FIJI, TONGA & FRENCH POLYNESIA

FRENCH POLYNESIA: RURUTU, AUSTRAL ISLANDS

An awesome Humpback Whale encounter

Season: July-October

Visibility: 30-60m/100-200ft

Water Temperature: 24-25°C/75-77°F


A group of snorkelers enjoy heartstopping encounters with a family of Humback Whales in Rurutu

The Australs lie far to the south of Tahiti (indeed they are 600 kilometres away!) and are an extension of the submerged mountain range that also includes the Cook Islands. Ten kilometres long and about five kilometres wide, Rurutu is one of the larger islands in the group. The mountainous interior is, in many parts, untamed with most cultivated areas being near the coast. Oranges, lemons and grapefruits are grown here, as are coconuts, coffee and taro. Limestone caverns dot the shoreline of this small but beautiful island, which is far from the beaten track for most divers and snorkelers. Here, in this isolated island group in the vastness of the Pacific, many Humpback Whales come to reproduce, calve and nurse each year, arriving in June and July and returning to Antarctic waters in November. Rurutu, unlike other popular whale-watching destinations, has not reached large-scale or over-regulated proportions, so that snorkelers can get really close to these leviathans. This fact, combined with the very clear water (visibility regularly reaches 50-60 metres here!), makes for the best ‘in-water’ whale experience anywhere on Earth. Imagine swimming just a couple of metres away from a huge mother Humpback and her calf in clear blue water!

Each year the Humpback Whales stay in Rurutu’s safe waters for a few months. The calm waters and low predation allows the females to calve in peace after their 11-12 months gestation period. The young calves, each measuring around 4.5 metres and weighing in at around 1.5 tons at birth (!), begin to suckle and continue to feed from their mothers for a further five months. Once their peaceful months at Rurutu are over they must start their migration back to the rich feeding grounds of the Antarctic.

Boats leave twice a day, during the whale season, for roughly three hour trips. Sometimes the first Humpback will be located just minutes away from the dock, on other occasions it may take an hour or more to locate one far from the harbour. Even then there are rewards as it is a spectacular boat journey around Rurutu, with huge curling breakers striking the reefs that fringe the island and curtains of spray blowing downwind. Whales are typically first spotted as they blow at the surface, spraying out the water from their blowholes, something they do every minute or so as they travel along near the surface. After taking a number of breaths the whale sounds, its huge tail breaking the surface as it finally slips below the waves. From time to time you are likely to see Humpbacks breaching, when they hurl themselves largely or completely out of the water. Seeing an adult Humpback of 13-17 metres length and weighing 35-45 tons hurling itself into the air and crashing back into its watery domain with a massive splash and a thunderous roar, perhaps only 50 metres away or less, is an awe-inspiring sight, and one you are likely to see on a good number of occasions if you stay on Rurutu long enough (be sure to keep that camera or video ready for action!).

Your guides will be trying to find a mother whale and calf, and after a family are sighted the boat will follow at a respectful distance and wait for the whales to sound. After a few minutes the boat will move up close to the position where the mother is thought to be lying and the snorkelers can get into the water – as quietly as possible, so as not to cause any disturbance. (Splashing fins on the surface is a real ‘no no’, so you should move cautiously both when getting into the water and afterwards.) Seeing the whales from the boat is exciting enough, but once in the water the sight of these immense mammals is truly spectacular! As the bubbles clear on entry, look down below you to the bluish-grey sea floor. Is that huge grey bulk a submarine? No, it’s the female resting just above the sea bed, her huge pectoral fins stretched out on either side! Her half-ton calf may be with her, nuzzling or suckling, or already on its way up to the surface to breath. Unlike the adults, which can last for 15-20 minutes between breaths, the calf must come to the surface to breath every few minutes, so there will not be long to wait.

The calf rises sinuously to the surface and then starts to splash around, sometimes slapping its tail violently on the surface. Now one can cautiously approach, so as not to alarm it. Often one can get extraordinarily close, just a metre or so, and have the calf inspect one with obvious curiosity, peering at you with its large, rolling eyes! Watch out for that tail though! After a time it descends to its mother again, but not for long. It will soon be back again to see its strange companions.

Eventually the mother needs some air and those huge pectoral fins move forward, the signal that she is about to rise. Apparently slowly but inexorably she starts her ascent, but when one tries to follow one soon realizes that her speed is deceptive. Without apparent effort she is moving two or three times as fast as we can! The best way to intercept her as she ascends to the surface, accompanied by the calf, is to wait around 50-100 metres in front of her. If you do this you could well end up with fantastic close up views as she nears the surface and you swim alongside these leviathans of the deep.

Meeting the Humpback Whales of Rurutu must surely be one of the most remarkable and exciting encounters possible under the water! Opportunities for photographers and videographers are legion, both above and below the waves. Although you should always take care not to touch or harass the whales, really close encounters are possible and photographers can get some exceptional ‘once in a lifetime’ photographs at Rurutu.

The water is not particularly warm in Rurutu, so a wetsuit is advisable, together with a weight belt so that you can dive down to the mother whales if you wish. However, a wetsuit will slow you down a lot if you are trying to get closer to the whales as the mother rises to the surface, so the more hardy may wish to dispense with one, at least on occasion.

Rai Manta Club was opened in Rurutu by Yves Lefevre in 1996 (and he still returns for part of every season), but it is Eric Leborgne who nowadays manages the centre in Rurutu. Eric and Yves both have an extraordinary knowledge of the Humpback Whale. They always seems to know where to find the whales, which cruise right around the island, and will teach you how to work with them in the water to get the finest views and experiences whilst snorkelling. (It is not possible to use scuba tanks as the bubbles are treated as a sign of aggression by the whales.) It may be possible to listen to the ‘song of the deep’ by hydrophone as an underwater opera is performed by the males, in an attempt to woo the favours of the females. There are two whale snorkeling trips a day during the season. (It will be assumed that visitors will take the first morning trip following their arrival on the island, but after that it is for you to liaise with Rai Manta as to when you wish to take your other trips.) Whale snorkelers are collected from the lodge for the morning boat trip at about 0830 and returned around 1215. The afternoon session starts around 1345 and ends around 1730. The chances of daily whale encounters from July to October are very good, but of course the presence of these wild creatures can never be guaranteed. (The prime aim of visiting Rurutu is for the Humpback Whale encounters. However, scuba diving can be arranged on request.)

COMBINATIONS: Why not combine a stay on Rurutu with a visit to Fakarava in French Polynesia’s idyllic Tuamotu Islands? Fakarava offers some of the most exciting drift diving on earth, complete with numerous sharks. Talk to us about the possibilities.

Please contact our office for our resort offerings and whale swimming tours on Rurutu.


Humpback Whale and Calf by Charles Hood

Liveaboards


It really is a great honour to encounter these creatures (Arthur Kingdon)


Arthur Kingdon enjoys yet more encounters.


Watch that tail! (Rurutu Lodge)

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