North Shore Catamaran Charters Whale-Watching Cruise Reviewed

A lot of the adventuring on Exploration: Hawaii involves hiking Hawaii’s dirt trail. With that in mind, we set out to catch a ride to the high seas aboard the Ho`Onanea Catamaran of the North Shore Catamaran Charters. A close friend of mine, whom I affectionately call Marklander, was visiting Hawaii. He had a list of things that he wanted to do, see, and visit before leaving, and whale watching was at the top of his list. Actually, dining daily on Gina’s Korean BBQ was at the top of his list, but that is a different story.

The Haleiwa Boat Harbor. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Here’s a view of the Ho`Onanea Catamaran, of North Shore Catamarans, docked in the Haleiwa Boat Harbor.

Another view of the Ho`Onanea Catamaran all docked and pretty. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

Knowing that whale watching was at the top of Marklander’s list of things to do, I decided to jump on a daily deal that was being featured on Living Social. The deal was 50% off a 2.5-Hour Whale-Watching Cruise with Refreshments. So instead of $80, we just paid $40 for the whale watching tour. Marklander was here for just a few days, so we had to take advantage of this deal rather quickly. We decided to cash in our Living Social deal on December 12. When I called to make the reservation I asked the person on the other line what are chances were of seeing whales, he replied “very good, but our guaranteed date starts on December 15.” We decided to roll the dice and booked it for the 12th.

The Living Social deal was good only for the 12pm tour and we were told to arrive at the Haleiwa Boat Harbor at around 11:30am. At check in, I verified my purchase via the nifty Living Social app for the iPhone. Why waste precious paper when there’s an app for that? We ended up boarding the catamaran at around 11:50am. The check in process was flawless and not as time consuming as compared to my experience with the the Waikiki Rigger.

With about 15 people on board, the crew of two quickly mentioned the safety precautions, including the locations of the life vests, life boats, and coast guard radio. With the housekeeping out of the way, we quickly set sail from the Haleiwa Boat Harbor. Just a few moments later we encountered our first Chelonia mydas, or, Hawaiian green sea turtle. We’d see a few more before sailing out to the greater open sea.

Joel and Mark aboard the Ho`Onanea Catamaran aka The Sailing Cat. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

The Sailing Cat / North Shore Catamaran Charters. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

I have to admit that I was pretty excited and pretty pumped while waiting to board, during boarding, and the first few minutes of sailing. But then, things got a bit boring relatively quickly. The first thing that I noticed was that the crew, though friendly, was not very interactive throughout the entire 2.5 hours. Occasionally they did point out some landmarks, like Waimea Bay, but, there were many moments when they didn’t do much speaking or entertaining. And by entertaining I don’t necessarily mean song and dance, but rather, simply talking about whales and why or why not we might not see them, Hawaii, and Hawaiian culture. Another thing that I noticed was that when not making a group announcement to all of the passengers “i.e. “Hey, look there, see that turtle!”, they would make conversation with some of the voyagers. However, the crew of two never spoke to our group of three. And we were the only locals on board! And we’re a friendly bunch!

The 2.5 Whale-Watching Cruise comes complete with complementary refreshments – this means bottled water and soft drinks. Though, you are allowed to bring your own alcoholic beverages if you wish. One of the great things about the Waikiki Rigger is that the drinks start to flow even before the catamaran sets sail. The Waikiki Rigger crew makes sure that everyone has a drink in hand. I naively thought that the experience on the Ho’Onanea would be the same. It was not. Unlike the Waikiki Rigger, which actively served and refilled drinks, the crew of the Ho’Onanea simply pointed out the cooler and made an announcement of available drinks. Maybe 2 or 3 people on our catamaran grabbed a drink.

Another gripe that I had with the North Shore Catamaran was the lack of tunes. Seriously, no tunes? No Jimmy Buffett singing Margaritaville? No Eagles singing Hotel California? I guess I was spoiled by the small luxuries found on the Waikiki Rigger. Maybe music isn’t a good thing for whale watching? I dunno. The 2.5 hours went by very, very slowly. The choppy waters didn’t help (though Marklander found the choppiness surprisingly enjoyable).

We looked very hard for those whales. Unfortunately, we didn’t spot any! Photo by Coty Gonzales.

No whale and no tunes. Just lots of ocean. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

All of my complaints would have been rendered null had we spotted some whales, even just one whale. I would have been satisfied to have just seen the peduncle and flukes of a whale. We rolled the dice on December 12 and we lost the gamble. No whales. No peduncle. No flukes. Just three sea turtles and some flying fish. If the Ho’Onanea were Twitter then it would be flashing the Fail Whale. This was indeed a failed whale watching tour experience. At least Marklander had his Gina’s Koren BBQ to fall back on.

Of course, I can’t be too mad. You can never guarantee something like a whale sighting. The whales will either show themselves or they won’t. Whale sightings happen by chance. Sometimes you see them and sometimes you don’t. It just so happened that on this occasion, we didn’t see them. I think some Margaritaville would have eased the pain.

The one saving grace was that the Captain (I think his name was Ryan) of the catamaran invited everyone on board “half off the price paid” to come back on the catamaran for a second try at whale watching. So then I wondered if “half off the price paid” ment half off of the $40 I paid on Living Social (which means I’d pay $20), or if he really ment half off of the real price of $80 (which means I’d pay $40 again). I never asked, but if I do ever decide to catch a ride on this catamaran again I’ll be sure to make this inquiry.

With all of that said, December 12 has long past and the “guaranteed” whale sighting season is now in effect. So, with some reservations, I suggest that you consider the Ho’Onanea Catamaran / North Shore Catamaran Charters (reservations can be made at if looking into doing some whale watching on the North Shore. I would love to test out a few other whale watching tours on Oahu, but at the moment, the Ho’Onanea is the only one that I’ve been on and the only one that I can suggest. Hopefully your whale watching gamble will pay off better than it did for us.

Explorers: Mark DeBlois, Coty Gonzales, and Joel Sabugo.

On our way back, the captain blew this conch shell. Photo by Coty Gonzales.

About Coty

Founder of Exploration: Hawaii. Adventure, Minimalism, Vinyl, Typography, and Coffee + Matcha. A single space after a period, please.