Up-close humpback encounters with Kayak Kauai

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Just in time for the annual arrival of humpback whales from the northern Pacific, Kayak Kauai has launched a whale-watching tour.
Just in time for the annual arrival of humpback whales from the northern Pacific, Kayak Kauai has launched a whale-watching tour. Photo Credit: HTA/Joe West
Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

Brothers Chino and Micco Godinez fell in love with sea kayaking on an ambitious, five-month, 1,000-mile journey from Seattle to Skagway, Alaska, in 1980. During their trip, they encountered humpback whales feeding in the northern Pacific waters.

It was on that trip that the brothers first envisioned opening a sea kayaking business, and soon after they brought their adventurous spirit to the Aloha State. They opened Kayak Kauai on the Garden Isle, but sea kayaking tours were still in their infancy.

In part to drum up interest and also to keep satisfying their thirst for challenging expeditions, they next paddled the entire Hawaiian chain, demonstrating their prowess with the small vessels on the rough interisland channels.

"Over the summer we paddled from the Big Island to Kuaui, and eventually Niihau," Chino Godinez said. "After that, people thought, 'These guys might be crazy, but they're not stupid.'" 

Over the years the brothers have built up the business and variety of tours, and have also explored Kauai's diverse and plentiful natural wonders, from the verdant valleys and canyons to towering waterfalls. One of their most popular tours is a summer excursion along the Napali Coast.

Now, just in time for Hawaii's whale season, Kayak Kauai has received permits to run a whale-watching tour, enabling them to bring guests out for up-close looks at the same population of humpbacks the brothers first encountered 40 years ago in Alaska. The last time they offered a similar tour was roughly a decade ago.

"You don't need to be super fit to do the tour, I figure it's more of a frame of mind," Chino said. "It's a workout, but it's open to different fitness levels. We adjust to the group dynamics and only go as fast as the slowest person."

One thing Godinez does warn about: The rockier winter waters do not work well with people who are prone to seasickness.

"Don't eat a greasy breakfast before you come," Godinez advised. "Eat carbohydrates. Doughnuts are great, or grits if you like them."

Kauai's south coast, which generally gets less precipitation and calmer waters than the north, is an ideal winter kayaking area. The tour launches from Koloa Landing and heads west along the coastline stopping at Spouting Horn, a blowhole formed in the seaside lava rock, in addition to Lawai Valley, Nomilo Pond and Wahiawa Cove. There are also opportunities to snorkel and a stop at a sandy beach for lunch. The entire tour takes four to six hours depending on water conditions and participants' fitness.

Along the way, kayakers are likely to see spinner dolphins, green sea turtles and other marine life in addition to humpback whales. The cetaceans migrate thousands of miles from the Alaskan waters each winter to their birthing grounds around the Hawaiian Islands.

Kayakers are not allowed to approach the whales but humpbacks often come close to the watercraft to explore on their own, and at times new moms can be seen breaching with their calves. 

"The females typically arrive earlier, and we're already seeing some out on our tours," Godinez said. "Then the bulls tend to come later in the season."

The Poipu Whale Watch and Snorkel by the Sea tour ($155 per person) is offered Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays weather permitting through April 17, with check-in at 8:30 a.m. at the Wailua River Marina. Minimum age is 16, but younger teens are welcome if their parent or guardian believes they are up for the challenge. 

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