Swimming With Whales in Mo’orea

We went swimming with humpback whales! We made a video, silent because all our favorite songs are copyright-protected. So put something on in the background and bliss out to whale video. Or read the story below first, so you know what you’re looking at.

Our party of four got picked up from our boats, Villa and Acushnet, by a marine biologist and his spotter on a fast inflatable boat. We had had our largest dinner party on Villa yet, the night before, and we were a little bit wobbly in the morning. This caused Jazz to forget to pack both our snorkels and the headband that keeps her hair out of her mask. Fortunately we’re well accustomed to the rolling seas, so we didn’t have the motion problems that plague many non-seasoned-sailor hangover sufferers.

We were maybe ten minutes out of the harbor when we spotted a mama and baby humpback! So we geared up and got in the water. After a short swim, we found ourselves alongside a very curious two-week-old calf, and its somewhat less sociable mother. The baby wanted to play with us, but when it started coming close, the mother guided it away. Even at two weeks old, the baby was huge: we learned that even at birth they can weigh 1.5 tons.

We got back in the boat, 45 minutes into the tour and thrilled, and we continued along the coast for a little while. There was another little pod, but we gave it a miss because there were already two boats interacting with them. We spotted yet another pair of whales making a bee-line towards a distant singer, and we made it in the water in time to just barely see them pass in the distance. Even with the great water clarity, those pictures were too blurry to keep.

Having had some good luck, and being seasoned sailors with no problem being far from land in big waves, we decided to take a bigger risk and head further off shore. Sometimes this yields nothing, said our guide, and sometimes you see other things. After some meandering, we spotted a distant spout, and went to investigate. The spout turned out to be two juvenile males, and we got into the water to chase them, but they took a dive into the blue and evaded us.

We should explain: for the animals’ safety, you can only approach to 200 meters with the boat. So when we say we got in the water, what we mean is that the boat pulled close, the guide picked an intercept course, and we swam as hard as we could (while trying not to splash too much, which apparently scares them away). After the pair swam off, we got back to the boat, and were just about to board when the spotter said it looked like they were coming back for another look at us. The guide asked if we were up for a big swim out into the blue ocean, and reminded us that if we see oceanic whitetip sharks we should get behind him. We assented and hauled it out into the ocean. On this leg, we picked up a couple of photo-bombers.

And then the magic happened.

The two whales came right up to us (and we mean RIGHT up to us), and danced! They waved their arms to match our arm-waving, and spun in circles, and came so close that our guide started to worry that they were going to hit us with their fins in their attempts to play. So we hung out with them until we seemed to be in danger of becoming toys, at which point we disengaged and swam back to the boats. Amazing.

Our guide does this twice a day for the whole season. He told us (before it happened) that dancing whales are the holy grail, that he sees them maybe ten times a season. But they’re the thing he lives for and the best we could hope for on this tour, and we felt incredibly lucky to get to have such a close interaction with these giant animals.


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