Captain Steve’s Rafting Adventure

When you think about snorkel trips you can take when visiting Maui, the first place that enters your mind is usually Molokini. And you probably think that the best way to go snorkeling is on one of the big boats or catamarans that can fit upwards of fifty or more people. I thought that too, until I was offered the opportunity to experience a different kind of adventure. A snorkel trip to the waters off the coast of Lanai in a raft. I immediately had images of a small wooden raft like Huck Finn used on the Mississippi River, but boy was I mistaken.

On this particular trip, known as the Deluxe Dolphin Lanai Adventure, Captain Steve’s Rafting Adventure takes a small group, usually no more that twenty or so guests, and visits snorkel spots near the island of Lanai. Captain Steve’s Rafting Adventure features a hard bottom raft (aka a rigid hulled inflatable) to whisk you off on a snorkel trip you will never forget. The raft was originally designed as Coast Guard Search & Rescue crafts and is powered by twin 200 horsepower computerized smokeless engines. The most important part of the raft was speed. These babies can easily cruise at thirty miles per hour — that’s incredibly fast when you’re on the water.

The trip leaves from Mala Ramp, just off Front St. south of the Lahaina Cannery Mall, and there is plenty of parking close by. We arrived around 7:00 in the morning with our towels, sunscreen, hats, and cameras. Since my wife and I were going with our three children ages 6, 9, and 11, we made sure everyone was wearing their swimsuits before we left. My wife dropped me and the kids off in the parking lot and left to pick up another friend who would be joining us this morning. Not sure exactly where to meet, the kids and I looked around for Captain Steve. The kids laughed when they saw the huge raft still in it’s trailer attached to Captain Steve’s truck. It was enormous. How could we have possibly missed it? We walked over to Captain Steve and I introduced the kids just moments before they saw the donuts on the tailgate of the truck. After that, there was no stopping them.

“Daddy, can we have donuts?” the trio chimed. I told them they could each have one provided they remembered to say “please” and “thank you”. Two chocolate sprinkled and one plain donut later, my kids were loving this trip. My wife and our friend arrived as the kids were having their healthy breakfast.  In addition to donuts, there were granola bars, water, soda, juice, and fresh fruit. A nice little breakfast; you don’t want to eat a huge breakfast before a snorkel trip. Our friend, who had been to Lanai before and was looking forward to Captain Steve’s Rafting Adventure and another chance to snorkel in the waters of her favorite Hawaiian Island, chose to have some of the fresh fruit.

As more people arrived for Captain Steve’s Rafting Adventure, Captain Steve and his crew (a friendly sailor named Jack with a vast knowledge of Maui) greeted everyone personally, offered breakfast, and stowed personal belongings in storage compartments located under the seats of the raft. It was a fairly cold morning, for Maui, and Captain Steve assured us that as soon as we got out on the water, the sun would warm us up.

After everyone arrived and before we could begin our snorkel trip, we needed to be fitted for our fins. Captain Steve’s Rafting Adventure certainly had plenty of fins for everyone. There were fins in nearly every size and in many different styles from which to choose. With only twenty or so passengers, there was no need to take every pair, just one set per person. By fitting fins before we went out, we were able to save plenty of room on the rigid hulled inflatable and avoid the hassle of fitting fins once we were on the water. Some people brought their own gear, but most of us used the mask, snorkel, fins, sets provided by Captain Steve’s Rafting Adventure. There were plenty from which to choose and a wide variety of sizes including those small enough for children.

Once we were all fitted with our snorkel gear, Captain Steve announced that we would be going soon. He reminded us that there is no bathrooms on the raft and that this would be our last chance until we returned in about five hours. I took the boys and my wife took the girls just to be on the safe side. By the time we returned, the safety briefing was underway and Captain Steve was explaining the safety features of the raft. Not that anyone was concerned, there were more than ample life vests, floatation devices, and life rafts. Captain Steve runs a very safe snorkel and whale watch trip.

Once the briefing was over, we watched as Captain Steve, with Jack’s assistance, backed his truck from the parking lot towards the Mala Ramp. The idea was to maneuver the trailer into the water so the rigid hulled inflatable was placed into the water. As beautiful as the views of the surrounding islands of Lanai and Molokai are, everyone preparing for our adventure turned to watch the launching of our raft.

Now that the raft was in the water, Jack and Captain Steve worked together to secure the vessel to the dock and prepare it for our boarding. We boarded quickly and easily. Once on board, I was pleased to notice that the bench seats were surprisingly comfortable. In addition to the bench seating, there were seats up front in the bow and seats in the stern, behind the Captain’s cockpit. (Once the trip was underway, several passengers opted to sit directly on the pontoons to be closer to the water.)

As Jack untied the lines from the moorings on the dock and jumped onto the raft, Captain Steve eased the raft away from Mala Ramp and headed out to the open ocean. Within minutes, Captain Steve pointed out the first of several honu or Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles. Jack, who could easily be a docent at any aquarium in the world, shared so much information about the honu that I was both amazed and awed by the nature of these wonderful creatures. Each time they poked their heads up out of the water, one of my fellow passengers would cry out so we could all turn to see. It was an incredible experience to be among so many turtles and at the same time learn so much about them.

The sun was still rising and the glare off the water was intense as we left the honu and headed towards the island of Lanai for our snorkel sessions. No wonder Captain Steve wore a pair of Maui Jim Sunglasses (but that’s better left for another review). Jack and Captain kept a lookout for whales. And it wasn’t too long before we were treated to our first humpback whale sighting of the season.

As we headed out, at a fairly fast pace, Jack shared with us a bit of history and background about the four islands that comprise the county of Maui in the state of Hawaii. About a third of the way across the Au’au Channel, we saw our first whales. It doesn’t matter if it is your first time seeing a humpback whale or if you see them everyday, watching a humpback whale breach is one of the most incredible sights in the world. The whales we saw must have been waiting for some of their friends, because before too long there were several other whales putting on a show for us.

It seemed like everywhere we looked, there were more whales. If there was a whale diving off the starboard bow of Captains Steve’s Raft, before its tail was out of sight, another whale was breaching off the port bow. For about fifteen or twenty minutes (and I must admit I lost track of time with the excitement of all the activity) we saw enough humpback whales to last the whole season.

Once the whale activity slowed, Captain Steve steered the raft towards Lanai and our first snorkel spot. One of the characteristics of this trip that impressed me the most was the level of spontaneity. There is no set itinerary other than leaving at 7:15ish, going snorkeling, and returning around 2:00 or so. As long as the whales were there, we stayed and once they were gone, so were we. Off to a special snorkel spot for as long as we wanted to stay. Along the way to Lanai, Jack treated us to another lesson about the Hawaiian Islands and Lanai in particular.

When we arrived at the snorkel spot, there were two other rafts in the vicinity. Captain Steve greeted them on the radio and discovered that one of them was about to leave and we could use the mooring to secure our raft. We waved to the other raft as they pulled away from this snorkel spot and Captain Steve maneuvered into position. Once there, Jack dove into the water to secure the craft.

Working together, Captain Steve and Jack handed out our fins and fitted us for masks and snorkels. Everyone seemed very excited about getting into the water. Even though it was a little overcast this morning and the water looked cold (it was December, after all), we couldn’t wait to get in. Everyone, that is, except for my two younger children. While my eleven year old couldn’t wait to get wet, my six and nine year olds changed their minds at the last minute.

My son and I jumped into the water and it was indeed very cold. That is to say “cold for Maui”. It was still in the mid ‘70s which would be considered warm pretty much any where else. After the initial shock, however, we were both very glad we made the decision to get in. The water was incredibly clear and the visibility was perfect as far as we could see. We swam all around the raft, watching the vast number of fish in the water. It was like swimming in the tanks at the Maui Ocean Center, the Hawaiian Aquarium located in Ma’alaea. Only this was real life!

We stayed at this incredible snorkel spot until everyone snorkeling returned to the raft. There was more than enough time in the water for this first of two snorkel opportunities. My son and I were pretty tired by the time Captain Steve helped us back aboard his raft. We were pretty hungry, too and very glad there were snacks for us. Because there was still a second snorkel spot planned and we didn’t want to eat very much, the granola bars were perfect.

Once everyone was on board and settled into our seats, it was time to head off towards our next destination. We hadn’t gotten very far when Captain Steve alerted us to the fact that some other boats had encountered a pod of dolphins and we had the chance to go see them. The only problem was the dolphins were in the opposite direction from where we were headed. Captain Steve stopped the raft so we could decide democratically. He asked us to vote if we wanted to continue on course and go snorkeling or if we wanted to chase the pod of dolphins. If we continued our course, we would snorkel first and we might still see dolphins later; if we changed course we would definitely see dolphins and we would also snorkel, just at a different spot. We made the (nearly) unanimous decision to go chase the pod. After all, the dolphin sighting offered what could be a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Captain Steve turned the raft around and we headed back towards Maui and off to see the dolphins. Before too long, we spotted the dolphin and knew we had made the right choice. There were dolphins everywhere! It was one of the most spectacular sights I have ever seen. I was so entranced by these aquatic mammals, my wife had to remind me, “Honey, did you want to take any pictures?” I told her that she was much better at taking pictures than I was and I would appreciate any help she could offer. She loves taking pictures and was more than happy to be in charge of the camera. And that left me to watch the dolphins and the looks on the faces of my children as they watched the dolphins, too.

We followed the dolphin as they glided through the water. Playing in the wake of the raft. They jumped from the water and spun around in the air. My youngest son loved pretending to cause them to jump by telling them to jump… Now! while he waived his hand at them like a Jedi Master. It didn’t matter the number of times this didn’t work, the few times they jumped at the “right” time were enough for him to believe he was responsible for the show.

What was very cool about the dolphins was that as the jumped and played, they were leading us through the water back towards Lanai and directly our second snorkel spot! How lucky is that? We were able to see the dolphins and still get to snorkel in the exact same spot as planned. i love the magic of the Islands. And the second spot was even better than the first.

The sky was still a little bit overcast and the water still looked cold (it wasn’t), but our two younger children were still hesitant to enter the water. My wife agreed to stay on the raft to see if she could change their minds and offered me and our oldest son another opportunity to snorkel. We took advantage by thoroughly enjoying ourselves in the water. We saw fish of so many different varieties we lost count. But the highlight came when a huge Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle swam right in front of us — about 25 feet away. It was awesome.

Once we saw the honu, my son and I knew that nothing could top it so we headed back towards Captain Steve’s raft. My wife still hadn’t had a chance to get wet, since she was with the kids, and she needed the chance to experience snorkeling off the waters of Lanai. Captain Steve graciously agreed to keep an eye on the kids who wouldn’t get in the water. Even though we were only in the water for another twenty minutes or so before we headed back to Maui, it was a wonderful time for the three of us in the water.

To soon, it was time to have lunch and start heading back. By the time everyone had taken off their masks and fins, Captain Steve and Jack had lunch prepared. We helped ourselves to sandwiches, veggies, drinks, and cookies. A nice lunch. It’s amazing how things taste better when you’re on the ocean. When everyone had had enough food, Captain Steve and Jack collected all the plates and soda cans (separate bags so we could recycle).

As we made our way back across the Au’au Channel, we were all relaxing and talking quietly about the sites we had seen and the experiences we enjoyed. I must admit that with the rock of the raft and the gentle hum of the engines, I fell asleep pretty quickly. There is a good chance I could have slept all the way to Mala except for the yelling that erupted when we encountered another pod of spinner dolphins. No one could have slept as my children yelled, “Dad, wake up and look at the dolphins.” A grand finale to our adventure.

Captain Steve guided the raft towards Mala ramp so Jack could once again secure the raft and prepare for our debarking. We gathered our belongings and thanked Captain Steve and Jack for the wonderful time we had. He invited us to come back soon for a whale watch. We assured him that we would and headed back towards a car.

808 Reviews Visitor’s Tip – While the trip on the raft is spectacular, keep in mind there is no bathroom available for the duration of the journey. Make sure to take care of business before the trip begins. Rest assured, Captain Steve has successfully handled challenging situations. Though not ideal, solutions are available.

Tiny Bubbles Scuba
About Maury Hoffman |Things to Do on Maui | Restaurant and Activity Reviews

Senior Editor of 808 Reviews and freelance travel writer, Maury Hoffman lives on Maui with his familiy, iPad, iPhone, and other gadgets. His writing proficiency is directly related to the quality of his morning coffee. He prefers Peet's Coffee, but also enjoys Living Java.

Tiny Bubbles Scuba