japan. She often works with families and nature lovers and has developed a menu of options.
"For families, depending on the age of the kids, I like to suggest staying in the Ko Olina area on Oahu, where they have the Disney Aulani. It's a little more relaxed there than in Waikiki, and they have a series of lagoons," she said. " For my nature lovers, one exciting new thing is albatrosses nesting on Oahu, when before they were mostly in the northwestern islands. If you go to the North Shore you can see a nesting area, which is really cool."
Mori always tries to share her love and appreciation for the islands with clients, and includes education as a key component of her programs especially as the impacts of growing tourism have come into focus.
"That's one thing very important to me," she said. "You see videos of people harassing or even hitting seals and other wildlife, or hear the stories of people taking volcanic rocks home. I think we need to really think about how we define the type of traveler Hawaii wants to attract, people who respect and appreciate the culture and ecosystem."