The sea surrounding Hawaii, with its colorful and exotic menagerie of manta rays, whales, sharks, and countless species of fish, is a beautiful, tranquil world unto itself. You've got to see it to believe it.
Kona's Blue Sea Cruises lets you do just that aboard the Spirit of Kona ocean liner, accommodating 150 passengers on a vessel that is sustainable and offers the world's only glass-bottomed manta ray cruise.
We spoke to Blue Sea Cruises's president and owner, Cynthia LeMay, about glass-bottom cruises in Hawaii, things you can expect to see, the best time to visit, and other sights, sounds, and smells to take in when you're visiting.
Tell us a little bit about Blue Sea Cruises.
Blue Sea Cruises was formed in 2004 and was created to provide Hawaii marine excursions to island visitors. We operate from the Kailua Kona Pier in the heart of Kona.
Captain Ray and I designed all of the tours to take advantage of the immense beauty the Kona coast and marine life have to offer. Large ocean wildlife such as dolphins, whales, manta rays, sharks, pilot whales, false killer whales and many more are abundant in the coastal waters off Kona, and the beautiful scenery of the coastline itself makes traveling on the water a must-do when visiting.
We have a great passion for the sea and the life within it and wanted to bring that beauty to our customers.
One of the packages you offer is the dinner cruise Evening on the Reef aboard the Spirit of Kona, which you describe as a "luau on the water." Could you tell us a little bit about the dinner?
The dinner cruise is our premier tour for family, singles, couples, corporate groups and even private events. Good food combined with beautiful coastline and great live entertainment. Of course it wouldn't be complete unless there was an element of the large marine life. So on this tour we park over a reef and turn on the underwater light. The lights attract the plankton that manta rays feed on. The manta rays swoop in and perform a graceful ballet under the glass windows for all to see. We have the world's only glass-bottom dinner cruise manta ray viewing excursion. After the viewing, the hula show and dancing begin and continue to the end of the tour. In Hawaii, a feast and gathering with family, friends and entertainment is a party and the best words to describe it would be a luau on the water.
What are some of the dishes you offer?
You can find a food and drink menu on our website. But, as an example, we serve things such as fresh Kona mixed green salad with papaya seed or ranch dressing, Teriyaki beef kabobs, chicken with mango chutney sauce, Hawaiian rice pilaf, vegetable ratatouille, dinner rolls and chef's choice red velvet cake. Every night there is complimentary bar service as well as soft drinks and coffee.
What are some of the other activities?
We have activities to see the most popular large marine mammals such as the humpback whales during their annual migration to the Hawaiian islands. We watch the whales from the observation deck with 360-degree views for all in shaded comfort aboard the glass-bottom boat Spirit of Kona. Sometimes these whales are under the boat and can be observed through the glass-bottom windows. It is a very exciting experience if you are the lucky ones to experience that. We have seen mothers holding their calves down underwater to help them learn to increase their breath-holding abilities. We have seen mothers bring the calf under the boat to inspect the boat up close and with curiosity. The tour is called Glass Bottom Whale Watch.
We have a swimming with manta ray snorkel tour for the more adventurous traveler that wants to actually get into the water and be in the same space as these 14-foot animals coming within inches of them. Snorkelers do not need to be expert swimmers for this tour. Ride-along observers are welcome on this tour as well. This tour is called the Manta Ray Snorkel and is done on the Makai, which is our comfortable double deck catamaran with two bathrooms and a luxury sky lounge for viewing the beautiful Kona skyline on the way to and from the big adventure.
Is there a particular time of year when it's best to see the manta rays?
We can see manta rays all year round; the viewing success rate is between 85% and 95%. The winter months are where the drop occurs due to a number of things like water conditions, current changes and plankton quality.
You also offer a dolphin sighting tour.
We have a brand-new tour to see the Hawaiian spinner dolphins. Ride-alongs can observe from the observation deck, and the more adventurous can get into the water and have an opportunity to swim with the dolphins. The tour is called Swim with the Dolphins Adventure. This tour is done on the Makai, our comfortable double-deck power catamaran. We have decided to add the snorkeling event to our sightseeing tour and change the vessel to the Makai to allow both observers and snorkelers to enjoy these fascinating animals.
Again, is there a time of year when the dolphins are particularly active?
We see the dolphins pretty much on a daily basis. They visit the coastal waters right along the coastline to rest during the day. The viewing success rate is 95% to 99% year round. Weather conditions can affect the success rate of this trip and winter poses the most adverse conditions, so I would say the best time is when the weather conditions are the best.
How close do you get to the dolphins?
The interaction with dolphins is strictly on their terms; we must respect their space and do our very best not to adversely affect their behaviors and resting period. To do this, we must make every interaction initiated by the dolphins.
We will locate the dolphins and approach by boat very slowly within a 50-foot range and then slow or stop. If they wish to interact with our vessel, they will approach us and ride the bow. If the dolphins allow, we will have our snorkelers slip quietly into the water behind the boat. The dolphins are very curious and playful, giving the snorkelers and the ride-alongs a fantastic show of acrobatics jumping, flipping, lunging and diving. It is very common to see mom-and-calf pairs within the pods.
The dolphins are often seen playing a game of who has the leaf? They will find a leaf or other object in the water and purposely allow a fin to drag it and carry it along when the dolphin swims. The dolphin will release the leaf, allowing another dolphin to scoop it up and pass it off again. It has, on rare occasion, happened that a dolphin will drop the leaf or object next to a snorkeler, allowing the snorkeler to join in the game. It is such a wonderful experience; words cannot describe it fully.
What's one of the most interesting or craziest things you've seen a dolphin do in your time on the water?
The leaf toss game is hands-down my favorite because it really shows just how intelligent these dolphins are. They can show expressions of feelings and display their moods.
Other things of interest - pink belly for a dolphin is kind of like a blushing in a humans face. Pink belly on a dolphin shows its excitement. It's often seen when mating or performing playful leaps and flipping acrobatics within the pod.
Hard tail slaps are often a warning of approaching concerns or danger to the pod and alert the pod to take notice. Also, dolphins seem to love to ride the bow of boats or surf in the wake of boats. I like to think of this activity as the same excitement we get from skiing or surfing a wave.
What are some other exotic species people are likely to spy on your expeditions?
We sometimes see other animals like whale sharks, pilot whales, hammerhead sharks, other species of dolphin, turtles and more. While we don't see them every trip, it is very exciting when we see other animals known to inhabit the Kona waters.
Blue Sea Cruises also offers a variety of snorkeling adventures. What are some popular outings, and what makes them so popular? Are there any that are well-suited for beginner divers?
We are replacing our sightseeing Dolphin Adventure with our new Swim with Dolphins Adventure beginning in April 2015.
It is very exciting to share the same space with a large animal such as the spinner dolphins of the Kona coast. Some are fortunate enough to get a photo or video of the experience, providing a visual for family and friends once back home. We love when our customers share their photos and videos with us on Facebook.
We also provide a swim with the manta rays adventure called our Manta Ray Snorkel. These large animals feed on plankton. Our circle of lights helps to concentrate that plankton, providing a bountiful smorgasbord for the manta ray. They swoop in and perform a graceful ballet just inches from our snorkelers while feeding. This is one of the most popular things to do while in Kona.
What would you say to people who would like to visit Hawaii and take one of your cruises, but feel like they can't afford it?
I would say that the largest expense after the airline ticket is the lodging accommodations expense. Try to find the best deals. After all, the plane ride is a short piece of the trip and the fewer bucks spent here allow more bucks for enjoying the activities and cuisine during your vacation.
It is true, things in general are more expensive in Hawaii when compared to other countries of the world or other states in the US. Everything is shipped in and supplies and choices are limited, which drives the rates up for nearly everything.
I would suggest guests visiting Hawaii seek those hotel accommodations that offer a more intimate experience and are located in the town of the sightseeing and activities, rather than using the more expensive resort hotels that are so popular. After all, guests are coming to Hawaii in most cases to experience what Hawaii has to offer, not what a lavish hotel resort has to offer.
For instance, why visit a man-made pool to see dolphins in captivity when you can see dolphins in the wild every day in Hawaii! Dolphins in captivity is not something specific to Hawaii. There are sea life parks around the world that can provide that experience. Why waste huge dollars for a short time with captive dolphins. I personally wish it was not legal to capture such intelligent and magnificent wild animals, but as long as there are paying guests, it will continue.
Selecting a hotel in the town of Kona can not only save the guest money but also allow saving on a car rental. There are many shuttles through our town of Kona that only charge a few bucks to ride. In addition, most of the town is accessible and within walking distance to many of the local activities.
Yes, you will need a car to travel to other areas of the island, but saving some car rental days will save money that could be spent on other things that enhance the Hawaii experience.
For people who are visiting Hawaii for the first time, what are some items they must not forget to pack?
Don't forget to pack a camera! This is probably the most important item you can bring.
What are some other sights in your vicinity that might help visitors get a sense of the traditional Hawaiian culture, as well as some of its natural beauty?
We see many historical sites along the coastline that our experienced staff talk about as we travel along the coast. Churches, Heiaus and places where Hawaiian royalty lived.
Hawaii is an island and most people are coming to Hawaii expecting to see or do many things in the water, near the water or on the water. In the tropical forests or high atop the snow-peaked mountains of Mauna Kea, all these things are just minutes away from Kona.
Waipio Valley lookout is 160 minutes from Kona; volcano is 120 minutes from Kona. You can circle the entire island of Hawaii by car in just 280 minutes!
Snorkeling, diving, sightseeing. Inland waterfalls, botanical gardens, ziplines, hiking, camping, horseback riding, kayaking or just sunbathing.
What are some reasons travelers might consider getting traveler's insurance when visiting Hawaii? Have you heard of any incidents, personally, where this has come in handy?
Yes, I believe travelers insurance is well worth the money, depending on the coverage inclusions. Hurricane, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis are commonplace in Hawaii, all of which can affect travelers vacations. The most valuable commodity we have is time. Time is money.
In just the last four years we have had 2013 Tropical Storm Flossie, 2014 Hurricane Isabelle, 2014 Julio, 2014 Anna and 2010 tsunami. All of which had an impact on travelers. Travelers experience cancelled flights, cancelled tours and activities, flooded hotels or hotel closures, etc.
What is your favorite thing about running Blue Sea Cruises?
My favorite thing about running Blue Sea Cruises is connecting with our wonderful employees. They are so passionate about the sea life Kona has to offer and they are so excited for each guest to experience what they see every day.