After 5 ½ weeks at home (following our amazing Alaska adventure this summer), we headed in the opposite direction for a snorkeling and scuba diving adventure. The archipelago of French Polynesia is made up of 200 islands and atolls spread out over 1200 miles in the South Pacific, of which the two most well-known are Tahiti and Bora Bora. Out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, French Polynesia is due south of Hawaii (below the Equator) and many anthropologists and linguists believe the original Hawaiian settlers originated from some part of what is now French Polynesia (possibly the Marquesas Islands or Bora Bora, which we did not visit on this trip).
The island of Tahiti is central to the story of Mutiny on the Bounty, where British soldiers spent 5 months on Tahiti, transplanting breadfruit plants to take to the Caribbean. Once they left Tahiti, mutineers took over the HMS Bounty and returned to Tahiti, forming a power coalition with one of the native families. Captain Bligh and other non-mutineers (set adrift in a smaller boat) eventually made it back to England, and some of the mutineers were eventually hanged. (Your history lesson for the day 😊.)
The great thing about flying to French Polynesia (where Tahiti is the biggest island) is that it’s a direct 8-hour flight from Los Angeles. We last visited these waters in 2014, when we celebrated our 25th anniversary on Bora Bora and Hank’s birthday on Rangiroa. We had only been scuba diving for about a year, and that was our first international diving trip.
This time (in 2023) we joined a group sponsored by Bluewater Dive Travel and led by Tim Yeo. Most people flew in on the overnight flight, landing at 5:00 a.m. in Papeete, the capital of Tahiti. We took advantage of an earlier flight that got in about 9:30 p.m., and after being serenaded by the welcoming committee, we spent our first night on Tahiti at the beautiful Hilton Hotel Tahiti.
We decided this is the way to go, having an extra night of sleep and waking up to gorgeous views of nearby Mo’orea and the tropical paradise that Tahiti is known for. Phase I of this adventure was now complete.
The next morning, we joined the rest of our group for two morning dives with Mo’orea Blue Diving. Eden Park, our first dive site, gave us views of whitetip reef sharks, butterflyfish, and an emperor angelfish. NOTE: All of our underwater shots are stills taken from our GoPro video footage. Both Hank and I use GoPros in the water.
On our second dive site, Coral Wall, we saw more sea turtles than we had ever seen on a single dive before—both green sea turtles and hawksbill turtles—plus butterflyfish, surgeonfish, and some crown-of-thorns starfish (which are actually not good for the health of a reef).
Friday morning brought us a new adventure. We met Fanny and Fanny from Tahiti Private Expeditions, who were the captain and whale spotter on our boat, the Banana. Our group of 13 shared two boats for five days of humpback whale adventures. Mo’orea is one of the only places in the world where you can swim with these enormous mammals.
Humpback whales migrate up to 9,000 miles each year. They feed in the polar regions, with different subspecies heading either to the Arctic or Antarctica/South America to eat. When we were in Alaska this summer, we saw a northern humpback whale who had probably traveled from Hawaii. The southern humpback whales arrive in French Polynesia or other tropical areas to give birth around June (early winter in the Southern Hemisphere) and perhaps do some mating. From August to November, swimmers are allowed to get in the water to observe the mamas and calves (and sometimes their male escorts). There really isn’t anything for the humpbacks to eat in the tropics, so once the calves are big and strong enough, they head to the polar regions to feed on krill and small fish.
Calves are 14 feet long and weigh 1500 pounds at birth, and adults can grow to up to 56 feet in length, so these animals were all MUCH bigger than we were.
During our 5 days of whale watching, we departed from our hotel dock at 7:30 each morning, where our captain and spotter, either Fanny and Fanny, or Emilio and Fanny, would move the boat slowly around the island, looking for signs of humpbacks (spouts, humps, or tails). When they spotted evidence of a whale, they would move the boat into position and then wait. We learned that whales have three different behaviors while in the tropics: moving, resting/sleeping, and socializing. When they are moving, they are too fast for us to swim with, so that behavior is not what the spotters look for (adults can swim up to 17 mph and dive down to 500 feet).
If the whales are socializing, there can be a few together, and if they stay relatively in the same spot, this can be a good group to swim with. When a mama and calf are resting, this is perfect for human viewing. While adult humpbacks can stay below the surface for 20 minutes while they sleep, the calves must surface every 3-7 minutes to breathe (the more frequently they come up, the younger they probably are).
When this resting/sleeping behavior is spotted, the whale spotter slides in the water and begins to swim toward the resting whales (the boats are prohibited from getting too close). Once the spotter signals to the captain, the rest of us are allowed to slide into the ocean with our snorkels, masks, fins, and cameras. We might swim 100 yards to meet up with our spotter and then begin to observe the whales when they come up to breathe.
This kind of whale watching/swimming with whales requires a lot of patience because it might take a few hours before the spotter and captain identify whales that are good candidates for us to swim with. On some trips, people might spend 8 hours on the boat and never get in the water with the humpbacks. We were much more fortunate than that.
One afternoon we visited Stingray City in a portion of the lagoon surrounding the island (with blacktip reef sharks, a variety of tropical fish, and of course, stingrays).
Each day we would eat lunch on the boat somewhere in the lagoon, and a couple of times there was a nice little coral reef that had lots of tropical fish.
And sometimes we went out to dinner, but mostly we were too tired! These were long days of searching and swimming, but oh, so worth it!
On four of our five days, we swam with the humpbacks. What an incredible experience! To see what our whole time on Mo’orea was like, check out Hank’s 7-minute YouTube video by clicking on the arrow below. Hearing a male whale singing in the water was like something out of this world!
The next day we packed up our gear, headed back to Tahiti on the ferry, and flew to our next location in French Polynesia—that adventure of scuba diving with dolphins and sharks will be in the next blog post. But we’ll never forget swimming with humpbacks–truly a unique experience!