Mary Adamski

Hawaii’s Back yard

Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi

Sunday, January 19, 2003

'Surfaris' get you close
to marine life

Tori Cullins grew up riding horses in El Cerrito, Southern California "cowboy country," as she calls it. Today, the affable Waianae resident rides the waves with guests from all over the world on thrilling "aquatic surfaris" through her back yard -- the waters of Oahu's pristine leeward coast.

A marine biologist, Cullins founded Wild Side Specialty Tours in 1996 with her husband, Armin, a licensed captain and certified dive master.

"Being on the water pretty much every day nurtures a deep love and respect for marine life," says Cullins. "They've become our passion in life. There is nothing more grounding, to us anyway, than to be on the water communing with amazing oceanic companions."

It's peak whale-watching season right now, and one of Wild Side's cruises takes you close to the magnificent humpbacks. Having marine experts as guides is a big plus; they point out whale behaviors and explain the latest theories on what each means. You'll also be able to listen to haunting whale songs via onboard hydrophones and help the crew collect data on the humpbacks and your other playmates for the day, including tropical fish, spotted eagle rays, green sea turtles and pods of 40 to 60 spinner dolphins.

"Leeward Oahu is one of the only places in the world where oceanic dolphins come into near-shore habitats on a daily basis," Cullins said. "Spinners are the most acrobatic of all dolphins. We commonly see them courting, playing, and nursing and teaching their young. Sailing into their world, we're reminded about our own journey through life.

"To paraphrase that old saying, we need to stop and smell the ocean breeze."

Dropping anchor at sea allows passengers to snorkel with schools of fish.

NIGHT EXCURSIONS showcase ethereal wonders such as the moon, constellations and meteor showers (an overnight meteor shower trip is scheduled for May 5 to 6; call for details). The lack of light and air pollution in rural leeward Oahu guarantees clear skies, making the incredible tableau of heavenly bodies even more brilliant and breathtaking.

Cullins describes the leeward coast as "the land time and development forgot." It is characterized by miles of uninhabited beaches; bathwater-warm seas; and the most extensive coral systems in the state. The windward Koolau mountains shield the Waianae range from rains carried by northeasterly trade winds. This makes leeward Oahu much drier than the windward side, and keeps runoff to the ocean to a minimum. In fact, some of the clearest water in Hawaii is found along the beaches of Waianae, where visibility is 60 to 100 feet even in winter's choppy seas.

Wild Side's charters are limited to four to 15 people, ensuring an optimal personal educational experience. "By keeping the groups small, it's safer and we can give everyone one-on-one attention," says Cullins. "Also, there's plenty of room in the boat to lie down and sunbathe; it's like sailing with friends rather than being on a crowded tourist activity."

Participants are invited to observe, interact, photograph, swim and snorkel among a fascinating array of marine life. No tour is exactly the same. "We are democratic about the experience our guests want to have," says Cullins. "We are part of a large network of friends, neighbors and crew members of other boats who tell us where animals have been seen. We pass this on to our passengers so they can make informed decisions about how they want to spend their charter time. Every day is new adventure."

A FEW YEARS ago, a man who had been blind since birth came aboard for a dolphin-watching cruise. He wouldn't be able to see the dolphins, but Cullins knew they can be very vocal, emitting clicks and whistles that can be heard from 100 yards away. She decided to lead him into the water with a short rope so he could commune with the dolphins in his own way.

As it turned out, Cullins recalls, "We spent a good half hour in the water, and, for the most part, I was towed behind Kevin. He was hell bent on keeping pace with a pod of four dolphins swimming parallel and close enough for him to touch.

"It dawned on me that Kevin, being blind, was more in tune than I was with the dolphins, whose main sense, being sonar and acoustic, was somewhat similar to his heightened sense of hearing. Back onboard, Kevin said that when the dolphins trained their sonar on him, he could not only hear it, he could actually feel the vibrations within his chest."

Such an intimate encounter, says Cullins, is unforgettable, almost indescribable. "By the end of their journey, our passengers feel joyful, rejuvenated and more aware of the fragility of Hawaii's marine environment. We do not seek volume on our tours; we aim only to provide a quality, thought-provoking and potentially life-changing experience. Everyone is welcome."

Dolphins, whales and green sea turtles are as interested in humans as we are in their antics.

Wild Side Specialty Tours

Tours: Wild Side's tours aboard Island Spirit, a 42-foot sailing catamaran, include dolphin encounters; star-gazing, full moon, sunset and meteor shower sails; kayaking and snorkeling excursions; and whale-watching cruises (now through April). Private kayaking and sailing trips, including wedding charters, also may be arranged.

Prices: $95 per person, including a continental breakfast and snacks on the morning tours and dinner on the sunset and evening tours. There is a 10 percent kamaaina discount and a 15 percent discount for ages 12 and younger, students, ages 65 and older, military personnel, and groups booking five or more. Proceeds are donated to the Wild Dolphin Foundation, whose mission is to preserve, protect and enhance the natural habitats of dolphins through research, advocacy and education.

Time: Most tours last four hours. Morning trips depart at 7 a.m.; sunset and evening cruises depart about one hour before sunset. Meteor shower tours can leave anytime at night, including 2 a.m. Meet at Waianae Boat Harbor, Pier A for all tours.

Call: 306-7273

Web site:

Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based free-lance writer
and Society of American Travel Writers award winner.

E-mail to Travel Editor

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