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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, January 6, 2002

How to select a vessel for whale-watching

 •  Whale boating excursions offer awe-inspiring experience
 •  You can see humpbacks from shore
 •  Whale tour options

There is a whale watch for everyone — from cushy, cinnamon-roll-serving cruises to bare-bones two-hour trips to adventurous (and bottom-jarring) inflatable-boat rides.

The answers to the following questions, suggested by Jeanette Foster, the Kona-based author of a number of Frommer's Hawai'i guides, and Greg Kaufmann of the Pacific Whale Foundation on Maui, will help you decide:

• What training has the crew had, specifically, the people who will interact with guests and guide the tour? All Pacific Whale Foundation crews have graduated from a five-week "certified naturalist" course that covers everything from whale behavior to boat behavior around whales. This training is offered annually to the public and guides from other whale-watch outfits often receive training there. Other companies are run by, or employ, marine biologists with advanced degrees. Ask specifically about training, study, research participation or length of experience observing whales.

• Is whale-watching a primary focus for this boat, or just this cruise? Boats are expensive and so must be made to pay. Many companies run whale watches in addition to other business, such as snorkeling or evening cruises. Be sure the cruise you select is for whale-watching only (not a fly-by glimpse as you head off elsewhere). Do they do whale-watching every season and actually devote time and energy to studying whales?

• How long has the boat company been in business? Is this a reputable operator? Check guide books. Ask local friends, the hotel concierge, or check with the Better Business Bureau or the Hawaii Activity Owners Association (maui.org), which lists companies that satisfy criteria for reliability. Check the boat's Web page, if it has one.

• What type of boat is it? Many say the ideal boat for whale-watching is a double-deck catamaran — the twin hulls make it stable, and the high perch allows you to see whale spouts easily and observe whale behavior without waves getting between you and the animal. Smaller boats offer more attention to each guest. Sailboats are quieter and more elegant. Zodiacs are for the rough and ready. Each vessel offers a different experience.

• How is the boat set up? Does it offer comfortable seating for watching whales? Is there a second-deck viewing area, which often offers the best opportunity to observe whales? Is there shade available for tender-skinned visitors? Is there a marine head on board? Foster strongly suggests taking an in-person look at the boat with both whale-watching and seaworthiness in mind.

• Does the boat carry hydrophones so you can listen to whale song?

• What's included in the price of the cruise — snacks? breakfast? lunch? drinks? (ask specifically what constitutes lunch, etc.) How long will you be out? On some cruises, food and beverages are for sale, but prices may be steep.

• Do they guarantee a whale sighting and do they offer refunds if no whales are sighted? This is one on which there are two opinions — those concerned about whales say guarantees may cause captains to chase whales harder; others say the point should be to enjoy the day and whatever reveals itself. Besides, most people on a short vacation don't have time to take advantage of a refund, anyway.

• How much does the whale watch cost? Prices range from less than $25 for a two-hour trip (Pacific Whale Foundation) to more than $100 for a half-day excursion. However, cost must be weighed against other factors, including those outlined above.

• Do any proceeds from the whale watch benefit whale protection or research? If so, how much?

— Wanda A. Adams