Yvette Cardozo: Cruising with Hawaiian Mantas and More
Inches from my nose, a 12-foot manta ray gracefully slid up my face, arced backward … and came back for a second run.
Again and again, she swooped in, one time brushing my fingers. She was firm and slick. Like a hard-boiled egg.
Somewhere above us, the 2,000 passengers of a nearby full-size passenger ship were no doubt planning their foray to the midnight buffet. We, on the other hand … the 28 of us on our cruise yacht along the coast of Hawaii’s Big Island … were doing something a bit more exciting.
The Safari Explorer is not your grandma’s cruise ship with Vegas shows and food every two hours. Not to say we didn’t dine well or exquisitely. But, we were too busy with the water toys, the hikes, the horseback rides, the visits to lesser-traveled islands. And, also the ancient war canoe. But more of that later.
The manta ray show was beyond amazing. These kite shaped creatures eat tiny sea animals. The sea animals are attracted at night by light. So we were there, just off shore, with dive lights and hope.
“They don’t always come in,” said expedition leader Carl Faivre, as we split into two groups, the snorkelers holding onto a surfboard above and the scuba divers settling on the bottom below. Beams of light crisscrossed the inky water like some crazy rock concert show.
And we were rewarded.
First it was one small ray, barrel rolling backward again and again and again. And then it was the big girl with a 12-foot wingspan, coming in to streak past our faces. One diver even got it on video providing proof for those non-believers.
And this was actually act two of our critter encounter. The previous day, a laid back one of snorkeling, kayaking and paddle boarding, included a spinner dolphin show. These dolphins are small, hardly 6 feet, but blazing fast. There must have been 50 of them in the water just yards from our Zodiacs. They jumped. They spun. They danced. Even folks with phone cameras got shots.
Mid-week, we visited Lanai. While some went horseback riding, others went golfing, and other tried ATVs. One couple went deep sea fishing and two of us went diving in the local caverns.
And then we went to Molokai, surely the cultural highlight of the trip. This is a sweet, laid-back island with only 6,000 people, and not a single traffic light, movie theater, or Starbucks. Molokai has a strong feel for its Hawaiian past.
Island homes sit on stilts with pitched roofs. Fruit trees and chickens crowd front yards. It’s what you think Hawaii should be, but hasn’t been since 1950.
Four adventurous souls hiked the 1,700-foot vertical Kalaupapa Trail down to what was once the infamous leper colony. They toured the churches and learned the history. Six elderly people still live here full time, even though they are free to leave whenever they wish.
The rest of us visited a plumeria farm. Hey, stringing flowers to create leis is NOT easy. Then, we hit a macadamia nut farm, got to try our hand at crushing the nuts, and bought way too much mac flower honey. Oh yes, and we also had killer coffee in town. Better than Kona coffee, even.
But the best of our time on Molokai involved Hawaiian culture. One night it was a pa’ina, a dinner of local historic food that included poi, lomi salmon, ahi poke, steamed pork and yes, squid at least half a dozen ways.
Another day, we spent in Halawa Valley with Lawrence Aki and his student Kawika Foster. Lawrence, 75 percent Hawaiian and surely looking like he stepped out of the pages of history, is the 50th generation of his family to own land in the valley.
“What we have to offer is special and is being lost elsewhere. We want to share our culture,” Lawrence told us one morning aboard our ship while, amazingly, a rainbow appeared overhead.
The next day we went to his home in Halawa Valley on the far east end of the island. It is a lush bowl carved into the folded hills with waterfalls at the back. Taro ponds sit next to a simple shack and the dozen tents of a group there for a cultural retreat.
Kawika explained how his people had learned to listen to the land—how before cutting a tree or fishing or even building a hut, they would ask the land for permission. Sometimes, he added, the answer was no.
“Close your mouth, open your ears and watch nature around you,” he told us. “If you stub your toe trying to move a rock, the answer is no. You go elsewhere.”
We walked the woods learning about plants, watched Kawika shred ti leaves to make a grass lei. One of our women tried her hand at harvesting taro. Hint: It’s hard and dirty. Taro grows in foot deep muck.
On our last day, we got to ride that war canoe. It’s a scaled down version of the massive ancient canoes built by Hawaiian kings. No metal, only twine holds things together (in the past, it was coconut husk fibers). Ours could hold 14 people in two canoes with a deck in between.
The crew let out the sail and we flew, heeling at a precarious angle while water drenched us all. It’s hard to imagine crossing between island chains this way.
“Looks like koa wood,” I said to Captain Timmy Gillom.
“It is,” said Timmy.
I knew the boat was hardly 40-years-old and koa wood has been vanishingly scarce for decades.
“How did you ever get that much koa?” I asked.
“When the canoe calls,” Timmy said with an absolutely straight face, “There is an answer.”
If You Go
The 145-foot, 36-passenger Safari Explorer is more a yacht than a cruise ship. This is luxury cruising, with 15 crew members, a complimentary open bar, gourmet food, and a well-stocked supply of water toys which can be launched from the back deck. The ship is small enough for the schedule to be flexible, whether it’s stopping to watch spinner dolphins or changing its anchorage for calmest waters.