Author: Mona de Crinis
MORGAN & JOSH
Kismet comes in all colors, shapes and sizes. But whether one believes finding your soulmate is a matter of divine intervention or random circumstance, it’s difficult to argue that PacWhale Eco-Adventures staffers Josh and Morgan Wittmer weren’t destined to fall in love, marry and start a family under the seductive spell of sun, sea and shared passions.
“We have so much in common,” Morgan explains. “We’re both total ocean science nerds, and Pacific Whale Foundation and PacWhale Eco-Adventures was the perfect spot to land. I wanted to be outside, engaged in science and surrounded by kindred spirits, which is what I found here and in Josh.”
Although the couple first met in 2003 while working at a sea camp in Florida, external circumstances quickly extinguished the budding spark of attraction.
“Josh had an ex-girlfriend who pulled me aside one night and told me to stay away from him,” Morgan quips. “She was bigger than me, so I abided by her rules and dated someone else instead.”
Life unfurled, and Morgan and Josh went their separate ways, remaining loosely connected through social media and sporadic emails. A friend suggested that Josh, who had returned home to Pittsburgh and was working the nightshift at the local post office, consider applying to Pacific Whale Foundation. Highly motivated, Josh looked into opportunities on Maui and relocated to the Islands.
In the winter of 2009, Morgan applied for a position with PWF, unsure if Josh was still with the organization. The following May, she planted roots on island and began working for PWF’s social enterprise, PacWhale Eco-Adventures, in June 2009. Her vast knowledge of sea turtles — the subject of her master’s thesis — placed Morgan on Ocean Odyssey, the boat assigned to the Molokini & Turtle Arches tours. Destiny intervened, placing Josh on the same boat as team leader and Morgan’s trainer.
“On top of that, we discovered that we lived a block and a half from each other,” Morgan adds with a laugh.
They started dating in late July after a seemingly innocent offer to carpool accelerated the romance. Morgan began driving Josh, who was car-less due to a previous accident, to work.
“It was my way to court him,” Morgan admits. “I used to get up at 4 a.m. to give him a ride — even on my days off! And we’ve together ever since.”
They married in 2014, a year after Josh proposed near the water’s edge on Keawakapu beach in Kihei.
“I had written an engagement poem referencing the deep blue ocean and the depth of our love, so I wanted to be in or by the water when I proposed,” Josh remembers.
As they both are avid divers and snorkelers, he suggested a quick snorkel excursion to set the scene. Just as they were about to enter the water, Josh fished a ring from his pocket and recited the poem he had written about their enduring love and asked her to marry him.
The stunning sapphire ring held the blue of Maui waters — just like Morgan had hoped for when she hinted months earlier during a conversation with a local jeweler onboard a tour the couple was working.
“[The jeweler] onboard had asked if we were engaged, and when I said ‘No, not yet,’ she asked what kind of ring I wanted,” Morgan recalls. “I told her that I wanted a sapphire that matches the blue of PacWhale and the seas around Molokini. She said, ‘Of course, that’s the most expensive sapphire.’”
Morgan jotted down the jeweler’s phone number and the type of sapphire on a piece of bright florescent paper and left it on Josh’s desk. The not-so-subtle suggestion worked like a charm and the engagement was on.
The pair married at Maui Ocean Center in front of about 100 guests after considering a variety of venues that included resorts and beach locations. For Josh and Morgan, it was an ideal site for the life they would lead together. And, Morgan asserts, they liked the idea of the money going to an organization aligned with PWF’s mission rather than the corporate office of some mega-resort chain. It was a win-win.
“We got married in front of the shark tank,” Morgan recalls. “Josh wore a wet suit and a pretend tuxedo in the shark tank [which he was authorized to do as a former curatorial diver for Maui Ocean Center] before the ceremony, greeting guests from the water as they entered. It was really cool.”
In keeping with the ocean theme, the wedding playlist included music from “Little Mermaid” and the theme from “Jaws,” which sounded an ominous warning dare any attendees object to the two being wed.
“My parents walked me down the tube — that was the aisle,” Morgan continues. “Instead of ring pillows, we had shark pillows with our rings set in the shark’s mouths and added turtle toppers to the cake. Seascape Restaurant catered the wedding, Marty Dread performed for us and Greg Kaufman [Pacific Whale Foundation Founder and Executive Director until his death in 2018] was there too.”
The couple even created the wedding’s own signature blue drink complete with floating Swedish fish in keeping with the ocean motif. “We called it the Mojo, which was the name of a monkey I used to take care of,” says Morgan, who in a former life was a primate zookeeper.
After a dive honeymoon in Indonesia, the couple worked together on the boats until Morgan was too pregnant with their first child to go out on tours. “I was slowly taking management roles, becoming the staff supervisor and schedular,” she says. “Of all the vessels’ staff, he’s the only one who I don’t supervise because I’m not allowed to be his supervisor [as part of PWF policy].”
They had their first daughter, Kailea, which means “joyful sea” in the spring of 2014. “She looks just like Josh,” Morgan says proudly.
Their second daughter, Leilani, or “heavenly flower,’ was born May 29, 2019. And she looks just like mom. “We have a little Josh and a little Morgan, and they’re both ocean nerds,” reveals Morgan.
Their lives and passions entwined with the sea, the family lives in a home tastefully appointed in ocean décor. Turtles and dolphins adorn the walls and a whale bag hangs from a chair; silent witnesses of the couple’s earnest fascination with marine life and the sea.
“The pace, the life, the job — it’s the right fit for us,” Morgan acknowledges. “Working at Pacific Whale Foundation and PacWhale Eco-Adventures allows me to do what I’ve always wanted to do. And our interests and goals line up perfectly. I’ll go ask Josh some fish fact, and we’ll talk for 20 minutes about fish.”
“For me, PWF has given me an opportunity to learn how to be a good host, a good educator and a good naturalist,” Josh agrees. “This organization fits me perfectly. I get to inspire people to want to help the ocean.”
That innate and all-consuming desire to make the world a better place though ocean care and conservation not only bonds the couple, it’s what keeps them here.
“This job can be hard [on the boats],” Morgan explains. “There are challenging elements and a huge learning curve. Schedules change and the weather can be unpredictable. It can test your faith, your love of the ocean and your ability to keep moving forward. You have to have that passion deep within you.”
On those off days, you draw strength from that inner fire to get you through, Morgan suggests.
“You find one kid that you’re going to turn into marine biologists, or watch someone have a spiritual moment when encountering a sea turtle for the first time,” she explains. “And Josh is really good at that. I’ll ask him how his day was, and he’ll say, ‘I saw an octopus!’ And then I’ll find out the seas were rough and half the people on the boat got seasick, but Josh always remembers what was beautiful and great about the day.”
ALISON & CASEY
Former PWF/PacWhale Eco-Adventures staffers Alison and Casey Cohan are living proof that love sparked on the boats burns just as hot after the vessels dock. While both have since embarked on new career adventures, the couple’s romance took root and blossomed in the warm embrace of shared values and working together to advance PWF’s mission.
Alison signed on with PWF in 1999, working for both the nonprofit and its social enterprise, PacWhale. With a background in marine mammal research, she worked as a research associate.
“It was only supposed to be for one whale season, but I ended up staying because I met my now husband, Casey, who was a naturalist on the PacWhale boats at the time,” she remembers.
Alison stuck around and eventually contributed to the development of PWF’s conservation programs in addition to her research efforts. While still employed with the Foundation, she went back to school to pursue a degree in environmental policy and management with full support from PWF, which granted her a revised work schedule to accommodate her classes.
She and Casey married and soon welcomed their son, Travis, into the PWF family. The young boy, who now is 11 years old, was weaned on the Foundation’s Ocean Camps, a summer program for Maui first- to fifth-graders, attended the camps each year until he aged out. Alison says she believes his exposure to PWF’s conservation-driven vision helped develop her son’s compassionate, eco-conscientious core.
“He’s a real lover of nature and the water, and he likes to rock climb and camp,” she explains. “He’s always known more about fish and marine mammals, and now the forests, than most of his classmates.”
Armed with her master’s degree, Alison’s career aspirations came into razor-sharp focus. “Towards the end of my tenure with PWF, I knew I wanted to do something different in conservation,” she recalls. “I found myself getting pulled in more and more to the business side of the Foundation and was kind of over the tourism aspect.”
Alison was now fully entrenched on Maui and wanted to devote her energies to protecting the island’s resources through conservation efforts. In 2007, she left PWF and accepted a position with The Nature Conservancy and, in 2015, was named director of Maui Nui.
Casey followed several years later, leaving PWF in 2014 to leverage his biology background and experience with diesel engines for a job with Kaheawa Wind Power, where he works on the wind turbines scattered across the flank of the West Maui Mountains.
Although out of the PWF fold for several years, Alison says her time at the Foundation helped shape who she is today. Driven by a collective commitment toward a singular mission, PWF and PacWhale Eco-Adventures staff always worked together to inspire in others a sense of environmental stewardship, she notes.
“Being surrounded by like-minded people from all over the world who are incredibly passionate about nature and conservation is very invigorating,” she expresses. “Even with all the hard work at times and the ups and downs that come with working for a nonprofit, the people are the heart of the Foundation and their hearts were always in the right place. Working there ignited my passion for nature and conservation and fueled a commitment to protect Hawaii’s natural resources. I mean, where else in the world can you experience jumping into the water with a whale shark?”