Whale Watching, Elevated

Oceanic Expeditions offers an intimate focus on wildlife and photography

With blue whales in the summer, and humpbacks, orcas, and dolphins all year long, Monterey Bay is a dream for those seeking a glimpse of these underwater giants.

And with whale watching businesses scattered throughout the region, tourists and locals can choose from a variety of charter experiences.

But for those searching for a more high-end, intimate, educational, and personal encounter, Startup Challenge 2022 Mainstreet Division runner up Oceanic Expeditions provides an elevated experience, with a twist.

Oceanic Expeditions is a whale watching and wildlife photography charter based in Moss Landing, CA. Founders Mary De Souza and Mike Kauffmann started the company after years of experience working at other whale watching companies in the area.

“The idea of Oceanic Expeditions was created based on the platform of providing a more intimate experience while out there on the ocean, with the animals as well as with our customers,” said Kauffmann. “Mary and I have been leading whale watching trips in Monterey for the past eight years. We were on bigger, more congested boats, dealing with a whole lot more people on each boat. And we said, ‘Hey, why not make every single trip feel like a private charter?’ And so, the capacity of our boat is six people, and it just makes it a more quality experience with the focus being nature, wildlife, and our passengers.”

So what sets Oceanic Expeditions apart from the competition?

“Quality,” said Kauffmann. “More peaceful, more nature-based, less crowds of people, more focus on the wildlife itself and more intimate one-on-one from the captain and crew to the passengers. 

Oceanic Expeditions also offers a focus on photography and videography. The company even teaches wildlife photography courses, allowing passengers the unique experience of using drones on board the boats.

“We also offer drone photography courses. If you’re into flying drones, you cannot bring your drone onto a public whale watching trip with other passengers involved, ” said Kauffmann. “That’s another thing that’s unique about us, is we offer photography classes.”

As an experienced captain and drone pilot Kauffmann has worked closely with several wildlife production companies, including BBC, National Geographic, Discovery, and Netflix as well as news stations KSBW, Fox, SF Golden Gate, and NBC. Kauffmann’s videography can be seen on the latest Netflix documentary Our Great National Parks narrated by former President Obama.

De Souza first heard about Startup Challenge while doing a marketing internship with the Institute for Innovation and Economic Development (IIED), an institute of the College of Business at California State University at Monterey Bay (CSUMB). 

The Institute organizes various events supporting entrepreneurship and regional business development in the area, including Startup Challenge, Techstars Startup Weekend, Startup Investment and Community Capital Expo, and monthly Monterey Bay Connect meetings.

“I used to be a marketing intern for IIED. And I had an amazing experience,” said De Souza. I knew how the program was awesome, and we were just starting this company. I looked at Mike and said, ‘Why not? We should try it.’ We signed up, and started to plan our pitch.” 

Startup Challenge is an annual competition for new businesses that teaches, coaches, mentors, networks, and connects entrepreneurs to the knowledge and resources they need to succeed in the marketplace. 

With Venture, Social Venture, Mainstreet, and Student Divisions, the Challenge is open to startup businesses in Monterey, San Benito, or Santa Cruz counties. Those accepted to the challenge attend workshops and work closely with experienced mentors to prepare to compete in the final round to win additional opportunities and cash prizes.

According to De Souza, the experience of participating in the Startup Challenge and the process of building their pitch helped them focus their ideas and understand the market.

“We really got into the process. It made us understand even more, the business we were getting into.  It was even before we started opening the doors to the public. So that was a very, very unique experience, and a key process to start this business.”

As Main Street division runner-up, Oceanic Expeditions received a cash prize that helped De Souza and Kauffmann push their company into the spotlight.

“They offered a cash-reward prize for the runner-up, which helped us build our website and invest in more marketing developing through Google Ads, and these types of platforms, that you don’t really think about until after you’re in it,” said De Souza. “IIED helped us in the process, even with a cohort group, and to grow further.”

Oceanic Expeditions currently accepts reservations online, with daily tours departing from Moss Landing.

“We don’t have a brick-and-mortar shop, which requires a strong online presence through social media marketing. The majority of our bookings are done virtually and over-the-phone” said De Souza. “All of our company is based online. And so that was a hurdle to overcome, with social media and marketing being important for our visibility as a company. We have been open for eight months now, and we already have a lot of repeat customers, so this was a challenge that we overcame as well.”

What’s next for Oceanic Expeditions?

“We want to maintain the quality of a small boat experience: six people,” said Kauffmann. “And we would like to expand our fleet, as far as acquiring more boats that are still capped out at six people per boat. And that’s the goal, is growth and consistency, and maintaining that quality customer relationship that we go for. You can follow us and stay tuned on our Oceanic Expeditions YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook channels as well as our website”

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