LOWER TOWNSHIP - The Cape May Whale Watcher makes customers a promise rarely seen in tourism or entertainment.
The owner, Capt. Jeff Stewart, says if customers don't see marine mammals on his sightseeing excursion, they are welcome to return another day for free.
It's a guarantee you won't find at the theater covering an awful movie or when your favorite sports team loses in a blow-out. The company was the first in New Jersey to offer its customers this guarantee of a raincheck. Stewart said it went a long way in building goodwill in an industry that gambles daily on the whims of wide-ranging wild animals.
"If I didn't have a good time on the outing, I didn't see how you could have a good time, either," he said. "I couldn't offer a refund, but if you didn't get the experience you wanted, we were always going back out tomorrow."
Stewart, 58, of Lower Township, owns the Cape May Whale Watcher, which has two whale-watching boats based at the Miss Chris Marina just over the canal bridge at the end of the Garden State Parkway in Lower Township.
Cape May's thriving whale-watch industry is a historical irony, as this seaside resort was established by whalers who made their living in hunting the behemoths in the 1600s.
The boats take passengers as far as 20 miles from shore in search of wildlife. This gives passengers a sense of the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean, with no view of land in any direction.
But finding whales, the world's largest creatures, in that enormous space is a daunting, daily challenge.
"We work with all the commercial fishing, sport-fishing and private boats. We have a couple bunker-spotter airplanes that help us. And we talk to tugboats," he said.
The five captains that crew the boats are experts at identifying the distant waterspout of a whale. Then it's just a matter of trying to predict where it will surface next, he said.
Stewart, 58, served as first mate in 1973 aboard his first charter, the 110-foot sightseeing boat Big Flamingo in Cape May. In a tortuous bit of maritime history, this boat would later become his Cape May Whale Watcher after he bought it in the Great Lakes 20 years later and steamed it 3,600 miles down the Mississippi River and around the Gulf of Mexico.
The company later added the 110-foot Spirit of Cape May to his fleet. Both are painted in bright red and white to stand out on the blue water.
Combined, the two boats can carry more than 700 passengers. Even on days when the company does not sell out either boat, it runs both to give passengers more room to roam the decks, he said.
The company spent an estimated $150,000 for diesel in 2012, Stewart said. And oil changes cost $3,000 per month.
The company also tries to reinvest in its boats. This year, a grated deck was added to the bow pulpit on the Spirit of Cape May, matching the similar design on its sister boat. This gives tourists a chance to see the dolphins from above as they surface right below them.
The company is dog-friendly. And the boats are wheelchair-accessible, which was important to Stewart. He did not want disabled customers to have any difficulty moving from the cabins to the railings to the bathrooms.
Stewart employs four other captains, including his son Jeff Stewart Jr., also of Lower Township. His wife, Mary, his daughter Brigid and daughter-in-law LeeAnn also work at the company.
"The best thing about the job is the variety," Jeff Stewart Jr. said. "The weather changes every day. The sea conditions change. So do the people and the wildlife we see. It's a different experience every time."
The company offers various tours, including daily dolphin and sunset cruises around Cape Island and the "big trip" to look offshore for whales.
They also rent out the vessels to private parties for weddings and other affairs.
And they have a special cruise to visit nine lighthouses in the Delaware Bay in a way only boaters can appreciate.
But the company's specialty is marine mammals: whales, dolphins, seals and porpoises.
The company is working with interns from the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, who serve as nature interpreters for the tourists while they simultaneously conduct their own research, he said.
Early-season customers are among the happiest, Stewart said, because they seem to enjoy the trip most after a long winter cooped up indoors.
"I like the people and I love being on the water," he said.
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