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Some of Hawaii’s ocean activity businesses dive back into the economy

  • JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Shelly Rofrits, vice president of Dive Oahu, checked scuba tanks Friday at the Kakaako shop. Ocean recreation businesses were allowed to reopen on Wednesday with guidelines.

    JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Shelly Rofrits, vice president of Dive Oahu, checked scuba tanks Friday at the Kakaako shop. Ocean recreation businesses were allowed to reopen on Wednesday with guidelines.

For the first time in more than two months, scuba divers on a guided tour with Dive Oahu were to descend into the deep off the south shore today to explore Hawaii’s marine life.

Dive Oahu Vice President Shelly Rofrits said the company is thrilled to resume business after Gov. David Ige on Wednesday relaxed COVID-19 restrictions on ocean recreation and commercial activities.

“We’re just excited to be back in operation and share the ocean with everyone,” Rofrits said.

Under the revised guidelines, up to 10 people, including passengers, crew members and staff, are allowed on a commercial or recreational vessel at one time. The 10-person limit can be exceeded as long as everyone on board is from the same household.

>> PHOTOS: Hawaii ocean recreation companies resume operations

Commercial water sports operators such as surf schools and kayak rental companies also may resume operations under the same limits.

Dive Oahu’s first guided tour was to comprise seven scuba divers and three crew members aboard the company’s 46-foot boat — 25% of capacity.

Rofrits said the first tour included mostly certified scuba divers who reside on Oahu, as the company anticipates reduced interest in introductory dive classes that are generally booked by visitors.

“We rely on tourism. It’s a huge concern for us for sure and for all small businesses here,” she said.

Some ocean activity companies are opting to stay closed due to the lack of tourists, and have requested that their commercial use permits remain suspended so they don’t have to pay the permit fees, according to Ed Underwood, administrator of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation.

“There’s only so much local business that they can do. It’s just not feasible for them to open,” he said.

Garden Isle Divers on Kauai has reopened, but owner Eric Shewchuk said he doesn’t think most tourism-based operations are viable as long as the 14-day quarantine on incoming travelers remains in effect. “Until the quarantine is lifted, we don’t have a viable business,” he said.

With a population of only about 72,000 people, Shewchuk said it’s difficult for Kauai businesses to boost revenues based on local residents alone.

A number of operations are offering sizable kamaaina discounts in hopes of jump-starting business.

Yoga Floats owner Kelsey Barden, who holds yoga sessions on paddleboards at Magic Island on Oahu, is offering 50 percent off for residents for the month of June.

Friday night was the first class she’s held since closing in mid-March. “We were so anxious to get started,” Barden said. “We just couldn’t wait to hit the water again.”

Class size is limited to 10 people — nine students and one instructor — and 11-foot paddleboards and anchors are provided to each student.

Barden noted she relied on her savings as well as the federal Paycheck Protection Program to sustain her business during the stay-at-home order. It’s going to be an ongoing challenge to stay afloat without tourists coming in the same numbers as before the pandemic, she said.

Barden launched new stand-up paddle classes in an effort to appeal to residents, especially those who might be leery about returning to indoor gyms. The new SUP fitness classes are being offered at flexible times in the early-morning and evening hours. (Sign up at yogafloats.com.)

Kailua Beach Adventures, a 38-year-old company that offers kayak, paddleboard, bodyboard and bicycle rentals, was planning to conduct its first family kayak guided tour today at Kailua Bay and Lanikai.

The tour is new and being offered at 50% off for kama­aina. Operations and Marketing Manager Devin Moody said the tours are designed to appeal to local families that have been cooped up at home.

Moody said the COVID-19 shutdown spurred the company to come up with creative ideas to add to its revenue stream. “We had to completely re-evaluate every inch of the business.”

In addition to the family kayak tour, Kailua Beach Adventures is offering a five-day junior kayak program that starts Monday for teens aged 13 to 17, where they can learn kayaking, ocean safety and environmental stewardship.

As more parents return to work with the reopening of more businesses, the company is launching the weeklong youth program to help families seeking recreational and educational programs for their children.

“As a business, we definitely don’t want to be reliant on tourism for the foreseeable future. Working with the kamaaina is imperative for businesses looking forward,” he said.

Kailua Beach Adventures also plans to offer half-price fitness programs with a kayak guide or stand-up paddle instructor providing one-on-one courses.

At the company’s website, kailuabeachadventures.com, new merchandise includes customized face masks, rash guards and T-shirts.

“During the pandemic, it gave us an opportunity to really focus and build our online store. Before we only had a handful of items on there,” Moody said. “We’re lucky to have a creative and flexible team. It’s kind of what it takes right now.”

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