I recently spent an entire season photographing humpback whales in French Polynesia. While I left with some of the most incredible underwater moments of my life, my time there was filled with highs and lows. I found that most people joining us for an opportunity to see the whales had completely unrealistic expectations or weren’t prepared for the experience at all. So, let’s talk about exactly what to expect and how to have the best chances for special moments diving with humpback whales.
First things first, let’s chat about what it is like to join a whale watching tour in French Polynesia.
It is called whale watching not whale swimming.
The number one misconception about diving in French Polynesia is that you are guaranteed epic humpback whale encounters if you go out on a tour. I think this is in large part because of the things people see on social media recounting their encounters. I’ll fully admit that I am totally guilty of sharing some amazing moments. However, the reality is that these moments are the highlights of many hours on the water.
I spent a total of three months on the water in Moorea. I was on the boat for at least 4 hours a day, almost every day. I would say in that time I have a total of 20 images I am super excited about, all of which came from a total of 5 encounters.
The whales are not tagged. There is no spotter plane. Weather does not always cooperate. The whales do not always cooperate or want to interact. There is no guarantee that you will even find whales and if you do find whales there is no guarantee it will be safe or possible to try to see them in the water. Even if you get in the water to try and swim with the humpback whales there is no guarantee you will find them once in the water (it is amazing how difficult it is to find and see such a large animal) or that they will show you any interest.
I don’t say any of this to discourage you from pursuing this experience. However, it is important to understand that when you are attempting to view wildlife there are no guarantees of the experience.
Sometimes you just don’t get lucky.
This sort of goes along with the first point but there will be times where you find whales but other groups find better whales. There were so many times where our boat went North and had no luck and the other boat went South and saw something epic. There were also plenty of times where the boat I was on scored and the others didn’t. Again, with wildlife, if you’re allowing the whales to dictate the interaction, you never know if the whales will show you any interest.
The good news is that most of the captains do their best to communicate with each other on the water to help everyone have the best experiences possible.
You might see a lot more than just whales.
One of the best things about Moorea is that there is so much life in the ocean. While viewing the humpback whales may be the number one priority of the trip there is always the possibility of encountering other species.
Short finned pilot whales are one of the largest dolphin species in the ocean. They are a predatory species that primarily feeds on squid. It is possible to spot pilot whales while watching for the humpback whales, especially if you are farther offshore.
It can be an incredible sight to have pilot whales joining the humpback whales. Often vocalizing and sometimes interacting with the whales.
However, deciding to jump in the water with pilot whales should be approached with caution. Since the pilot whales will actually vomit back up the hard parts of the squids they eat, like the beaks, they often have oceanic whitetip sharks accompanying them. Learn more about interacting with oceanic whitetips here. You should be sure your guides have shark diving experience and decide if you feel comfortable with the idea of being in the water with sharks.
Whenever you are in the ocean there is the possibility of encountering sharks. French Polynesia is a protected area for sharks where it is illegal to hunt or fish them. This is part of the reason that the islands have such healthy and beautiful ocean ecosystems! While it certainly won’t happen every dive, it is possible to encounter sharks while out looking for the whales.
The most common species you might encounter in French Polynesia would be the oceanic whitetip and silky shark (typically only on offshore encounters). There is also the possibility to encounter more inshore species like blacktip reef sharks, nurse sharks, lemon sharks, and tiger sharks, although these are not as common.
If you are nervous about sharks: talk with your guide and express your concerns, don’t be afraid to face your fears, and above all if you don’t feel comfortable jumping in there is never any pressure!
Sometimes you can get lucky and spot dolphins swimming with the humpback whales. The most commonly sighted species are the offshore rough toothed dolphins and the inshore spinner dolphins. Consider yourself lucky any time you have the chance for a multi species interaction!
The Rules and Why They are There
When most people hear the word “rules” they immediately think all the fun is about to go away. That is totally not true! The rules of diving with humpback whales in French Polynesia are there to ensure both human and whale safety, and to make sure everyone has the most fun while respecting the animals.
Rules you should expect your tour guides to follow:
- The boat should never drive closer than 100m to the whales. If the whales swim to approach the boat that is a different scenario. Divers are expected to swim from the boat to the whales. Boats should never be the ones to approach closely to the whales.
- The group of swimmers should all stay together and with the guide ALWAYS. Swimming away from the group not only puts your safety at risk but can stress out the whales if you position yourself in the wrong spot. Your guides are there to keep you safe and to ensure you have the best interaction possible.
- Do not dive down to the whales. It is often that interactions with whales happen with resting individuals. If everyone in the group starts dive bombing the whales it can disturb them and ruin the interaction.
- Do not chase the whales. Let the whales leave if they would like to. Respecting the whales should always be the number one priority.
What to Look For in a Tour Company
The number one thing you should look for in a company is that they follow the rules! Any company that prioritizes customer experience over the health and well-being of the whales is not a responsible company. It is also more likely that if you follow the rules, you will have a better interaction.
Look for companies that offer private boat options or minimize the number of people on each tour as much as possible. Not only does this affect safety in the water, I’ve noticed that smaller groups tend to give both the people and the whales a better experience.
Opt to go out with companies that clearly put the whales first. Do they respect the rules? Do they try to search for whales that don’t already have multiple boats visiting them? Do they try to teach their guests about whales and the ocean? While there are many boats that can probably show you whales, there are only a handful that prioritize the whales over everything else. Of course, it is a bummer if you don’t have the opportunity to get in the water and see the humpback whales. However, the whales should always come first.
Tips For The Best Interactions Possible
1) Book with a company that respects the whales and follows the rules.
As stated many times above the best way to have a good experience is to follow the rules and trust your guides. Sometimes it might seem like your crew is making you wait extra long or that the whales are so close but you haven’t gotten in yet. Trust in your guides. They are likely making sure everything is safe and in line for the best interaction possible.
2) Try to be out on the water as much as possible during your trip.
This is just because of odds. The more time you are on the water, the more chances you will have to find whales and possibly have that incredible interaction you’re looking for.
3) Embrace the adventure.
Sometimes things just don’t go as planned. Maybe the ocean conditions aren’t great or the whales aren’t cooperating. Try to be appreciative of the experience no matter the outcome. Even if you don’t find whales, spending time on the water in French Polynesia is still amazing. Even if you only see whales from the boat, think of how wonderful that is. Only an extremely small percentage of people will have that experience. Even if you only get a quick glimpse of the whales in the water, it is still so special to see them at all. Embrace whatever the ocean gives you.
4) If you are prone to seasickness take precautions in advance.
You don’t want feeling bad to distract from how epic looking for whales can be. If you are worried sea sickness could affect you, take the necessary medications before getting on the boat.
5) Let the whales choose to interact.
There is nothing more special than when a wild animal chooses to interact with you. Trying to force a moment to happen will detract from anything you end up experiencing. Let the whales come to you, and if they decide they are curious of you, prepare to have your life changed.
Check out my gallery of images from French Polynesia.
Image credit: @taylordewey, @joshmunoz