TENDUA - Association for biodiversity conservation

In the eye of the Whale

Polynesia – Austral islands - Rurutu

At the other end of the world

Submarines
Submarines
On the horizon, the breath of a whale, a little geyser above its head - © M. Dupuis

I have dreamt about this trip to the end of the Earth for a long time: Rurutu at latitude 22°26’ South and at 151°21’ longitude west, a ‘nearly-lost’ island in the Austral’s Archipelago of French Polynesia. With one purpose: to snorkel with humpback whales - also called “Megaptera novaeangliae”, these mysterious and magnificent creatures of the Southern hemisphere.

September 9th, Sunday

Breath of the whale
Breath of the whale
Rurutu’s shallow waters are free of deep-sea predators, and in case of a storm there are calm lagoons on both sides - © M. Dupuis

I finally land at Rurutu after a 22-hour flight trip from Paris to Papeete through Los Angeles, with a 4-hour stop-over in Tahiti then I left for the Australs Islands: Tubuai, then Rurutu (1h30 flight). If you want to snorkel with humpback whales, you have to deserve it... The welcome is friendly, made by the Rurutu Lodge team: Bertrand and Yves. Straightaway, we speak about the humpback whales: a few mothers had their calves during summer and they are taking care of their babies before departing for the South Pole. One of the mothers lets the snorkelers swim around. Arriving late in the afternoon there is no chance to go swimming today; we have to wait until the next morning. Not exactly in fact: from the Rurutu Lodge beach I can see it on the horizon, the breath of a whale, a little geyser above its head! I didn’t think it would be so visible from such a distance. I make a wish that they will be there tomorrow and we will be able to get close to them.

September 10th, Monday

Whale calf and his mother
Whale calf and his mother
Humpback whales inhabit all the oceans of the world. It was soon discovered that Rurutu was a place for pregnant females to give birth, feed their young and let them gain enough weight and strength for the long journey home around October/November. - © M. Dupuis

No problem to wake-up early. I am so excited! I crossed half of the planet for the coming encounter and I have +12 ours of jetlag. Everyone is ready on time (8:00) with their fins, breathing tube and diving masks. There is no scuba diving with whales as they swim away from bubbles and noise. Eric is in charge of the morning picking-up with the Land Rover from the Raie Manta Club for the boat excursion. We stop at different “pensions” to pick-up those, like me, who wish to materialise their “whale snorkeling dream”.

This morning there are 2 boats leaving from Moeraï. These boats are Polynesian 8m fishing boats, called “poti marara” which means “flying boat”. The 3 captains, Dominique, Pierre and Adrian, are going to ensure our boat excursions twice a day.

Today is quite windy: we are going to have swell, but the weather is sunny if not very warm. We are equipped with a 5mm diving suit, and if you get cold easily, you can also wear a yellow fisherman’s oilskin. Our guides and captains are in discussion: the whales have been seen early this morning not far away from the Belvedere, near Moreaï. Let’s climb in the boat, a maximum of 6 on board, with either Eric or Yves and let’s go!
Yves sits near Pierre and each of us is trying to find the most comfortable position to scrutinise the horizon looking for a whale’s spout.

Just slip into the water to avoid disturbing animals

Calf resting on the nose of his mother
Calf resting on the nose of his mother
These magnificent creatures grow to an average of 16m in length and weigh approximately 40 tonns. It is not uncommon to witness a mother tenderly playing with her young calf - © M. Dupuis

The orders given by Yves are quite simple: wait for the signal to avoid any danger, don’t jump into water but with the least noise you can, let yourself glide into water. Don’t snorkel or swim around the whale’s caudal fin, which is very dangerous as it can deploy as much energy as a 500 horsepower engine, moreover the animal can consider it a threat. Each group will go into the water in turn in order not to disturb the animals. But first, we have to find them...

Rurutu does not have a fringing reef, and the waters are very shallow and crystal clear. Nevertheless, sea sprays do not help us and clouds over our heads let us think that we are probably somewhere in Brittany and not under the tropical sun! One hour has already passed; some of us turned pale because of swell, everybody is wet...and suddenly “WHALE on the port side!” “- Where? Where?!” and Yves translates in English, then in Japonese for the couple who are with us. We’ve got it, we can see it now: the mother and, just near, her calf. Boats come as close as possible very cautiously. We hope that the whale won’t dive deeper, but no, she is there on surface, even placid, around 30m from the boat. Everybody is taking pictures of the mother and her calf that, from our position, are looking like two submarines... No time to waste, put your fins on and glide into the water.


Back Motu
Back Motu
Her dorsal fin (that allows along with the caudal fin, identification on cetaceans) has been bitten or cut - © M. Dupuis

The mother is huge 17m in length, and her calf is 3 weeks old approximately: 5m length and 1.5 tons weight. She arrived in the waters of Rurutu to give birth a few weeks earlier. Her weight is probably around 20 tons now. Before migration she was 40 tons but she will lost up to a third of her weight during the migration from Antarctica to warmer waters of Polynesia and back to South Pole. As a matter of fact, every year at the South Pole, as the austral winter settles in and ice forms, krill (the small shrimp whales feed upon) becomes scarcer, triggering the whales’ great departure. This migration to warmer waters will last a month for an estimated 5000 to 6000 km. The humpback whales will spend 3 to 4 months there, during which time the males will search for mates and gestating females will give birth. The calm waters of Rurutu appeal to certain whales in search of a tranquil environment. The mothers may stay there several weeks with their newborns before resuming their travel back to Antarctica where they will again feed on krill.

Eye-to-eye

In the eye of the Whale...
In the eye of the Whale...
© M. Dupuis

Here comes the time for me: I stride across the bulwark and glide myself into the 22°C water asking to Pierre to give me the housing of my camera. I have finally the opportunity to train myself in making underwater pictures with a wonderful model but how do I do it?? I am less than 1,60m and she is 10 times longer than I am! I can hear Yves giving me advise to swim to the whale’s head but I am just a beginner in the art of swimming with whales. She is a merveillous ambassadress of the Magapteres’ world. My first shots are quite shy and respect a distance, which is the sum of safety and a certain worry about this giant of the sea. Then I feel more confident and I am getting closer, my diving mask scotched to the camera housing; only 5 meters between her and me. Her calf seems to rest on her head. This is the way this attentive mother helps her baby to breathe: soon it will be able to hold its breath for few minutes and dive deeper, but for the moment mum is there. It seems to me that I feel all the tenderness she has for her calf that is totally dependent on her. From the tip of her nose – if we can call it a nose...- she is pushing it regularly up to the surface and going down with it under water. The pectoral fins of the baby measure already about 1 meter. Obviously it is not able yet to use them and they are dangling of each side of its body.


Whales and Bubbles
Whales and Bubbles
Humpback whales sing the most complex songs in the animal kingdom, consisting of many themes sung in a specific order. A song can last half an hour, then the whale begins the same song again, repeating it for hours, even days. This vocal display is probably related to breeding, attracting females or announcing territory, to maintain spacing between adjacent males or to advertise the fitness of the singer. Sound travels better and faster in water than in air, so the sea is a perfect place for acoustic advertising - © M. Dupuis

This moment is magic. She knows that we are here, but she seems not to worry about it. How old is she? How many times has she already come to Rurutu for giving birth to the next generation? Marks on her body, similar to holes are due to bites from cookie-cutter sharks (Isistius brasiliensis) that are coming from the depth of the sea and attack the whales bitting out a piece of skin, leaving these ugly and probably painful scars.

We are lucky to snorkel around them for more than an hour. It creates links and it is with regret that we have to leave, but some of us are getting cold and it is time to go back. On our way back everybody is expressing their wonder and excitment is sparkling in everyone’s eyes: some felt afraid, others tried to get closer, leaving it to the whale to care for avoiding them... I observed the following scene: a foolhardy (or careless?) snorkeller swam close to her 3m-long pectoral fin. The whale kept clear of this unskilful snorkeller swimming so close.
Deep inside I feel a profound joy after this moment shared with one of the largest mammals on Earth.


Tree whale
Tree whale
The blooming whale tree announces the arrival of humpback whales to Rurutu and it blooms until their departure in October / November - © M. Dupuis

Joy, but also wonder facing the meekness, the tenderness and the harmony that emanate from her. How can people and governments still kill whales nowadays? I wish only one thing: to go back to her as soon as I can.
The lunch break is quite short and we leave at 13:45 for the second excursion of the day.
Those who were participating this morning are already telling the newcomers the unforgettable experience they had earlier in the day. Everyone hopes to see the same whale and her calf again in the afternoon. She even gets a surname: Motu because her dorsal fin (that allows along with the caudal fin, identification on cetaceans) has been bitten or cut. This afternoon, the weather is cool, the sea is calm and we straight away find Motu and her calf at the same place where we had left them. Again we glide into the water in turn, group after group, but there are 3 boats this time.


Taro fields
Taro fields
Taro can be grown in paddy fields where water is abundant or in upland situations where watering is supplied by rainfall or by supplemental irrigation - © M. Dupuis

I feel more comfortable than in the morning. I have something in mind. I don’t know if I will be able to do it or not, but it is now or never: to take a picture of Motu’s eye. Motu is kind enough not to move. I am swimming closer; Motu’s head is growing bigger in my viewfinder. I am about 2 meters from her. Her eye is in the middle of my viewfinder now. Very slowly, Motu opens her eye. I didn’t think that whales had blinking eyelids... This time again a feeling of communion with her overcomes me and I find myself talking to her, as if we were old friends. How does she see me? Maybe I am just a little animal with a unique big eye: the porthole of the camera housing?
It is common to say that one’s glance reflects one’s soul. It seems to me that gazing into Motu’s eye, I saw the Whale Soul...
This magical afternoon is ending after three turns into the water for each group. We are all flying with angels and nobody is tired. Roll on tomorrow!

When males begin singing

Taro in a box
Taro in a box
© M. Dupuis

The weather was good enough to go out on sea excursions nearly every day, either from Moeraï or Avera. I saw how our calf learnt how to use his fins and how he became more independent from his mother. All the excursions were wonderful, each of them with its particularities and its set of adventures, some more physical than others, especially because of meteorological conditions: rain, wind, swell, waves at 3 meters high... but all the encounters with whales were honoured. During my last excursion, they offered me an unforgettable farewell gift: two males paying court to a female by emiting enormous bubbles (no comparison to be made with those from a scuba regulator...). Soon one of the males is standing verticaly over his ladylove, his head down, about 20 meters under the surface and then he begins singing... and it just sounded hauntingly beautiful and overpowering.

My stay in Rurutu lasted 12 days. I discovered other attractions of the island such as caves with stalactites and stalagmites created by water drops over millions of years. This is why it is sometimes called the “Troglodyte Island”.
The island itself is very pretty and lush, with a small local population - 2,015 inhabitants - very attached to its culture and traditions. The nature is hardy but generous. Everything is growing: coffee, mango trees, pineapples, taro (Polynesian tubercule), litchees, papayas, lemons, grapefruits, oranges, peppers, flowers... There are some pleasant walks that you can end by car thanks to Rurutu people who stop for hitch-hikkers, as the island is bigger than it seems. I hope that winds will push me there again, where I realised my “whale’s dream”: to dive close enough to cast my eyes into her eye...

Myriam Dupuis - 15/11/2008

At present, commercial whaling is prohibitied. Several countries,
including Norway, Iceland and Japan, would nevertheless like to resume it.
Vous pouvez visiter l’exposition « Incroyables Cétacées »
du 11 juin 2008 au 25 mai 2009
Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle
Grande Galerie de l’Évolution
36 rue Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire
75005 PARIS
Ou via internet à l’adresse suivante : http://www2.mnhn.fr/cetaces/index.php
et exprimer votre opinion pour ou contre la pêche à la baleine.
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