Anytime Iokepa Naeole gets into the ocean, he tries to remember to ask for permission. It's not always a verbal appeal, though. Sometimes he just acknowledges the water in his thoughts, knowing he's about to enter an entirely different domain.
"I might just be paddling out to catch waves," he said. "But I still acknowledge that I'm going into somebody else's realm to have fun in their home, and I need to ask permission first."
During my last Maui visit, Naeole and his two sons took me snorkeling in a traditional Hawaiian outrigger canoe at Olowalu, a gorgeous coral reef ecosystem several hundred yards off the Valley Isle's west coast. But before the four of us pushed the long, narrow boat into the Pacific, Naeole, a long-time Maui resident of native Hawaiian ancestry, performed a stirring, traditional oli, or chant.
"When I take people out, I want them to realize the ocean is much more than just a playground or a visitor destination," he explained during a later interview. "It's an entity that gives us life. It's a realm where we acknowledge others exist that have been here long before us."
An oli, asking not only for permission but also wisdom and guidance from the many Hawaiian ocean deities, is part of every outrigger canoe and snorkeling experience offered by Hawaiian Paddle Sports, the Maui activity company Naeole guides for.
"I also want to remind people that we're not an antiquated culture living in the past," he said. "It's still very much part of us today, [and] there are a growing number of native Hawaiians who are realizing that if we don't continue to practice and pass the culture down to our kids, we'll become just another sunny tourist destination with a price tag."
Timothy Lara, the owner of Hawaiian Paddle Sports, told me offering travelers an authentic cultural experience is a fundamental objective for the company he launched in 2010, after working with other Maui activity providers for years and growing increasingly tired of their often contrived outings.
"They all had this cattle call approach to ocean activities where the business model was to get as many people as you can at a low rate," Lara said. "It was just the same cookie-cutter tour every day, and I got really burned out with that and thought there had to be a better way."
Four years later, Hawaiian Paddle Sports, which only offers private tours for families, couples or individuals, is TripAdvisor's No. 1-rated Maui activity company, thanks to a strategy of client customization featuring both authentic Hawaiian cultural experiences and resolute ecofriendly practices.
Each Hawaiian Paddle Sports guide, for example, completes marine naturalist certification before taking any guests out, and Lara has implemented a strict no-touch policy on every snorkel outing.
"We're not going to pull octopus out of their holes or pick up sea urchins," he said. "I used to pick up sea urchins and have guests hold them because it makes a great picture, but it makes a great picture at the sake of the marine life."
According to Lara, there are typically five snorkel tour boats, each carrying around 150 passengers, that visit the Olowalu reef daily, not to mention the range of different kayak companies that also bring visitors out to the off-shore destination. With numbers like that, it's not hard to see why keeping all those hands off the sensitive sea creatures and fragile corals is crucial.
"There are kupuna [elder] corals at Olowalu that have been growing for over 500 years," Lara added. "And it's also the seed reef for west Maui, Molokai and Lanai, which all get [coral] polyps from Olowalu thanks to ocean currents, [so] if we ever lost that reef, it would not only be detrimental to Olowalu but to the rest of west Maui, Molokai and Lanai, as well."
Commissionable to agents, Hawaiian Paddle Sports offers a range of private ocean activities, including surf lessons; kayak tours; standup paddle board lessons; outrigger canoe and snorkeling outings; and whale-watching canoe trips, during the December to April humpback season. Prices start at $149 per person.