The mammoth rays glide up from the inky depths, one by one. With black wings flapping like Dracula’s cape and cavernous mouths wide open, they rise to within inches of my snorkel mask.
“Don’t move,” I will myself on this night adventure on our UnCruise Hawaii trip.
My brain registers – the rays won’t hit me.
Sure enough, with precision timing, they arc backwards at the last moment in a graceful backflip, showing off their creamy white bellies, before swooping back down.
But who the performers are in this underwater manta ballet on our Uncruise Hawaii adventure, I can’t tell.
“They have names like Rachel Ray and Sugar Ray and Stevie Ray,” our snorkel guide with Kona Diving Company, Katie Gaab, had told us earlier.
“You can identify them by the black tattoo-like markings on their underbellies.”
XRay, for example, has a big black “X” on her chest. But I’m too gob-smacked by the whole cast to scrutinize individual tattoos.
What sticks in my mind is Katie saying: “They have no stingers.”
And I can see they also have no teeth – just rows of harmless, internal, radiator-like gills sucking in clouds of twinkling plankton.
We’re in aptly-named Manta Heaven. And the Big Island of Hawaii’s famous night snorkel-and-dive is a surreal experience.
Divers sit 40 feet beneath the water’s surface, shining up flashlights. Snorkelers float on top, hanging onto surfboard-like contraptions with spotlights shining down. The light attracts plankton, which attracts the manta rays – who put on a swirling, twirling, whirling show of a lifetime as they feed.
Silver swarms of darting Hawaiian flagtail fish add to the dream-like scene.
It’s a fitting finale to our one-week Hawaiian cruise – or more accurately, UnCruise Hawaii – aboard the Safari Explorer.
The antithesis of a traditional cruise on a large ship, this 36-guest yacht takes us on an off-the-beaten-path exploration of Hawaii.
Snorkeling at night with mantas is probably the most “touristy” of our excursions (as it’s a popular activity on the Big Island).
The Safari Explorer is operated by UnCruise Adventures. I’ve cruised with the line before on another of their “ships” – on a wilderness cruise with George in Alaska. This time I’m cruising with my adventurous mother.
In Hawaii, between November and April, the practical little Safari Explorer visits secluded bays off the Big Island of Hawaii, Lanai (where there’s a surprising amount to do for such a teeny island), Maui and Molokai.
Safety is top-of-mind on these small ship cruises in Hawaii, and the crew expertly helps guests from their 30s to their 80s clamber from the ship into the motorized rubber inflatable boats used to go ashore or for water activities.
And we’re in or on the water a lot.
The ship carries kayaks and stand-up paddle boards for our complimentary use whenever we’re at anchor.
The UnCruise Hawaii itinerary also sees us snorkeling with green sea turtles off Maui and ogling sea caves and lava tubes on a high-speed Zodiac ride along the Big Island’s volcanic coast.
Talk story with colorful Hawaiians
When we’re ashore, tours connect us with the Hawaiian culture and people.
“You’re going to meet some colorful characters,” winks expedition leader Brock Munson.
Auntie Snookie is one of them. On Molokai – where almost every woman is called “auntie” – she greets us with a solemn chime by blowing into her conch shell. A spiritual elder with spiky grey hair, she’s decked out in a green grass headband, oversize sunglasses and a cell phone clipped onto her pareo.
We “talk story” with her, learning that the moon goddess Hina gave birth to the island.
We also make leis at Molokai Plumerias farm.
The delicate “Aloha” flower buds must be hand-picked off the rows of gnarled plumeria trees in the morning, assembled into leis then shipped in refrigerated coolers, so they can be worn before the buds die two days later.
It takes about 50 blossoms for a classic lei, and we each take turns painstakingly poking white, yellow and coral buds with a long needle and threading them together.
Father Damien’s legacy
Proudly wearing our floral necklaces, we’re walking advertisements for a perfume factory when we later stop at the Kalaupapa Peninsula look-out.
The site overlooks the remote finger of land where one of the more tragic chapters in Hawaii’s history unfolded. More than 8,000 sufferers of Hansen’s disease (leprosy) were banished here between 1866 and 1969. In the early years, they lived without shelter or clean drinking water until Father Damien, a Catholic missionary priest from Belgium, arrived to minister to them and build a hospital.
Sadly, he too succumbed to the disease after 16 years of selfless service.
Today, Kalaupapa is still home to some of the last remaining patients who chose to continue living here. Once a year, a barge drops off supplies, and there’s a small airstrip also used for bringing in food.
As an optional day-tour, guests of the Safari Explorer can visit the former mission. But the only way to get from the top of the world’s highest sea cliffs (on which we’re standing) to the flat peninsula below is by a guided mule ride or hike, down 26 very steep switchbacks.
Canoeing and hiking
We experience more Hawaiiana on Maui.
The plan? Venture out in a large, old, outrigger war canoe, built with a traditional crab claw sail.
But nature scuttles that arrangement – there’s not enough wind to power the vessel.
So, instead, we tour the 62-foot Mo’okiha O Pi’ilani being hand-built by the Maui Voyaging Society.
Under construction for 17 years (a labor of love, funded by donation), the double-hulled vessel is a replica of an ancient transoceanic voyaging canoe used by early Polynesians to journey to Hawaii. The hardy crew will navigate by the stars and sleep on deck, like their ancestors, when they eventually sail it to Tahiti.
Of course, we can’t just look at an outrigger canoe.
Sure enough, we’re invited to jump into smaller outriggers for a paddle out at sea.
We’re given “tourist” paddles with a large hole to make it easier for us. Even then, with a guide in front and a guide in back, it’s hard work, especially when we have to paddle furiously to get through the surf.
A wave washes right up into our canoe and soaks us from our waists down.
I end up as the designated bailer, but it’s a losing battle – great fun, but I’d rather sail on the Safari Explorer.
Onboard the Safari Explorer in Hawaii
On our cruise around the Hawaiian islands, we’re welcomed back from excursions with a cocktail-of-the-day, like spiked lemonade with fresh mint.
Though snug, our cabins are comfy.
We sit down at communal tables for delicious, healthy, made-to-order meals – from warm-from-the-oven cinnamon buns for an early riser’s breakfast (okay, maybe that’s not so healthy) to perhaps freshly-caught, simply grilled fish for dinner.
And a young, enthusiastic, all-American crew works tirelessly to make our cruise as enjoyable as possible.
We even get treated to a free massage each.
Authentic experiences on small ship cruises in Hawaii
More activities are offered too on the Safari Explorer in Hawaii.
But whether it’s the private luau just for us (hosted by Auntie Noelani) or hiking to a waterfall in Molokai’s lush Halawa Valley, the experiences are authentic and show us a slice of Hawaii that many visitors don’t see.
Molokai, for example, is so undeveloped it doesn’t even possess a traffic light.
Still, the manta snorkel gets my vote as the highlight.
If I’m ever lucky enough to watch an encore, I may even figure out who Lefty and Big Bertha and Vicky Ray actually are.
7-Day cruise to Hawaii
The 7-day cruises to Hawaii are offered between November and April.
The current itinerary until April, 2020 is cruising from the Big Island of Hawaii to Molokai (or the reverse), calling in at Maui and Lanai.
Read more about UnCruise Adventures
Photos that aren’t © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase, are courtesy UnCruise Adventures
My magazine feature on our cruise around the Hawaiian islands
A version of this story was published as “Hawaii Un-Cruising” in Cruise & Travel Lifestyles magazine. Click on the image to see a PDF of the article.
And I’m jazzed to report that this story won a Finalist award in the North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA) Travel Writing Competition!