Chartering Ocean Fun in Kona: Talking Story with Kamanu Charters' president, John Senn

Posted in: Environment, People, Things to Do

By Kent Coules, Publisher

What do Nicholas Cage, “Laverne” the Tiger Shark, King Kamehameha’s canoes and an intimidating Hawaiian monk seal all have in common? They’ve all been on or rubbed up against John and Beth Senn’s 36-foot catamaran, the Kamanu

John and Beth arrived in Hawai‘i after careers in auto mechanics and restaurant management respectively, with a desire to change things up. Having always been around boats in California, they decided they wanted to remain in Hawai‘i and start their own charter business. “In 1997, we bought the Honu, a 32-foot Westsail, and began our journey,” John says. “Our slip was right next to the Kamanu. I used to joke with their crew that one day they would work for me. It turns out it wasn’t a joke!” 

Today Kamanu Charters’ vessels include the Kamanu, the only real sailing catamaran charter in Kona, and the Kamanu Elua, a 31-foot Zodiac boat. The two boats host guests on a wide variety of adventures, from a night-time manta ray snorkeling excursion to an adults-only Sunset Sail.

Kamanu is recognized as one of the premier charter companies on the Big Island, but when I chatted with John recently, I wanted to go “below the surface.” Here’s a sampling of our wide-ranging discussion:


Close encounters of the marine kine? Let’s start with whales.

Our closest encounter with a whale was an 18-foot pilot whale that rubbed his dorsal fin on the side of our boat from back to front—he actually rubbed some of our letters off. Then he rolled back and eyeballed everyone on the deck. It was crazy.


You can’t get more up close and personal than that.

You can, actually! We had a Hawaiian monk seal who actually boarded our boat on the swim step. Some of our guests were snorkeling in the water and they couldn’t get back on the boat because he wouldn’t leave! He finally went back in the water after I started up the engine.


I stand corrected! I hope that’s never happened to you with a shark.

Not quite, but here’s a scary story. There’s a 14-foot female tiger shark that lives in our harbor. Everyone here calls her Laverne. One day I was under the Kamanu cleaning the boat and Laverne leisurely swims right underneath me. Now understand: the water in the harbor is only ten-feet-deep, and the boat sits down four-feet. So it was me and Laverne squeezing into about six-feet of water.


Were you scared?

Did you not hear me say “14-foot tiger shark?” I got out!


Let’s move to close encounters of the celebrity kind. Who are some of the stars you’ve hosted out on the water?

Oh, we’ve had quite a few. One time, Nicolas Cage and his then-wife Lisa Presley did a scuba tour with us. They came on board incognito, covered in clothing. Once the boat left the dock, Beth asked them where they were from. As they started peeling off their clothes, Nicolas says, ‘L.A.’ My wife was so embarrassed.

I think my favorite guest was KC from KC and the Sunshine Band. He was just a cool guy. He just hung out on board and talked while his companions snorkeled.


And what is the craziest thing you’ve seen in the water?

We were on the water when the earthquake hit Japan in 2011. We had to stay out for 13 hours until the severe tidal shifts in our harbor subsided. The stuff we saw out there was insane, and not in a good way. I saw furniture from Bubba Gump’s and more plastic than I care to remember. We had to be careful not to collide with floating lumber. In addition to the tremendous amount of trash, King Kamehameha’s canoes washed out to sea. We were able to recover a couple of them before they were lost forever, so we put the time on the water to good use.


I have goosebumps! I think your stories are enough evidence that people should experience an ocean adventure with Kamanu Charters. But you get the last word.

We are blessed to have such a great crew. It’s our people that help create the best possible experience. We don’t look at it as our job; we approach each excursion through the lens of our guests; that this is a once in a lifetime experience.

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