Get to Know Hawaii Wildlife Guide Tori Cullins

Captain Tori Cullins is a resident marine biologist in Hawaii, involved in conservation efforts, scientific research and eco-tourism. She’s also a USCG captain, and she combines this skill with her extensive knowledge as a Hawaii wildlife guide at Wild Side Specialty Tours. Guests onboard her boat not only get a chance to spot marine life, but they can help gather data and photos for scientific research along with Wild Dolphin Foundation naturalists — especially if they encounter highly endangered species such as the Hawaiian false killer whale, pilot whale or pygmy whale. They’ll also get a chance to get in the water with the experts and maybe even swim with dolphins — in the wild.
How did you get into your field of expertise?

I came to Hawaii as a cowgirl from the Southwest — the dolphins are the horses of the sea (or vice versa). Working with Mustangs (made it) an easy transition to whales and dolphins here.

How did you make the transition to becoming a guide?

When in Rome, do as the Romans … I went to the university here with a marine biology and environmental science focus. My sailing husband and I were out in the field one day gathering marine wildlife data aboard our sailboat, and decided that people would probably pay to spend their days with the same turtles, fish, whales and dolphins that we spent our free time studying. Eventually I was able to leave my day job at the University of Hawaii and be on the water full-time.

What does a typical day look like for you?

A day onboard begins with check-in to get to know each other, safety briefings and snorkel-gear fitting at the dock. Meanwhile, as Captain I do pre-flight boat check and monitor the radio and log in to tracking devices to see what whale, dolphin or other interested wildlife is out and about today. We then either go to where the wildlife has been spotted, or if other boats are there, find new pods or go snorkeling with the turtles and reef fish. It all depends on Mother Nature and our guests’ desires. The Wild Dolphin Foundation naturalists will be taking photographs to document the whales and dolphins we encounter. These photographs are used to identify individuals and are useful for abundance and distribution studies, as well as population parameters. … After informative briefings, guests may be able to get in the water along with our naturalists/crew to observe underwater behavior of the dolphins encountered, like flies on a wall — no chasing or crowding.

Do you have a certain style of guiding, or do you just run with it on the day?

All of our crew are either marine biologists or well on their way to becoming so. We know our stuff! We prefer to narrate and point out what is going on versus quoting factoids. But we love questions and enthusiasm so if you have a question, we’ll have an answer.

What’s the most bizarre experience you’ve had on a guided tour?

We had a blind man onboard with his family. I’m not sure how long he had been blind, but he was very cynical. I knew that I could rock his world if I got him in the water with the dolphins, because he could hear their vocalizing rather than just hear us telling him about what was happening. I tied a rope between him and myself and got in the water … we swam toward where some dolphins were. Suddenly (he was swimming past me.) He was so tuned into the dolphins because he could hear them — they are acoustically based, just like he is. One dolphin kept pinging him with sonar, at a constant and steady rate. He swam with that dolphin for about a half hour. When we got back onboard the man was so grateful, so changed in attitude. He said he could feel the dolphin sonar vibrating in his chest. The next day his mother called me and said that he had impromptu married his girlfriend that night!

Every job has its ups and downs. Are there any aspects you don’t like?

The weather, actually — sunny weather! Hate to complain, but the sun is intense in Hawaii and brutal. My Irish skin longs for the misty moors. That and crowds … finding a “quiet” location can (mean) more gas-burning and time-consuming as our area gets more popular. But the peace and solitude, and connections gained from that, are well worth finding.

As an experienced guide yourself, can you explain to our readers what the benefits of hiring a guide are?

Safety! The sun isn’t the only brutal thing in Hawaii — the ocean can be just as unforgiving. Knowing where to go and when (given differing ocean conditions) is as valuable as knowing what to expect to find there. And, of course, knowledge — consider snorkeling with our guides in the water with you, pointing out and narrating, you will experience so much more than if you were on your own.

Tell us something about your area of expertise that only a guide would know.

Everyone thinks humpback whales when going whale watching in Hawaii (but) there are five other species of baleen whales here. Everyone thinks only of the nearshore (spinner) dolphins when thinking of swimming with dolphins. But there are 18 species of toothed whales, including dolphins, here. We know a lot about all of them — even know some by name and many by group. Most of the other boat tours have no idea, let alone most of Hawaii’s residents. Locals are surprised that we even have whales here on Oahu at all — they think they are all in Maui. Oahu actually has the highest population of humpback whales directly south of the island on the Penguin Banks.

Do you have any tips for people who are interested in booking a guide like yourself, but aren’t too sure what to look for?

I would look for someone who takes out small groups — 12 or less, ideally — (and someone) interested in meaningful encounters, versus turn-and-burn tours just out to exploit the resource.

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  • John Boulette

    Tori has a fantastic Bio and story of her experiences with those who go out with her to visit the sea animals. She shows excellent people skills with the way she treated that blind man on her Cruise. You have to enjoy what you are doing and enjoy meeting strangers from all over. I am sure by the time the cruise ends there are no strangers on her Boat. What a wonderful person she is. She is a real animal lover.
    I was visiting with her Aunt in Oregon and I had the distinct pleasure of meeting her and sharing Thanksgiving with the marvelous family. Sure did not appreciate having to return to Alaska. They are a loving , caring family and treated me as one of them all the time I was there.

    • Tori Cullins

      Wow John, I remember you! Hope all is well, last I had heard you had moved back East. Thank you for the kind words above!

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