Chasing Waterfalls and Sea Caves: An Unforgettable Adventure with Nā Pali Riders’ Chris Turner

Posted in: Things to Do

by Publisher Kent Coules

When you read reviews from boat adventure companies, you’ll see glowing reviews like:  

“Our guides Tony and Matt were awesome.” 

“Our captains Cathy and Mike were amazing.” 

When you read the reviews for Nā Pali Riders, however, you’ll only see one captain, one guide. That’s because every Nā Pali Riders Zodiac Adventure is led by owner/operator Chris Turner.

On a recent Saturday morning, I had the privilege of experiencing the entire Nāpali Coast with Chris, along with my coworkers and friends Stephen McVicar, Robin Kennedy and Wade Oshio. We now share once-in-a-lifetime memories.

Na Pali Riders
One of the awe-inspiring sea caves along the Nāpali Coast [Photo Courtesy Nā Pali Riders]

We knew the physical requirements were no joke when we watched Chris size up his guests while positioning them in the boat. “The front is a much rougher ride,” he explains to me while gliding out of Kīkīaola Harbor in Waimea. “I try to match up the guests with what seems like the best place for them in the boat.” Apparently we are a rugged-looking bunch because we are all in the front.

As we pass the rocks making up the protective inlet, Chris throttles up the twin 250 horsepower engines and the thrill ride is on. We are sitting on the inflatable sides of the boat, with our feet hooked under a rope on the floor and our hands around the grab safety ropes lining the tubes. Suddenly, as the spray hits my face, the necessity of these safety features becomes apparent. Chris tells me that the three-to-five foot swells are from the south and I get the impression that he’s pleased with the mood of the ocean and the look of the sky. “I’ve seen waves with 60-to-70-foot faces in the winter,” he adds. I silently assume he’s not seen them with guests in this zodiac boat. Later I ask him if anyone has ever fallen out of the boat. “Never,” he says. “Winter, by the way,” he adds, “is the best. Whale season.” Again, I’m guessing that it’s the best when it’s without the 60-foot waves.

After 10 minutes or so, we can see where the Nāpali Coast officially starts. Chris spots the first spinner dolphins we’ll encounter and slows the boat down to the swimming speed of the pod. “These dolphins are resting. That’s why they’re moving rather slowly.” After a couple of minutes, he confidently informs us that we’ll see more entertaining ones and takes off toward the 17-mile Nāpali Coast. As we pass Barking Sands Beach we begin to feel the presence of the world’s second-tallest sea cliffs to our starboard.

Over the next 90 minutes, we stop and view cliffs and valleys, dolphins and sea caves as we make our way from Hā‘ele‘ele Valley to Hā‘ena State Park. It’s stimulus overload, and Stephen and I swear that we’re seeing shades of colors we’ve never seen before. 

True to his word, we run into larger, more active pods of dolphins. Everyone is trying to photograph the dolphins spinning out of the water. Chris explains that spinner dolphins can spin a miraculous seven times in a single leap, but just why they do these twirls is not exactly clear. Chris subscribes to the theory that they do it as a way to demonstrate their fitness and prove themselves to potential mates.

It’s at the sea caves where one is most grateful for the experience Chris brings. On this day, Mother Nature is kind and allows access into the caves. The Nā Pali Riders boat, however, is the largest on the island to enter the caves. It’s obvious that navigating a large zodiac boat through caves with swells running through them is not something to try at home.

The Wai‘ahu‘akua Sea Cave, also known as the Double Door cave, is considered the best sea cave in Hawai‘i. Chris enters through the back with a view of a trickling waterfall from above into the large room. At first, the channel appears to go nowhere. Just when I think he’s going to drive into a cave wall, Chris expertly navigates a sharp left turn and a long dark hallway with a distant light at the end comes into view. Mind you, he’s not going slow through this dark passage; he’s accelerating. 

As my heart rate rises and my eyes adjust, I see another waterfall inside the sea cave corridor. As we come out into an open area, still inside the cave, I look around to see, by everyone’s expression, that they are thinking what I am thinking: that…this…is…awesome! “This is my favorite spot on the entire tour,” Chris tells me. “With the afternoon light shining through, the water literally glows.”

A second cave of note, the Honololo Sea Cave, nicknamed Pirates Cave, is guarded at its entrance by a rushing waterfall. We pay the entry fee of a cooling shower. Chris lets us know that this is the largest of the caves with the highest ceiling and is covered in green moss.

As we continue our outward journey, Chris points out where the annual rainfall goes from 25 inches per year to 100. As we make the inward turn near Hanalei, we are chased back toward Waimea by a rain squall that only subsides as we cross back into the drier section of the coast. “Mother Nature proving my point,” Chris muses.

We stop at Turtle Town to snorkel, but on this day, our ocean time is cut short by man o’ war sightings (Portuguese man o’ war are a jellyfish with tentacles that give a painful sting). After a brief large shark sighting and ensuing chase, we make it back to harbor and do the “toddler walk” back to our cars, exhilarated and exhausted. We had plans to head up to Waimea Canyon, but after the four-hour adrenaline rush, sitting poolside for the afternoon suddenly seems like a better plan. 

Robin, Wade, Stephen and I strongly recommend you spend a morning in one of the most beautiful places on earth with Chris Turner and Nā Pali Riders. We also suggest you make less ambitious plans for the afternoon.


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[This story appears in print in the December 2019-February 2020 issues of This Week Kauai.]


Keywords: napali coast napali boat tours napali zodiac tours napali tours kauai boat tours port allen things to do kauai na pali riders na pali coast kalalau trail garden isle whale watching snorkel tours

One of the awe-inspiring sea caves along the Nāpali Coast [Photo Courtesy Nā Pali Riders]


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