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Whale of a time for a virgin paddleboarder

“Did you see the whale?” the fellow stand-up paddleboard (SUP) rider asked me.

Two black peaks protruded above the ocean surface. Resembling the volcanic rocks that dot Maui’s shore, they were the tops of humpbacks.

We were viewing a mother and newborn calf, close enough to hear their breathing.

A tail fin, as wide as the length of our boards, rose into the air before slapping back down. “Think that was the baby?” I asked Bill, who I’d just met, while gazing at the view.

“That small, it’s got to be.”

In winter, the humpbacks migrate south to breed and give birth in Hawaii. Today, my first time on a paddleboard, I stood close to two, nearer than any whale-viewing cruise. (Boats must stay 100 yards away from humpbacks; I learned later these rules technically apply to swimmers and tiny craft like SUPs also). One reason for SUP’s popularity is the unusual vantage point it affords, which I was finding out first hand.

I’d returned to Maui because I had a free place to stay, and could telecommute for work. I would snorkel among the coral with brilliant tropical fish, and, if lucky, a ray, eel, or shark. On occasion, I’d hear the humpbacks’ eerie underwater cries. But I hadn’t planned to try a SUP. Or view a whale this close.

Then one day snorkeling and hiking, I spotted someone paddleboarding below the serrated cliffs at La Perouse Bay on Maui’s southwest tip, past the end of the road and the island’s newest lava flow. I so wanted to be on the water too, experiencing a new perspective of one of my favorite places.

The next day, I snorkeled at Five Graves, a dive site up the south coast, thick with turtles and submerged caves. The lava point, usually empty, teemed with maybe 100 other swimmers and divers, plus a group of 30 kayakers. I couldn’t enjoy coral and fish while watching out for humans crashing into me — the congestion was too great. With a SUP, I realized, I could escape this horde.

I searched online for rentals boards, and ordered one by phone. That afternoon, my equipment arrived. Friendly young Matt Pasamonte — with a closely shaved head; a missing front tooth; and enthusiasm for surfing, SUPs, and snowboarding — showed me how to strap the SUP on my car, hold the paddle, and position myself.

Sunrise the following day, I arrived at a calm beach, empty of tourists. Three-foot waves crashed on shore, nothing too challenging. One paddler was already out: Bill. Past the breakers, I strapped the leash around one ankle and pulled myself onto my vessel. I stood, began paddling, and found a rhythm.

I’d put in at Po‘olenalena Beach on Maui’s South Shore, between Wailea — jammed with hotels and golf courses — and the more rustic Makena area. Like an egret observing the sand from a palm tree, I surveyed the land surrounding my patch of ocean. In the east, the sun rose above the foothills of green, volcanic Haleakala. To the north, a line of wind turbines flecked the mountainous spine of West Maui. Smaller islands dotted the western horizon: under-developed Lanai, little Molokini—the volcanic crater—and behind it, barren Kaho’Olawe, in the past, bombarded in US Naval practice.

And so close, the whales. Geysers of fishy vaporized exhalation shot from the shiny black tops of the mother and baby. We were able to linger with these two, I learned later, because humpbacks often rest for a day after birthing. This was far better than the usual whale viewing experience: catch a quick glimpse from your ship as they swim by.

But I still wasn’t quite one with the SUP. I lost my balance in the chop, taking a few steps backwards, off the stern and into the Pacific. The important thing is to land in the ocean, not on the board. Bill – who’s paddleboarded for years—with a lean body to match—complimented me on how well I rode my first time.

“But I’ve fallen twice.”

“Water feels good, doesn’t it?”

It did.

The whales, after floating at the surface several minutes, submerged. Bill headed into shore. I stayed, and the humpbacks soon appeared again.

A long outrigger canoe with hotel guests approached. They watched the whales with me while their guide put on a facemask and dove in. Immediately, I envied the guide’s mask and his subaqueous view of the humpbacks. Of course, when I’d kayaked along this shore, I’d always brought my snorkel and mask. Neither Matt’s nor the SUP instructions I’d read online recommended snorkel gear when paddleboarding, but during Hawaii’s whale season, I’d just discovered that such equipment can be crucial.

On my subsequent SUP expeditions, I ran the board’s leash through my mask before I strapped it to my ankle, ready for the next underwater-viewing opportunity.

I snorkeled in the pristine “Aquarium” at the western point of Cape Kina’u, a rugged, recent lava flow. Hikers have been barred from the popular dive spot since 2008, but not swimmers, kayakers, or SUPs. And it boasts some of South Maui’s clearest water.

One day I swam below with a large manta ray, a flat fish startling and scary at first, but so graceful I could observe it tirelessly. Up to 20 feet across, these Manta birostris glide on fins like triangular wings, earning the nickname, “butterflies of the sea.”

The following morning, I was again grateful for my mask and snorkel. Two rays performed their underwater acrobats, and at times, seemed to include me as they arced and plunged in the ocean. I still relish my memory of free diving with these winged relatives of sharks.

From my rented board, I dove twice with manta rays, but never swam with the whales. I feel a twinge of regret, and envy, for that outrigger guide who dove in and saw their massive immersed bodies. To experience Hawaii fully, one must visit the land and the ocean, and dive in the waters as well as float on the surface. But I’m ready for next time. My snorkel gear is now part of my SUP equipment.

If You Try

In the last few years, stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) has gained popularity in Hawaii and waters around the globe. Much easier to learn than regular surfing, sales of boards doubled from 2010 to ’11, from 75,000 to 150,000, according to Stand-Up Paddle magazine. “Every garage in Maui now has a SUP,” says Gary Ahrnsbrak at ProDiver, offering lessons and rentals on Maui.

SUP is said to be a traditional Polynesian and Hawaiian mode of travel. It caught on in the ’60s and ’70s when Waikiki surf instructors stood on boards to teach their classes and to photograph their students. Then around 2000, top surfers began paddleboarding as a way to train when conditions weren’t optimal for surfing. SUP equipment is now more specialized. Boards designed specifically for stand-up paddling tend to be bigger, heavier, and with added flotation compared to surfboards, says Dallas Mitchell of 808 Boards.

SUP is popular because surf conditions aren’t a requirement, and it’s much easier than wave surfing. If your balance is good and the water is calm, you may be able to teach yourself using free online instruction. Isle Surf and SUP offers a comprehensive beginner’s guide as well as information on equipment selection and maintenance. SUP pioneers Dave Kalama and Laird Hamilton each offer a variety of videos, with Kalama emphasizing basic instruction.

A snowboarding stance is similar to wave surfing, but when paddling forward, the stance for SUP resembles the posture for downhill skiing—facing ahead, feet shoulder width apart, knees slightly bent.

“Anyone can do it, as long as they have the right equipment,” a board that matches their weight and ability, says Mitchell.

“Women do better,” claims Ahrnsbrak, due to their lower center of gravity and being “less upper-body oriented.”

Dan Nainan considers himself athletic—he rollerblades, cycles, and SCUBA dives. He successfully kite surfed on a recent vacation in the Dominican Republic, but his SUP experience was less successful. “I just couldn’t get up,” he says. “It was really frustrating.” A month later, on Maui, Nainan tried again. “This time, I had the good sense to wait a couple of hours after I ate to try it. Also, conditions in Maui were wonderful, much smoother seas. I was finally able to get up and standup paddleboard.”

Terri St. Onge of Seattle tried paddleboarding while visiting friends on the Kona Coast of Hawaii’s Big Island, but is not a fan. “Getting up is interesting but once you’re up, it’s boring.”

For hands-on instructions, Maui Wave Riders offers 90-minute group lessons for beginners, equipment included, for $60 from both their Kihei and Lahaina locations (808-875-4761). South of Kihei in Wailea, the Fairmont Kea Lani Resort and ProDiver rent SUPs for $40/hour and offer 90-minute “tours” with group instruction for $90 (808 875 4100). Classes are offered in the morning, when conditions are best. Island Surfboard (808-281-9835) and 808 Boards (808-283-1384) offer SUPs for $40 – $45 a day or $180 per week. Both companies help you choose the board’s type and size, provide free pickup and delivery, paddle, leash and a soft rack or straps for your vehicle. 808 Boards also provides brief instruction on land if requested.

Pic: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Tor Johnson

Pic: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Tor Johnson


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