Sanctuary Cruises History
Sanctuary Cruises founders Captains Heidi Tiura and Steph Dutton
Captains Steph Dutton and Heidi Tiura created Sanctuary Cruises, which is in its 13th year, because of their love of marine life and the belief that when people are introduced to these creatures in a respectful way, they'll also appreciate them, and maybe help protect them. They owned and operated Sanctuary Cruises for twelve years before selling the business to Mike Sack and Dorris Welch in January 2011.
Biographies for Steph and Heidi read like a rollicking high seas adventure novel. From the age of 22, Heidi started, owned, ran and sold numerous retail businesses, selling everything from custom-designed T-shirts to great coffee to windsurfers. She operated her own small boat towing service before working her way up to large offshore tugboats. Steph has worked as a teacher, cement finisher, paramedic, police officer and a private investigator. In each endeavor, he did well, but always there was that wanderlust, the need to move on.
Or, as he has occasionally mused, "Maybe I just can't hang onto a job."
A leg amputee, Steph discovered sea kayaking and found in paddling the sense of grace he felt he'd lost on land. He paddled from Victoria, British Columbia, Canada to Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico in the summer and early fall of 1993. Called "BC to BC/'93," the expedition was intended to encourage people with both real and perceived disabilities not to give in to them. This expedition changed his life and set him on a path that would connect with Heidi's not long after.
As a kid, Heidi used to ride her donkey onto the headlands of Northern California on moonless nights. She would stare out over the dark sea and feel it calling to her, but it was many years later before she answered by making her way through the maritime industry. She served on gigantic sea-going tugs throughout Alaska, Washington and Oregon, as well as working on tugs on the Columbia River. When she received her Coast Guard master's license, Heidi took stock. She loved the tugs, but knew this wasn't her life's work. It was time to move on, which is always difficult. At this very moment in her tumultuous life, Heidi read about a man paddling the Pacific, hoping to give others a message about hopes and dreams and determination. She said to herself, "I want this man in my life."
It wasn't until Heidi went to Sitka, Alaska in 1994 to start the Sitka Sea Kayak Adventure that they met. She'd forgotten the name of the man she'd read about, and she had never seen his face. But when Steph Dutton arrived at the airport in Sitka to train Heidi's crew, she looked into his eyes. They were the color of storm surf; there was deep passion and great intelligence. Most of all, in Steph's eyes, Heidi found her match. They've been together ever since.
"In the Path of Giants," their project for the gray whales, has been the subject of many articles, books and television pieces. The most definitve treatment can be found in "Eye of the Whale," an epic volume by author Dick Russell and published by Simon & Schuster.
In the spring of 1999, Steph decided to get his master's license as well. It was a very good move. The day after receiving his license, Steph and Heidi were working as captains running whale watching trips. They found their knowledge and skills were ideal for leading whale watching and nature cruises. Their enthusiasm was infectious; their devotion to their passengers boundless. Sanctuary Cruises was the natural progression for them and Moss Landing was the perfect port.
In 2005, the pair faced a new challenge when Heidi was diagnosed with breast cancer. They approached it with their usual head-on approach and learned some interesting things along the way..
Steph and Heidi's current venture is the Trinity River Adventure Inn. Located farther north in California, it features cabins on the beautiful Trinity River. A fabled river for steelhead, the Trinity is also great fun to kayak and raft. Steph and Heidi teach paddling to their guests--and even their dogs--and lead guided trips on the river and nearby lakes.
The common thread running through their lives is water, nature and fighting to protect what they love. Oh yeah, and motorcycles.
1/3/2011: A New Year and a New Beginning - The Changing of the Guardby Heidi Tiura
We live in Northern California on the Trinity River where there are real winters. It doesn’t snow all of the time, but we have had several snowfalls between Christmas and now. Drift boats launching this morning across the river from our cabin arrived to find clear water, occluded skies and branches laden with snow. When the dogs went out, their paws crunched ice in the puddles. Snug in thermals and wool socks, I’m writing with soft music playing in the background. It's the perfect way to take stock and tell you what comes next.
We bought this cabin in 2004. By 2006, we moved up here more or less full time and managed Sanctuary Cruises and our crew long distance, commuting down to run some trips and tend Sanctuary. We were thinking of passing the baton, but hadn’t gotten to the point of listing Sanctuary Cruises when we were approached by a prospective buyer. He had ridden with us a few times and liked the boat and company. Would we sell to him?
We figured the buyer, being a Monterey native, claiming to be a conservationist who cared about marine life, having a nautical background and an adventurous spirit, was well-suited to the business. But all of life is a crap shoot. You weigh the chances of success and throw the dice. So we shook them in our hands, blew on them for good luck and tossed them out. They skittered across the green felt, hit the curb, flew into the air and careened into an abyss from which they were never seen again.
Steph and I both have tried to see where it went wrong; how we might have known someone would put a large amount of money down on a company and then leave it to founder. Aside from the emotional pain of getting Sanctuary Cruises back, along with our sweet boat that had been largely ignored after the sale, was the reality we now lived over 6 hours north of the bay. We were just starting Trinity River Adventure Inn when we sold Sanctuary Cruises in 2007. TRAI was a thriving business with six guest cabins by 2009. How could we spread ourselves thin enough to handle both?
I can't tell you how many times Steph and I debated what to do, but I forced our hand. It wasn't fair, because much more of the work fell on Steph to not only bring Sanctuary back to what she had been before the sale, but way beyond. It all came down to two things: finances and legacy. We had a great whale watching company that was valuable. If we sold the boat in her diminished state and folded the company, we'd take a major financial hit. But one could argue sanity is worth far more than dollars.
Weighing as heavily was the fact we started our company after losing our gray whale project, "In the Path of Giants," because we fought to protect the whales from Makah whalers at Neah Bay, Washington. A very special number of you got to know us back then when you found our Giants web site after a long search on the internet for more information on the whale hunt up north. You bought our whale's tail necklaces and embroidered hats, and it was on the profits of trinkets that we managed to stay 75 days, fighting for the whales. First to arrive, last to leave, no whales were killed on our watch.
Branded as terrorists (as "Confessions of an Eco Warrior," the 2010 release of a documentary about our time at Neah Bay, makes clear) and treated like criminals, we lost the $1.2 million National Science Foundation grant that would have allowed us to follow the grays on their migration. This project would have allowed us to take our work on the ocean into classrooms across the country as it was used to teach GIS (geographic information systems) to the teachers who would soon be teaching GIS to others.
Far more important to us was that kids in classrooms would be brought into the project through the internet. Sparking a young mind, causing that kid to consider the ramifications of a species being hunted to near-extinction twice before it was finally given flimsy protection, and making that kid want to find ways to help create a world where nature doesn't always have to suffer at the hands of humans was our optimistic goal.
When our NSF grant was cut, we started whale watching, introducing people of all ages to the wonders of whales. A good whale watching company can give whales and their needs a voice, and that is Sanctuary Cruises' legacy; we've made solid connections. Many of you became friends before we lost funding for Giants. Many more of you came on board with Sanctuary Cruises and we have shared some extraordinary experiences out in that blue gray world beyond the sand.
You understand whales and dolphins aren't cute animals that do tricks for you in a theme park. They are wild and free and the only interaction with us is our easing into the area to see what they're up to, and sometimes their curiosity brings them over to see what we're up to.
One of our obsessions is optimism and we sure have paid a hefty price for it, but the price of letting it go is too much to contemplate. But Steph turned 60 last August. I'm in the home stretch for it. We need to not be spread all over the map, taking care of everything but ourselves. So with all of this in mind, when Steph said we have done our part, but it's too much to start Sanctuary Cruises up again, I should have agreed.
But I couldn't. We put the pieces back together.
1967 had the Summer of Love. 2010 had the Summer of Phenomenal Numbers of Whales on Monterey Bay. We went from an average summer of 5-6 whale watching cruises a week, to a maximum of 21. It was a very, very good summer for us, but there wasn't time to breathe, much less contemplate the future. By fall, we were finally ready to sell. I contacted the maritime broker who sold our catamaran for us a few years ago and started the process of getting paperwork together to list Sanctuary Cruises complete with Sanctuary.
This time, if we didn't sell to someone we knew, had worked with, and who knew a lot about our company, boat, whales and the Monterey Bay already, we'd leave it to a pro to weed out the flotsam that flocks to your door with an entity such as ours.
But that is when a cosmic event happened; it was one of those miracles that feeds optimism, even at the bottom of the tank. It began with Steph running a fall trip with our marine biologist Dorris. Steph asked how her guy, Mike, was doing.
We didn't know Mike yet, but were aware he was working for a groundbreaking green company in a job that required objectivity, keen analysis, creativity and hard work. It was a start-up with great promise, but Dorris told Steph funding had diminished and most of the work force was laid off, including Mike. She wasn't sure what was next.
We knew Mike and Dorris lived on their sailboat, and that both shared a passion for the water and marine life. What we were about to discover was they hoped to do something along the lines of what we had done on the Monterey Bay, something that allowed them, as it had us, the opportunity to combine knowledge, passions and talents. That's where we all took a hard look at each other. Steph and I were looking for the same traits that led us to the bay and forming our company. Did Mike and Dorris have what it takes to run Sanctuary Cruises and thrive?
Dorris already knew our company, having worked for us the past year. She was way over-qualified for the naturalist position, but she is a born teacher and loves imparting her knowledge. Steph says half of my blood is salt water, and the same is true of Dorris; she needs to be on the ocean.
While Steph and I have learned about marine life by being out there and observing it for over a decade aboard Sanctuary, as well as a good deal of independent study and communication with others who work with marine mammals around the world, Dorris is a heavy hitter in the sciences.
Among her solid achievements are a degree in wildlife biology from Humboldt State University, followed by a graduate degree in marine biology and a teaching credential from UC Santa Cruz. This adds up to an immense amount of work in itself, but Dorris raised three wonderful daughters--mostly as a single parent--at the same time.
Since Dorris arrived in Santa Cruz at 11 years old, she has lived by, played in and studied the Monterey Bay. She learned to sail on it as a young girl. From investigating tide pools, she eventually migrated to scuba diving. She's led marine transect surveys for UC Santa Cruz/Long Marine Lab, and taught marine science at Long and Santa Cruz high school. Like me, she was an advisor on the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary's Advisory Council, but she served a whopping 9 years in that role.
Of great interest to us in considering Dorris as a partner running Sanctuary Cruises was the fact that while she has a solid background in marine science, and her specialty is the Monterey Bay, we had to teach her some things that come only from being out there day after day, month after month, for years, as we were.
Her team spirit was challenged more than it should have been due to lapses in communication between some crew with divergent views and selfish aspirations. What could have been easily rectified were we working together daily went unseen by us. When we learned of it, we were horrified; that's not how we work. But she stuck it out, and we eventually got to know her for who she is. And she is one hell of a singer and fiddler. Wow.
We knew he loves the ocean, loves to sail, and that he and Dorris live aboard their beautiful ketch. He's obviously an environmentally aware guy, considering his recent work for the innovative start-up, but we already knew one big thing about Mike that trumped everything else. He was involved in a bio-fuels company that we hoped to buy biodiesel from years ago. We were the only charter company using biodiesel (it’s laughable to consider any of our competitors might pay more for fuel that’s better for the environment), and the permits needed caused a fatal roadblock. But it was proof of a convergence of like-minded people.
Contrast this to one prospect who considered purchasing Sanctuary Cruises. He sent us a photo of him holding a mechanized trash grabber which he used for a beach clean-up he and his girlfriend attended as a social event; this, as evidence of his deeply held convictions on the environment.
Mike is supremely literate, intelligent and driven. He takes chances, works very hard and, as with Dorris, has a secure view of himself.
Based on all of this, we invited them up here to talk, go through the books and see if we might be a match.
The next few days drove home how much of a fit Mike can be. He is a surfer of renown, whose blood surges at the weather report that sends him scrambling for his board. He is also a diver. He's spent the last 35 years boating, fishing, sailing, surfing and diving off the coast from San Francisco to Costa Rica. For the last 25 years, Mike has studied the Monterey Bay's whims, tempests and subtle shadings. Much as we learned about the bay, Mike has absorbed it organically.
In the past, many of the applicants for a captain's position with us had inland waters experience, but not open ocean. They knew nothing of bar conditions, the area between open water and inland water, which have to be studied and experienced to fully understand; this and weather are the basis of deciding whether a trip is a go or not. How does one teach this to even an avid learner long distance?
When we advertised in the fall for another captain, several applicants voiced interest in a possible purchase. But our initial enthusiasm for a few was dampened along the way as it became clear they lacked the experience that told us they knew what they were getting into, and could handle it. Mike is the exception. He has the other gene in common with Dorris, Steph and me; he loves sharing knowledge and excitement.
Thinking back to the first buyer of Sanctuary Cruises, one more key ingredient to Mike and Dorris’ assets for success became apparent after dinner in Weaverville. We stopped by a dance to wish a friend happy birthday. Mike and Dorris locked hands and headed for the dance floor. They love music, and are social people. They are comfortable in their own skins.
We think we have met our match as a dynamic team on the Monterey Bay, so we crafted an agreement to sell and with the new year, the reins have been handed over. I have this vision of us as the benevolent godparents of Sanctuary Cruises. Yes, it was our baby, but now we can spoil it and them as godparents. We want to help Sanctuary Cruises continue to flourish, and for Mike and Dorris to thrive in what is the trickiest of all things to find, the match made in heaven.
Steph asked me to add that he is both tickled for them, and proud of them. I echo those thoughts. Everything they have done has brought them to this point, where they have a promising future. What a great way to start the new year.
Mike and Dorris have yet another cool change for Sanctuary Cruises, but it will be a while before they announce it. We can't wait for this one! As for us, a major goal to live in the moment--and one geographical location--has a serious possibility of becoming reality, although tomorrow will provide a challenge. An anthropologist is coming to interview us about the Makah whale hunt. After he leaves here, he heads to Neah Bay for eight months. It means so much to make sure he understands why old traditions that have outlived their need to exist can’t be revived for the sake of ceremony. To spill blood again is to go backwards. There are better ways to honor your heritage.
So just as we're selling the business founded because of our efforts at Neah Bay, we're being pulled back briefly into that dismal time. But that's how it is with endings. No clear breaks or clean edges. And endings are also beginnings.
Life flows like the tide. It swirls, constricts, thunders, pauses and it is never the same as it was, or will be.
Keep in touch, and remember to support the little company that has always done things right. Go see the gray whales that are streaming through the Monterey Bay now and please pass on a greeting from us, wishing them well.
See you out there, up here, or somewhere along the way, Heidi & Steph/Aspiring Ski Bums.