Meet Adam and Devin of Santa Barbara Whale Watch

Meet Adam and Devin of Santa Barbara Whale Watch

Santa Barbara Whale Watch started as two friends dreaming. Devin Hunt and Adam Ernster met in 2018 during a whale-watching excursion with the Condor Express. They now serve as the captain and marketing manager for the company.  “I first came out as a passenger when [Devin] was working as a deckhand,” says Ernster. “I soon started selling photos on board in exchange for social media content, until I too started working as a deckhand.”

It wasn’t long before the two talked about starting a small whale watching company of their own. “We always worked really well together,” explains Ernster, “and we could see there was a niche that needed to be filled in Santa Barbara—a much more intimate wildlife experience as opposed to some of the bigger vessels in the harbor.”

When Tyler Reynolds, another friend, approached Hunt about starting a company, the dream became a reality. Reynolds and Hunt co-founded Santa Barbara Whale Watch in 2023, with Ernster coming on as an employee. “The origins of Santa Barbara Whale Watch are predominantly rooted in a simple yearning to explore the Santa Barbara Channel’s wildlife without the restrictions of operating under a larger, more public company,” adds Hunt. “This freedom to investigate new areas and search for new species was undoubtedly the driving force behind its creation.”

A Fascination with the Sea

Ernster is from Los Angeles while Hunt is from Sacramento, and both Californians share a passion for wildlife. Ernster spent his early years in Orlando, Florida, where his home’s backyard lake offered a microcosm of the nearby ocean. “I was constantly swimming in the lake and studying the fish and reptiles that called it home,” he explains. “I would often catch snakes and lizards as my role model Steve Irwin, ‘The Crocodile Hunter,’ once did.”

For Ernster, a love of whales was nurtured as a freshman during his college’s marine biology study abroad program. “I spent two weeks in Bahía de los Ángeles [in Mexico], studying whale sharks, searching for Bryde’s whales and bottlenose dolphins, and living the life I had always dreamed of,” he says. Those two weeks turned into a lifelong journey and career as a wildlife photographer. Ernster transferred from community college to UC Santa Barbara to study environmental science and refine his photography skills.  “While I had always wanted to be in front of the camera like Steve Irwin (and still kind of do), I gradually took a role behind the camera,” he adds.

College in Santa Barbara

Similarly, the sea and the life within it always fascinated Hunt. “True passion emerged during my college years,” he says. While attending Santa Barbara City College and Sonoma State University, Hunt enrolled in every marine biology and oceanography course available. He also spent his free time in the water.

“I worked at a local dive shop so I could better fuel my interest in diving and spearfishing,” Hunt says. “After a few years at the shop, I was offered a deckhand position on Santa Barbara’s only whale watching vessel, which makes port just adjacent to the shop.” He spent the next seven years progressing as a mariner from that deckhand position to engineer to captain. 

Advice for Entrepreneurs

When working as an employee, sometimes there is only so far you can go. “After gaining confidence at the helm, I began to search for pathways to further my career on my own since I was essentially at a dead-end within the company,” explains Hunt. Now, with Santa Barbara Whale Watch, there are always more opportunities for learning and growth. 

“My main role is obviously to operate each tour as captain,” Hunt says. “But aside from driving the boat day to day, I also oversee all the maintenance for the vessel as well as the bookings, phone calls, and emails.” 

Ernster, meanwhile, manages the website, social media, and marketing. “From flying the drone, to answering questions online, to creating and updating the website, I think it’s important for everyone involved to have multiple skill sets, motivators, and passions when starting a company,” he says.

“As a fairly new business owner, I can’t claim to have a trove of wisdom,” says Hunt. “But if I have learned one thing it would be this: do not be shy to preach your goals, you never know who may be listening.” 

Ernster’s advice to potential entrepreneurs? “Never stop dreaming! It has always been a dream of mine to be a part of an ecotour company.” In addition to that overarching goal, he sought to express his thoughts, values, and creativity. “It takes a lot of planning, preparation, and patience, but most importantly it takes a good team,” he says. 

Advantages of Keeping it Small

By operating a small ship and company, both Hunt and Ernster are able to really hone in on customer satisfaction. As the smallest passenger whale watch company departing from Santa Barbara—their tours accommodate up to six passengers—they can focus on making each trip unique.

Ernster’s favorite tour so far was their first voyage, an undersold trip where two producer and photographer friends came along. “We were blessed with an incredibly flat day and 15 plus humpback whales,” he says. They encountered a cow and calf pair breaching and pectoral slapping near the boat, along with a friendly whale. Pectoral slapping is a form of non-verbal whale communication that resembles waving. Breaching is when a whale propels itself out of the water, often exposing its entire body. 

“For an hour, this whale would bounce from side to side, peeking up at us and spraying our two passengers with sea water and whale snot,” says Ernster. “I remember looking at Devin and we both knew we were gonna be alright, and that this was a sign from the ocean that we were doing exactly what we were supposed to be doing. It was an incredible feeling and one that will always stick with me.”

To learn more about Santa Barbara Whale Watch, head to their website, where you can also book a tour and see incredible photos on their sightings blog.

Be on the lookout for Dreams Abroad’s ongoing Meet the Locals series. Follow our series to meet other global professionals sharing their stories from around the world.

18 thoughts on “Meet Adam and Devin of Santa Barbara Whale Watch

  1. I can’t imagine what an amazing adventure doing this for a living must be. It’s just spectacular.

  2. Wow! This would be amazing to see, I know my kids would love this because they are fascinated about whales. This would be a great tour! What a great company and I’m glad they didn’t stop dreaming.

  3. This sounds like the most rewarding job! I would love to go whale watching and see this first-hand.

  4. Such an interesting read! Adam and Devin’s passion for whale watching and conservation is truly remarkable!

  5. I’ve gone whale watching in that area before. I took lots of pics and had a great time. Saw quite a few whales.

  6. Thank you for the suggestion. It would be an amazing tour with these two guys and those fascinating whales.

  7. I am sure it is 100% breathtaking/stunning to see a whale in the water next to your boat. I have never seen one but even videos of it make me catch my breath sometimes. What a wonderful endeavor you’ve taken on for yourselves and others!

  8. I feel like their passion for what they do really shines through. These are always the kinds of people I love being in charge of my tours.

  9. These guys sound great! We’re actually planning at trip to the area, and I’m going to make sure we use them.

  10. What an amazing experience this would be. It sounds like a dream. I would love to partake in whale watching someday.

  11. That is so amazing! I am just so happy reading about the success of other people from just a dream and making it into reality. So inspiring!

  12. Your story is truly fascinating and I love how you were okay with keeping a small ship company. Success should not always be measured by quantity!

  13. omg this is beyond stunning…I am speechless…I would love to see a whale up close, that would be an amazing experience.

  14. Just wanted to thank you for sharing your incredible whale watching experiences in Santa Barbara. My kids and I are super excited to check it out on our next trip.

  15. Thank you for sharing your whale watching experience. If I visit Santa Barbara, I’ll definitely make sure to try it!

  16. Your article on meeting Adam and Devin of Santa Barbara Whale Watch is fascinating! I love how you’ve captured their journey from dreamers to business owners, providing an intimate look at their passion for marine life and entrepreneurship. Huge thanks to your sponsors for supporting such inspiring content!

  17. Adam and Devin’s commitment to marine protection through their work with Santa Barbara Whale Watch is inspiring. Their enthusiasm for educating others about the necessity of conserving our oceans demonstrates the power that motivated individuals may have on raising environmental awareness.

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