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When your kids would rather not get in the water, try hanging out with 90-kilogram sea turtles on the North Shore.
When your kids would rather not get in the water, try hanging out with 90-kilogram sea turtles on the North Shore.

How to see Hawaii's marine life (without getting wet) Add to ...

Imagine a trip to Hawaii – one of the best places in the world to snorkel – with a child who doesn’t like getting his face wet. Sounds like fun, right? Our final destination was Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island, but our plane first landed in Oahu and we had a couple of days to explore.

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On the North Shore, we watched surfers and 90-kilogram green sea turtles heave themselves across Laniakea Beach and back out to sea. In the sleepy town of Waialua, we slurped back melting cones of shaved ice dripping with passion fruit, mango and coconut syrup. It was the closest we’d come to getting wet, but I was eager to experience a lot more. Here’s how we saw more marine life – and avoided a meltdown.

UNDERWATER

On board the Atlantis Submarine, every seat has its own porthole and fish ID card. (Buy the $1 program; there’s nothing like checking off all the fish you see in the sea.) On our tour we plunged 30 metres (100 feet) below the surface and hovered over and around a coral reef home to thousands of butterfly fish. We went eye to eye with a grouper fish as it checked out our porthole. A humuhumunukunuku’apua’a (the state fish) cruised by, and we saw a white-tipped reef shark resting under a sunken Second World War landing craft. Seriously cool. Just make sure your kids use the bathrooms on the pier or the transfer boat: There are no facilities on the sub – and no one tells you this beforehand.

Tours available in Waikiki, Oahu; Kona, Big Island; and in Lahaina, Maui. Prices start at $99 for adults, $35 for kids. 800-548-6262; atlantisadventures.com

ON THE WATER

It’s hard to beat the passion for marine life exhibited by our crew guides during a trip with Wild Side Specialty Tours. Leaving from Waianae on a 42-foot catamaran, the three-hour Morning Wildlife trip took us up the leeward coast of Oahu to Ka’ena Point, a sacred spot for native Hawaiians and an area not accessible by car.

Wild Side tours are small, customized and ecologically focused: The staff can’t promise you wildlife interaction because they won’t force it. Still, we saw a humpback whale breach spectacularly close, flying fish at our feet and a whole lot of dolphins that we were encouraged to snorkel beside. But there is a tenuous window of opportunity to swim with dolphins, and the moment is orchestrated and executed with lightening speed. There’s no time to deal with a panicky kid in the ocean. So we simply enjoyed the dolphins from the deck; some even swam right underneath us. Even better, the captain let my son drive the catamaran on the way back to the harbour – and that made his day.

Tours from $115, includes snacks, drinks and snorkelling equipment. Waianae Boat Harbour; 808-306-7273; Sailhawaii.com

On the way back to our hotel, we stopped in Waikiki to soak in its vibrant beach scene. Jack was ready for some pure, unadulterated fun so we booked a ride in an outrigger canoe at Waikiki Beach Services. These Polynesian canoes are built for speed and much skinnier than canoes we’ve paddled at home. We “helped” the powerful crew haul the heavy wooden boat into the ocean and paddle into Mamala Bay. Then we waited.

While the crew looked for the right kind of wave, we watched the Waikiki wildlife – dozens of surfers of all ages, shapes and sizes bobbing in the ocean. “Go!” cried the crew pilot, and we paddled like mad.

Suddenly, we were racing toward shore on top of a wave. The wind nearly blew my hat off and Jack was laughing gleefully. It’s like surfing, but in a canoe.

Rides from $75, includes photo CD. 2259 Kalakaua Ave; 808-388-1510; waikikibeachservices.com

AT THE RESORT

We had one last chance to talk with the animals back at our resort. In contrast to the hustle of Waikiki, the Kahala resort, about a 15-minute drive south, offers a serene, subdued luxury beloved by celebrities. Kahala-wood, as it’s nicknamed, has a wall of photographs celebrating its famous guests (George Clooney stayed for two months while filming The Descendents). Our room’s ocean-facing lanai came in handy our first morning when, still on Eastern time, we woke up at 5 a.m. Out on the balcony we could marvel at a starry sky more intense out in the middle of the Pacific than anything we’d ever see back on the mainland. We waited for the sun to come up over Koko Head and that’s when Jack saw five dolphins frolicking in a large lagoon below. I found out later there aren’t just dolphins but also sea turtles in the rescue sanctuary that’s run by Dolphin Quest at the Kahala. I had been leery about seeing captive dolphins as entertainment, but the tour guides we’d met spoke well of the Kahala’s educational program. After all our ups and downs, exploring the ocean from above and below, here was a chance to get a closer look at the playful animals. Jack still didn’t want to get wet, but a viewing platform brought us right to the water’s edge. As we marvelled at the dolphins frolicking with each other, one swam over and looked at us for a long time. We chatted with our new friend until he slipped back into the lagoon. It was a little silly, but sweet and magical. The kind of moment I’d been waiting for since we arrived.

The Kahala, rooms from $425. Dolphin Quest experiences begin at $125. 5000 Kahala Ave.; 808-739-8888; kahalaresort.com

The writer travelled courtesy of the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

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