BLUEWATER TRAVEL 2017 HUMPBACK WHALE REPORTS
BY VARIOUS WRITERS, COMPILED BY SCOTT GIETLER
Over the past two months we have run a number of small group trips to swim with Humpback whales. You are about to read five individual stories from our various trip leaders and their accounts on the experience. I can promise you they are well worth the read, and that coming face to face with a humpback whale while snorkeling in warm, clear water, is not scary, not frightening, but one of the most amazing experiences you will have in your life.
Read on, and join us next year for a trip of a lifetime. - Scott
A humpback whale "tale" by Ron Watkins
Our small group had the pleasure of being in Moorea for the Sept 24-30 trip to swim with humpback whales that frequent the clear blue waters a short distance from shore. The anticipation to get in with them was heightened when we dropped a hydrophone in the water and heard the beautifully haunting songs of the male humpbacks. In less than an hour, I had my first face-to-face encounter with a playful calf and mother that I will never forget. Nothing can prepare you for their size and grace in the water as they effortlessly propel their 30+ ton (adults) body through the water. They look so wise, so caring and so innocent as they gaze at you with that large inquisitive eye. Our group had some amazing encounters over the five days and all of us want to return and spend more time in the water getting to know these gentle giants.
Our group, which we named Team Breach, included a high school senior named Sophia, that was playing hooky from school (with her parents and teachers approval) to experience what few people have, swimming with humpbacks. Sophia listened to our guide Angie carefully and was fast in the water so usually was in the right place at the right time. I captured an image I named “Sophia versus the Giant” of this large mother humpback that surfaced right in front of her to check on her calf that had been playing with us for 20 minutes unsupervised. Sophia was calm, got into position and took an amazing image to capture one of her many surreal moments in the water with humpbacks. I wish I could have been in her classroom to see the response of her classmates when she briefed them on what she did the previous week.
We called ourselves Team Breach because we all wanted to see humpbacks breach in addition to getting in the water with them. Over the 5 days on the water, we saw over a dozen total breaches and some very close to our boat. It can be very dangerous if one were to breach too close and one did just off the back of the boat while our fearless guide Angie was in the water. Angie was observing the whale below her before we got in the water to determine its behavior and if it was safe for us to enter the water. When she saw the whale accelerating to the surface she immediately reversed direction and swam as fast as she could towards the boat to avoid the humpback breaching. Imagine a school bus flying out of the water only a few feet in front of you! I was able to capture the sequence of the breach with Angie swimming away from the whale just in time to avoid it. That was a close call and got everyone’s adrenaline pumping. Safety was always the priority on the trip and our guides were great at locating the right whales to interact with.
I will never forget the first time humpbacks graced us with their presence. Even though I have studied many images of humpback whales and read all about them, nothing prepares you for this moment when you are approached by a 2+ ton calf as her 35+ ton mother watches from below. I am truly looking forward to next years trip and sharing this experience with others.
Moorea Humpback Whale Photos Taken by Ron Watkins
"Return to the Whales" by Katie Yonker
Several years ago I was fortune to swim with humpback whales in Moorea - it was an experience like none other, and one that I knew I wanted to repeat at some point in the future. This September I had the pleasure of returning to Moorea, and though I didn’t think it was possible, this trip far surpassed the my first visit. I brought a group of five others, none of which had ever been in the water with a humpback whale. Our flight from Los Angeles arrived Papeete very early in the morning. We boarded a ferry to Moorea, took a taxi to our hotel, checked in, and quickly put together our camera gear. After a short time we boarded our private snorkel boat and headed out of the lagoon. To say we were spoiled would be an understatement. Within 10 minutes, we were snorkeling with a stationary mom and her calf. Every five minutes the calf would rise to the surface to breathe, allowing us to get some amazing photos. At some point the whales descended into the deep, out of sight. After a few more hours of spotting and swimming with whales, our jetlagged kicked in and we made the decision to call it a day, knowing we had four more days of whale snorkeling ahead of us.
Over the next four days we had many more in-water sightings of humpback whales, but our first 30 minutes on day one were certainly the best. We spent one lunch break inside the lagoon at a very popular spot where snorkelers can swim with black tip sharks and stingrays. The water is fairly shallow at about 5 feet. This is a great spot for split shots with the sharks and rays and mountains in the background, though it does get fairly crowded with other snorkel boats.
We decided to spend one morning going to the island of Tahiti to do a tiger shark dive. We were told that usually one to three tiger sharks show up, and it can take anywhere from 30 minutes to six or more hours before they arrive. Once again, we lucked out. In less than an hour, a tiger was spotted beneath the boat. We all geared up and jumped in. Almost immediately, two more tiger sharks joined and we enjoyed a 45 minute dive. Although the tiger sharks are the main draw, you’re likely to see many more species of sharks including lemon sharks, black tip sharks, nurse sharks, and more.
This return trip to Moorea did not disappoint! I cannot recommend it highly enough for those looking for quality in-water interactions with humpback whales.
"WAKE UP WITH THE WHALES" by Scott Gietler
At 9PM I was home in Los Angeles leaving for the airport. Fast forward to 9AM the next morning - I'm in Moorea, French Polynesia. Our boat left the dock of our hotel 10 minutes ago. I'm about to enter the water with a humpback whale mom and calf, about to have one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. Other than swimming with whale sharks in La Paz, Mexico I have never before had an experience so easy to get to from the west coast of the USA. We have truly found a destination where you can leave your house in the evening, and "wake up with the whales".
"An incredible four hours" by Erik Lukas
Imagine traveling nearly 4200 miles to a world class dive site, only to find out it can think for itself and has the ability to move on it’s own. That’s how I describe diving with Humpback whales…there are no guarantees on how often they will be seen, or how long they will remain stationary once we do find them.
The first two days of the October 5-9 trip included many sightings, and several in water encounters, but generally not lasting more than 10-15 minutes at a time. On day 3, all of that changed when we were fortunate enough to come upon a mother, an escort and a very young calf. Our group spent about four hours in all with these three whales with the highlight being the calf who treated us to a playful display and extremely close encounters, while the mother and escort rested comfortably just below the surface, clearly accepting of our presence around the newborn female whale. The crew of the boat estimated the calf to be perhaps one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half weeks old; it’s pectoral fins still soft and flexible as it rolled about on the surface.
Each of the guests were treated to countless close passes and many great photo opportunities, and all agreed that this was the highlight of the trip. For me personally, my highlight was capturing photos of the young whale opening and closing it’s mouth as it passed just in front of my lens. We were told the behavior is quite rare, so it was a real treat to not only see but to photograph.
Once it was all said and done, the group was able to agree that the trip was a success. The crews that we worked with did an amazing job of getting us in the water for as many encounters as possible for the five days we spent in Moorea, and took great care of us on the boat during the times while we searched for the whales. I am looking forward to an opportunity to return to Moorea once again for more Humpbacks in the future.
"Special Experiences" by Mark Strickland
You know you’re in for a special experience even before setting foot on Moorea. Whether approaching by air or sea, Moorea’s jagged mountains, lush jungles and turquoise lagoon encircled by deep blue ocean are nothing short of spectacular. But our main objective here was swimming with and photographing humpback whales, a goal we met and exceeded on each of two five-day expeditions. During those trips, we saw multiple whales every day, with in-water encounters 9 days out of 10. Among the best was on the morning of the first day - a very relaxed mother and calf in clear water that we had all to ourselves for over an hour. Other days were slower, but included a wide variety of behaviors. Many times, we were also treated to exciting topside action such as pec slapping, lob-tailing, spy-hopping, and multiple full breaches… up to 40 tons of whale in mid-air! We also witnessed a heat run—four highly motivated males pursuing a female at top speed, sometimes very close to the boat! Another interesting encounter involved a single male humpback, hovering motionless at 50 ft, singing so loudly that we could actually feel the vibrations!
Another highlight was an absolutely amazing encounter with 6 sub-adult humpbacks gently playing with one another, swimming slowly enough that we could actually keep up. At the same time, there were a handful of pilot whales swimming among them, AND a school of yellowfin tuna, AND a couple oceanic whitetip sharks!!! The pilot whales, tuna and sharks soon went on their way, but we had over an hour with the whales, which everyone including the captain and crew fully appreciated as the rare event that it was.
The next day, we again encountered a group of 5 playful, curious sub-adults. They were constantly on the move so it required lots of swimming, but they kept circling back to us, so everyone got a good look at all 5 of them underwater, including some very close passes. Even our last day, which had been rather unproductive through mid-afternoon, brought an unexpected treat. As we debated calling it quits, an adult humpback breached in the distance, leading us to a brief but great in-water encounter with a mother and calf as well as three adult male escorts, all of which circled back for several looks at us. All in all it was an amazing trip, which only makes me all the more eager to return next year… hope you can join us!