It is whale season and I am determined to see and swim with these gentle giants! We have missed this opportunity for the last few years, but were not going to be thwarted yet again. We have had the extreme pleasure seeing the whales from our boat and dinghy. They love to play just past the reef giving us a wonderful view of their antics. I schedule a humpback whale tour with the hopes of swimming with them.
Humpback Whale Migration
The humpback whales migrate from Antarctica to French Polynesia every year. It takes 6-8 weeks to make this 3800-mile journey. The whales from Alaska go to Hawaii and the whales from Antarctica go to French Polynesia, Tonga, Pacific islands. They do not ever cross over the equator as they stay in the hemisphere that they come from. You might ask, “how do they find their way?” They direct themselves using the earth’s magnetic field as they have magnetite crystals in their brain that function as an internal compass.
Whales spend 7-8 months feeding in the Antarctica waters preparing to make the journey to breed and/or give birth. Whales who do not wish to breed and who are not giving birth will remain in Antarctica to feed. Once the whales leave Antarctica, they do not eat. Which means they fast for the 6-8 weeks it takes to get to French Polynesia, the 3-4 months they stay to breed and mate, and the 6-8 weeks to make the return trip back to Antarctica. That’s a long time!!!
The humpback whales are in French Polynesia between August and November. Some come as early as June and stay as late as December, but the majority of them are here between August and November.
Mating in French Polynesia
The females that decide to breed, make the long journey to warm waters in search of a mate. The males will sing for up to 30 minutes to attract a female (and or warn off other males). When the males sing, they put their head down and keep their body at a 45° angle so that his song can be heard further. The songs of the male can be heard for hundreds of miles. In addition, the males will breach and tail flap as signs of attraction.
French Polynesia Births
Sexual maturity is between 5-10 years of age for both males and females. The females will mate every 2-3 years and gestation lasts between 11-12 months. Females mating in French Polynesia this year will return next year to give birth.
The momma humpback whale can weigh up to 40 tons and grow as large as 60’. The calf weighs about a ton and is about the length of a VW bus (10-15’). The calf will feed exclusively on milk (80-120 gallons per day) for the first 6 months. That milk is 30-50% fat which helps the calf gain about 130lbs per day!
The calf will double its birth weight within the first 2 weeks. It will then remain with its mother for at least a year, sometimes 2 if the mother allows it. The calf is considered a juvenile at 3-4 years of age.
Fun Facts about Humpback Whales
- The name “humpback whale” is derived from the curving of their backs when diving
- Lifespan is roughly 50-55 years
- Adult Males average length is 43-46’, females 50-60′;
- Weight 28-33 tons
- 1 ton = daily weight of food
- 1585 gallons = quantity of water swallowed in one gulp
- Brain weighs 13lbs (5 times heavier than our brains)
- Calves hold their breath for 2-4 min, juveniles 10-15 min, adults 20-25, longest on record 45 min
- Their blow can reach up to 9’ in height and 250mph, 455 gallons of air
- Humpback whales dives average 33’ deep but can reach depth up to 165’
- Solitary animals, come together to mate
- Feeding areas are located in the north and south poles and mating areas are located in warm tropical waters (Hawaii, French Polynesia, Tonga
Humpback Whales in French Polynesia
French Polynesia is Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), a wildlife sanctuary. So, interacting with the marine life is heavily regulated. The heavy restrictions are usually, but not always followed. Our tour group, Dolphin and Whale Spirt Adventures, were very respectful of these gentle giants, but we saw several other tour boats behaving badly.
Our tour picked us up at 0745 and made several stops along the way to round up the rest of the participants. We ended up having 11 tourists, 1 captain-Teddy, 1 photographer-Emile, and 1 swimming guide-Lana. Our chariot arrives.
Dolphin and Whale Spirit Adventures
We passed Matt on the paddle board about 2 miles away from the boat.
Then passed Sugar Shack on the way to start the tour.
Our Tour Begins…
Our first stop was to see a rather large group of spinner dolphins. Unfortunately, I did not have my camera ready and missed the truly amazing show. These sweet critters would pierce the water, spinning in 360’s until they flopped back down in the lagoon.
Then we were off to find the humpback whales. We arrived at our first location and jumped in. Unfortunately, you have to wait for all guests to get in before proceeding and some take longer than others to gather their gear and slide into the water. However, I heard the beautiful tunes of the male’s song as soon as I hit the water. It was so loud that it vibrated through my body and soul. The sound is a cross between haunting and beautiful. We searched and searched for him but never saw him. He moved on.
We repeated this process 5-6 times in search of this gentle giant. We finally saw him. He was rather far away and the water was a bit murky. But he slowly raised to the surface for breath before descending back into the ocean. This was the only photo I was able to extract from my video. Don’t fret as there are better photos below and coming up in the next blog 🙂
This juvenile male was about 7-8 meters (23-28′) and about 3-4 years old. Already looking for a mate.
This is our group waiting for our boat to pick us up.
While we were out, we were hanging with 9 other tour boats, each with 10-15 people. A few had no respect for the animals and kept their engines on as they tried to get closer. Our guide was convinced he was scaring the whales. Either way, we did not see any more whales during our tour. Much to my dismay as I have many friends who have gone out and spent hours with the whales and spotted mommas with their babies.
All in all this first tour was rather disappointing. Yes, we swam with “a whale” but he was so far away, the water was murky and there were tons of boats and other people around.
Whale Tour #2 Provides an Excellent Experience
Steve and Lili on SV Liward scheduled a private charter with us and Agape (Josh and Rachel). Patea and Heiva pick us up in a super fabulous boat. There is more seating, lots of dry storage, and plenty of hand holds. Much better boat than our previous charter boat This group is called Moorea Blue Water.
Patea and our boat for the day
4 Drops with 4 Adult Males!
Our first stop we drop into the water with no other boats in sight. We immediately see 4 male adults swimming below us. Seriously, this is amazing!
Can you see all 4 whales?
We drop in the water 3 more times to spend more time with these beautiful humpback whales.
Just because these are so amazing, I thought I’d show you the actual full size photos.This guy swam right under me. I thought his tail might accidently hit me he was so close.
These two come up for a breath of air.
Our group on Moorea Blue Water tour:
Professional Photos from Agape
Our friend Rachel, on Agape, is a photographer. She is hired out to take photos of tourist with the whales and she shared a few magnificent photos with me. Check out her blog voyages of agape or find her on Instagram at moore_rachel.
Not only does she have a state of the art camera, but she has an uncanny gift of capturing marine wildlife. The bottom left photo you can see all 4 adult humpback whales!
In our next blog, I will share more photos from her previous trips.
Turtles, Sharks, Sting Rays
On our way back we jump in to meet some turtles. It was a drift snorkel where we encountered 6 really large hawksbill turtles.
And we stopped off at Sting Ray City and swam with sharks and sting rays. Can you see the little flounder in the lower left photo?
We visit the underworld of the turtles in our last blog. Events from this blog post occurred the end of September. Our blog posts run 10-12 weeks behind our adventures.