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Steph & Heidi's Long, Strange Trip

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 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 Steph 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 along 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; she also worked on tugs on the Columbia River. When she received her Coast Guard master's license, Heidi took stock. She loved the tugs, but knew they weren'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, passing on to 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 she and Steph 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 definitive treatment can be found in "Eye of the Whale," an epic volume by author Dick Russell and published by Simon & Schuster. Go to and check out Chapter 10: "Orcas and Grays Along the Shores of Monterey" for a sampling of this interesting and sometimes heart-wrenching tale. You'll find this picture in it of Heidi paddling with gray whales, which was the start of "In the Path of Giants."

Some of the many articles printed about Steph and Heidi's fight for the whales and their whale watching company can be-found here.

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 and their devotion to their passengers boundless. Sanctuary Cruises was the natural progression for them and Moss Landing was the perfect port.

In the next 7 years, they created an amazing company unlike any other, but when they found their dream home on the Trinity River in 2004, they began a slow but deliberate move to the mountains. In the spring of 2007, Steph and Heidi sold Sanctuary Cruises. Here is Heidi's last email update to the over 800 people who had signed up for their newsletter over the years:

5/9/2007: Posted on the Sanctuary Cruises web site: This is my opening farewell (or not, as the case proved to be)

Steph and I crafted Sanctuary Cruises as a conservation-based company to reflect our beliefs. We care about the ocean and its creatures, and have fought hard to protect them. We don't believe anyone has the right to profit from whale watching if they aren't willing to defend the whales that provide their livelihood.

Our 75 days at Neah Bay protesting the Makah's gray whale hunt, and our subsequent efforts both on the ocean and off, have certainly qualified us as conservationists. We are the only owners of a Monterey Bay whale watching company - any whale watching company for that matter - who have actively fought for the whales, including putting ourselves between whalers' bullets and harpoons and the whales. While we broke no laws at Neah Bay, our presence there cost us a $1.2 million National Science Foundation grant for our gray whale project "In the Path of Giants."

When we moved north to the mountains of Trinity County, we considered selling Sanctuary Cruises, but handing over a business is a lot like handing over your baby. How do you know you can trust that person taking possession of your creation? Would we ever be able to find someone who shares our passion for sea life and who would continue what we started? A lot of people might claim to do this, but who would have an established history of protecting whales?

Enter a guy whom we met several years ago when he came out with us on a whale watching cruise. He was a native of Monterey. He said he appreciated what we had created with Sanctuary Cruises and asked us, "Would you guys ever consider selling Sanctuary Cruises?"
Steph and I talked it over. An important part of the deal was our employees. Noel and Hillary have been with us for years. Would he keep them? Yes. He said he understood that running a business is more than running a boat and he valued our employees. He promised to continue what we'd begun.

The deal closed in early May, just as Steph and I started running Princess of Whales in Stockton. This was the same month our Trinity River Adventure Inn opened for business and we still had several outstanding projects to be completed. We have been pulled so many directions, we felt like Gumby caught in the middle of a tug-of-war between two three year-olds, so the timing for passing the whale baton was excellent.

Steph and I will miss so much of Sanctuary Cruises: First come the whales, dolphins and other sea creatures. We worry about them with global warming, sound pollution, water quality, whaling and so much more.

Right behind them, our customers, many of whom have become friends. You believed in our dreams and helped us make them realities. How many adventures, struggles, gains & losses (yours and ours) did we experience during the years we have shared emails and deck space? Steph and I are richer for our connection with you.

We spent days on the ocean with splashing dolphins and whales. We went through 911 together. I - and far too many of you - fought breast cancer. We celebrated the gains in protection of the ocean, but felt a sense of rage over senseless laws that affected people who fish sustainably and responsibly.

We buried many of your loved ones at sea. All were an honor, but one moment shimmers in my memory: I was standing on the swim step of Princess of Whales as humpbacks swam near her sides and dolphins jumped off her stern. The ashes of a woman who had chosen us to run her final voyage were poured into the water by her brother, who was next to me. As they drifted down and swirled into the sea, saltwater washed over my bare feet. The feel of that water was peaceful and light. Her brother and I knew she was again free and happy.

The third thing we will miss is our boat Sanctuary. She is a gem and we're a little bit lost without her. I couldn't feel more warmth for her were she one of our beloved animals. I think back to rough gray days when she took all the churning Pacific had to throw at her, but she jauntily rode it out and delivered us to port safe and sound.

For the last seven years, I've ended our updates by saying, "See you out there." This will be my last time to say it. See you out there, Friends. Heidi

Never say never: In 2009, we got Sanctuary Cruises back after a series of disasters by the guy who bought it. He ignored our customers, refused to answer emails or calls, automated ticket sales and in a year and a half, ran the boat a handful of times; he damaged the boat on at least a couple of those dockings. So much for a guy who claimed to be quite the vessel operator and lover of whales.

We worked like dogs bringing Sanctuary back to her former glory and started running whale cruises in August of 2009. 2010 was the best year ever for whales, especially blue whales and humpback whales. We had an absolute barn-burner of a great season for Sanctuary Cruises and sold it January 2011 to a great combination: Mike Sack is a talented captain who respects marine life and operates carefully around the animals. He also takes very good care of Sanctuary. Dorris Welch, who worked for us as one of our naturalists, is a marine biologist whose specialty is the Monterey Bay. We always felt a couple could handle the company best, and they are proof of it. Pretty amazing.

Check them out: Sanctuary Cruises on Monterey Bay