Cousteau’s Kayak

Paddle, pedal and sail your way to adventure on a sailing sea-kayak tour.


Story by Teya Penniman  |  Photography by Tracy Kraft Leboe

sea kayak mauiAmid gentle swells off Wahikuli Beach Park, I duck under the outrigger and climb aboard a blaze-red kayak built for two. Paddles flash, propelling us away from terra firma for a morning excursion along Maui’s west shore. Within minutes, there is only water, sky, and movement.

I have booked a private sailing-sea-kayak voyage with the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua’s Ambassadors of the Environment. As we explore the ocean from above and below, I will learn about reef ecosystems and how humans are changing our marine environment. My guide is Kevin Highfield, a marine biologist who grew up in the Caribbean. His brother, Chris, is piloting our boat’s yellow twin, just ahead of us.

These are not your ordinary kayaks. Forward motion comes with options: sail, paddle, or pedal. The two-seaters have dual controls for the furling sail and rudder; either person can man the controls or take it solo. The outriggers provide stability when powered by wind. The marriage of sail and paddle dates back millennia, with Polynesians pretty much writing the book on seaworthy paddle craft. But pedals?

Pairs of articulating fins, shaped like penguin wings, the pedals can be locked into place under the hull. Operated like a recumbent bicycle, the pedal option turns the kayak into a full-body workout, all while cruising the open ocean: paddle, switch to pedaling, or take a breather and let the wind do the work.

Assuming there is any. After some steady paddling, we find the wind line—that place where the ocean surface transforms from glass to spiky ripples. “Point us toward Moloka‘i,” Kevin commands. I torque the small lever mounted portside and with another directive from my captain, uncinch the sheet. As the line plays out, the red-and-white sail unfurls and just as quickly fills with a light breeze. The paddles come aboard.

With our newfound leisure comes “talk story” time and a chance to learn about the Ambassadors program, a partnership between the Ritz-Carlton and Jean-Michel Cousteau. Kevin tells me about the four core principles of the program: “Biodiversity is good; everything runs on energy; nature recycles everything; and everything is connected.” He certainly embodies the last principle, having found a perfect connection with the Ambassadors program. “I grew up with the Cousteau Society,” he says, “watching all their documentaries. That’s why I became a marine biologist.”

As crystalline waters pass beneath the boat, he shares his wealth of knowledge about reef life and the effects of human activities. I learn about the mutualistic relationship between coral and single-celled photosynthesizing algae, called zooxanthellae. The algae find protective homes within the corals’ soft tissue, and produce nutrients the coral needs. These algae also help paint our underwater world by giving coral its color—yellowish-green lobes, pinkish cauliflowers, and delicate dark-brown lace corals. But environmental changes, like ocean warming and sediment runoff from damaged watersheds, can cause coral to expel the beneficial algae. The white skeletons are evidence of coral bleaching. Kevin says, “Just over the last few years, it’s gotten worse.” He explains that many of our pelagic and game fish rely on the reefs as their nursery. He’s also seen dead zones around Maui—places where people step on the coral as they enter the water. “As the reef goes, the rest of the ocean goes.”

I know better than to stand on coral, but I didn’t know about sunscreen. “Think about all the people who go in the ocean,” Kevin says, “and all the sunscreen they put on. It floats on the top and most brands have these extremely toxic chemicals. Most marine animals are mass spawners. All the eggs are positively buoyant and float to the surface. When the eggs hit this layer of sunscreen they’re pretty much toast.” Wow. Our personal choices have environmental consequences, but it’s often hard to see such a direct connection.

Kevin interrupts our talk with “Whale straight ahead!” I see one spout, then a smaller one—a mother and baby humpback are off the bow. We cleat the sail and the boat stops moving. We will not approach closer than 100 yards, the limit set by federal law. A low, rhythmic chant floats across the water from the other kayak—a whale blessing Chris was given by a kahuna (priest) on the Big Island. Kevin taps the side of the kayak, explaining, “The mother whale will allow her keiki to explore while she keeps a protective watch below.” His knocking may spark the curiosity of the behemoth mammals; dolphins are known to respond from over a mile away. If the humpbacks want to approach, we’re here.

I hear the moist exhalation first and then spot the slate-gray boulder with a small dorsal fin arcing at nine o’clock off the kayak. It’s the little one and about twenty feet long; Kevin thinks it’s about a week old. “Maui has the greatest number of humpbacks of all the islands,” he says. “Because of the shallow waters and the protection of the sister islands—Moloka‘i, Lana‘i and Kaho‘olawe—the humpbacks all converge here.” We don’t see them again as we sit in silent awe, but mark their movement below by the whale “footprint” left behind. The whales’ powerful up-and-down tail thrusts create a slick on the surface—an ephemeral spot of calmness left by majestic animals who call Maui home for part of their annual cycle.

Black Rock comes into view and I am struck by how different Maui looks when seen from the water. This lava outcrop, famous as a jump-off rock and site of numerous Hawaiian legends, totally dominates the low-lying shore, which the high cliff cleaves in two. Our turn-around point is ahead at Kahekili, or “Airport Beach,” where we tie off to an underwater mooring. Next up: time in the water. I grab my mask, snorkel, and fins and slip under the outrigger.

It’s obvious I’m with a waterman. Kevin’s porpoise-like undulations signal a man thoroughly at ease in the liquid element. For most of the next hour we are up and down, exploring the underwater wonder world, and sharing our discoveries. Colorful wrasses, tangs, and parrotfish keep us company as we snap photos using waterproof cameras provided for   the trip.

Kevin surfaces to tell me he’s spotted some coral bleaching. We dive and he points out an area of whitish coral. The untrained eye would miss this sign that our reefs are stressed.

By the time we’re ready to climb back onboard, the current has pushed us farther away than I realized, and I get a good cardio workout swimming to the boat. Kevin places croissants, cheese, and fresh fruit on the black mesh skirt strapped between the hull and the ama, or outrigger. After a quick repast, we’re in motion again, headed back.

We pass a standup paddler, who points out a honu (green sea turtle) surfacing ahead of us and I remember the Hawaiian proverb Komo mai kau mapuna hoe: “Put in your dip of the paddle.” Its kaona, or hidden meaning, is “Pitch in.” I could stretch out and contemplate cloud formations while my kayak partner pedals behind me, or call for a quick dive into unexplored coral gardens disappearing below. But I’ve been on the receiving end of this journey—propelled by alternating sources of power and a steady flow of knowledge. I want to paddle and keep paddling. It feels good to know I am helping move us forward.

As our landing spot grows closer, I think about the deeper meaning of the proverb and what I’ve learned about ways to protect Maui’s reefs: plant native trees to help protect the watershed, share proper reef etiquette, use fish-friendly sunscreen. I’ve just spent the morning paddling over some of the best reefs in the world, amid birthing grounds for giant whales and microscopic coral larvae. It’s an easy take-home lesson: put in your paddle and pitch in.

Ambassadors of the Environment

Activities start with an introductory video at the program headquarters, which occupy the former tennis center at the Ritz-Carlton. Step outside to island-hop across Hawaiian Islands painted on the old tennis court. Started as a way to introduce environmental concepts to children staying at the resort, the program has since expanded into activities for adults and a summer day camp open to local keiki. Contact info: 808-665-7292;

If you go:
Maximum tour group: 2 (in separate kayaks)
Minimum age: 12
Length of trip: 4 hours
Food, drinks, life jackets, waterproof cameras, snorkel gear,
towel provided
Wear swimsuit/board shorts, hat, sunscreen.
Guests receive a CD with photos from their trip.
Cost: $249 per person


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