Swimming with Humpback Whales in Rurutu

We learned about Rurutu through a travel magazine article which I picked up for John to read during a transatlantic flight. There was a story about a church build right on the beach but it went on to talk about how the Humpback whales come through here every year for three months to have their babies. Each year between July and September, the whales come to give birth to young. They stay for 3 months so the calves have a safe, shallow place to grow. When young, they have to surface every 3 minutes so the mother will rest on the reef at about 15m so her calf doesn’t have far to go. The number of whales varies from year to year, this year, there are 13 whales on the island.

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We arrived early and were greeted at the airport by the owner of Manotel Pension, Yves. He presented us with beautiful couronnes de fleurs and drove us to our place! This is the only island we will visit in the Austrell Island group. It is different from the previous 8 islands in several ways which are noticable even before you get off the plane. The landscape is mountainous with volcano limestone rocks everywhere and a combination of evergreen and palm trees. Unlike most islands, there is no lagoon here and no barrier reef- although there may have been at some point. The climate is cooler with a wide temperature between day and night. Last night, it got down to 12C but still reached 24C during the day. And the water is much cooler. It requires 2 wetsuits for us!

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The people here are very friendly- Rurutu is home to just over 2000 people. There are no hotels or big shops here, just 5 family pensions, 2 small shops and a post office (but nowhere to buy post cards)- although they have some outstanding restaurants! Walk down the road and everyone will smile and wave as they go past- and with so few tourists, it doesn’t appear that tourism has disrupted their normal lives. On Sunday, everything is closed and the roads are full of people in their Sunday best walking together to church. Much like Maupiti, you get the sense that you are just participating in their way of life, instead of disrupting it.

Outside our bungalow at the Manotel:

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The accommodation at the Manotel is very nice, spacious and clean and situated 50 m from the beach in an emmaculately groomed garden. Breakfast and dinner are included and are delicious. I think some of my favorite food on the whole trip will be from here! We spent the first day exploring the sea and saw a whale breach the surface about 10 times just 5 minutes from our place!

Walking the beach across from the pension we saw this whale breach after only 20 minutes of looking:

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Seeing this after having been here for only 2 hours made us super excited about seeing more of them! We had 2 bookings with them to ensure we get some good encounters.

Day 1 of swimming with whales:

Even before we get in the boat we see them from shore! 6 of us get in the boat and start putting wetsuits on- then we motor out about 5 minutes. The whale Axel spots is “a friendly one” and good for snorkeling so we sneak in. She is resting at about 10m with her calf. The size of them takes my breath away and we get within 4-5m but are careful not to disrupt her. We watch for about 10 minutes, frantically taking video and photos in an attempt to capture the experience. The calf moves around staying very close to its mother but the most movement we see from the Mom and a slow infrequent move of her pectoral fin. After 10 minutes, they both swim a bit deeper (it drops off from 15m to 100m very quickly) where it appears the calf is getting a breaching lesson. We stayed in the water and watched from in and out of the water as they swam down and breached. Unbelievable!

Snorkellers from the other boat approaching the whale and her calf. We were able to get within a few metres of her but left enough space not to disturb:

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Calf breathing at surface while mother watches from below:

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We got back in the boat and followed as they were soon approached by 2 males. They compete and show off for several minutes to demonstrate their strength- they want to mate with her. She is trying to protect her calf and I guess it’s very dangerous around all that comotion.

One of the males pectoral fin as he swims around the female:

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From the boat, we are getting a great show- the 2 males fight a bit but mostly just swim around the female showing off.

Large male in front with mother in background and calf in between:

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Whale giving us a nice show, you can see how close we got to him although at this point, nobody was in the water for safety reasons!:

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After an hour from the boat, the whales settled down back in shallower water and we jumped back in- swimming with 4 whales- 2 adult males, 1 female and a calf!!!!!

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Day 2 of whale safari is not so successful. On the start of the trip we saw a whale which turned out to be “the shy one” so she swam away as we got in the water. This was especially disappointing given that the water is cold! The weather was windy and partly sunny so it got pretty cold in that boat waiting to find another whale! We toured the island in search of another whale and after an hour, we found one. But it too was not interested in hanging around so we carried on. In the end, we did not swim with the whales on the second day but watched them from the boat which was still great! I guess we were really lucky the first day to have such action:)

The back of the whale, this is the most common sight both from the water and the shore. This little bit of the whale is like the tip of the iceburg:

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We did manage to do a few things not whale-related. One day we did a 6 1/2 hour hike around the island, roughly 25km. This was unintentional as we had planned to do a smaller ring, stopping in a nearby town for lunch. But the iPhone map and reality didn’t quite align so we took an extended “walk” around the whole south part of the island trying to find a way off the ridge we stuck ourselves on! The views were beautiful though and despite skipping lunch and running out of water, we enjoyed getting some exercise.

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We also discovered a beach through some dense lush forest growing amongst the limestone.

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Rurutu marks the end of our time in French Polynesia- we have really enjoyed it here and plan to return someday to spend more time on Rangiroa, Maupiti, Fakarava and Rurutu. We also want to see Cook Islands so I guess a trip to South Pacific is in the plan, albeit not anytime soon! We saw 9 islands in total and spent 5 weeks and 2 days here. Here are some of the top memories:

  1. Swimming with Humpback whales in Rurutu
  2. Diving with dolphins in Rangiroa
  3. Drift dive in Rangiroa
  4. Generally amazing diving in Fakarava (especially shark tank)
  5. Eating my weight in fresh baguette and poisson cru (best food in Rurutu)
  6. The view on the top of the mountain in Maupiti
  7. The Hilton with Chelsea in Bora Bora- hanging out at her overwater bungalow
  8. Snorkelling with Manta Rays in Maupiti

2 Dives in Fakarava

We spent only 2 nights in Fakarava due to its price tag- we stayed on the cheapest place on the island at $120/night which was basically a small room with 2 beds and a roof. Brutally basic- luckily, we didn’t go for the accommodation! We were greeted with beautiful weather on arrival and met a lot of other travellers at the pension as we settled in. The bonus of our little bungalow was its location right by the sea.

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We spent the afternoon checking out the town and sorting our dives for the next day. The main town has only 2 shops so we grabbed a very simple dinner of pasta and sauce and joined two other couples for the evening.

The local grocery store- no fresh things in here, just tins of meat & veg, pasta, rice, beer and water. And baguette of course!

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Next day, we were picked up by our dive guide, Max. The first dive was just us and was a very relaxing reef dive. The pass is on the other side of the island so it took about 30 minutes by boat to get there. I think Max was checking us out in order to determine whether or not we would be OK on the advanced pass dive which was planned for the afternoon! Everything went great so we got a pre-briefing on the afternoon drift dive and headed to lunch.

A school of snappers with a parrot fish and angel fish amongst the coral:

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Here was our drift dive briefing:

The drift dive is intense and starts with a quick descent to 32m in the blue. You have a few minutes to find the shelf of the reef before starting the drift with some strong current around 12-15m. Then you get to a canyon where there is no current and loads of fish and sharks loiter here to break. It is only here where divers are allowed to take photos- no time before!

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Unfortunetely for us, after our quick descent to 32m and swimming around for 3-4 minutes, the dive was aborted. The currents weren’t right and the guides couldn’t find the shelf so we surfaced. Not all was lost though, Max suggested we do a shallow reef dive in a spot he doesn’t usually go- I will call this place the SHARK TANK. It was awesome. It was so full of sharks and other fish it almost felt like an aquarium. We enjoyed getting our fill of sharks for about 25 minutes then found a canyon and did a relaxing drift dive back to the blue for boat pick up! What an amazing spot- couldn’t ask for a better “failed dive”!

A sleeping 2m nurse shark we snuck up on at the start of the dive:

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We just rested on the sandy bottom and watched about 25 sharks swim around:

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Me looking at other sharks while missing this one completely:)

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What a lovely last dive- on the boat ride back, we saw some disruption on the surface, several hundred birds hunting something in the water. So we went to check it out and discovered about 40-50 mobular rays! We quickly grabbed our masks and jumped back in the water.

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Mobular rays swimming together at about 2m hunting:

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Mobular rays are similar to Manta rays but are more brown and smaller in size. They were hunting as a group, pushing small fish together and forcing them to the surface. The birds benefit from this as they swoop down to grab a snack of their own. Meanwhile, a layer under the small fish, large tuna swim around, probably feeding as well and under them John spotted a shark! Wow- the foodchain right in front of our eyes. What a random surprise on the way back from our dive.

After such a great day in the water, we needed to grab a beer and enjoy the sunset on the beach.

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And since we saved so much money the previous night on pasta, we splurged and ate at the nearby roulotte for dinner- steak and frites:) It turns out Fakarava does not have an ATM so we had a very strict budget!

All in all, we enjoyed Fakarava and had an amazing experience in the water, despite the aborted drift dive. I feel like more time spent here would have been great and we would have seen some really special things diving. I would definitely put Fakarava on the “to return” list but we will have to stay in much nicer accommodation!

Unbelievable Diving in Rangiroa

We spent 5 days here and did 8 dives, 2 a day. We were nervous about the level of accommodation we would be enduring after the Hilton but we were pleasantly surprised by our little flat with separate bedroom and kitchenette, a stone’s throw away from the bright blue sea.

Our view from the entry way of our flat in Rangiroa:

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The waves are so loud but it’s great to fall asleep and wake up to that sound. The snorkeling isn’t great here in the lagoon but we’re not bothered- we are here to dive! We are on a 2 a day schedule while we’re here using a 20 dive pass with TopDive and will use the dives between us on 2 islands, here & Fakarava. I’ve never seen such nice facilities at a dive center – particularly such a remote one – they have free transport, hot fresh water showers, a sundeck, free nitrox, great staff and a beautiful spot near the Tiputa pass.

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The first two days we did a reef dive in the morning and the pass drift dive in the afternoon. The pass couldn’t be dived in the morning as the current goes out to sea, but it changes about every 6 hours so in the afternoon it was OK. We have seen friendly turtles, groups of 30+ sharks (locally known as the “wall of sharks”), huge Napoleon wrasse and surprisingly healthy coral. The current is strong but as we’re usually going with it, it’s no problem.

This turtle swam to us! That is a first, our guide Moana and I pet it and played with it briefly:

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But the BEST DIVE EVER was on the second afternoon – we did a drift dive through the pass but started in the blue looking for dophins, and we found them! A pod of about 7 approached us after 2 minutes in the water. They swim around us an let many in the group pet them- I got close but not close enough. They got within a meter of us and seemed very curious- they copied some of the movement including turning in a circle.

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They swam with us for about 8-10 minutes before swimming away. Then we were off for another viewing of the “wall of sharks” which is right on the corner heading into the pass. After passing most of the way through the pass in a very swift current, we descended like aircraft landing on a runway to get into a canyon at about 26m. This was soooooo much fun! The current flew us along for about 8 minutes until we reached the end where we started an extra long safety stop. It was fun to have the current push us along, combined with the eddies and side to side current so it was really an adventure!

Divers petting the dolphins- unfortunetely one of them is not me…yet:

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Unfortunately neither of us actually got to touch the dolphins but we’re not too bothered – for some it’s not something to recommend as they are wild animals. We wanted to be sure that if we did, it was because we had been invited to do so. Of the 8 dives we did here, on 4 we saw dolphins and 3 they stayed and played with us for up to 10 minutes! It is so amazing to interact with these intelligent animals- you can tell they are interested in us and swim fast around us, sometimes surfacing briefly, then returning to us! During one dive, there was a dolphin who was so excited it swam super fast with its mouth open clicking and singing- we weren’t sure what that meant but were later told he was just excited and playful!

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Me and 2 dolphins – at the moment they appear to be swimming away but they did come back!

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7 out of 8 dives we did at Tiputa Pass which was right next to the dive shop. But this morning we did the 15 minutes boat trip to the only other pass in Rangiroa – Avatoru pass. We were hoping to have good current but it was slack tide so we just enjoyed the reef, looking for big fish and dolphins of course! We also saw a large silvertip shark which came up pretty close to us. The final dive in Tiputa we also saw a manta ray, after which two dolphins flew past us without stopping – maybe just to say goodbye. Someone in the other group saw a hammerhead shark – we are still waiting for our hammerhead encounter but maybe in Fakarava or the Galapagos we will be more lucky.

Us with Moana, one of the dive guides who is also the local dolphin expert. We enjoyed diving with her and learning about the 7 named dolphins of the area, especially “TouchMe”, a dolphin that likes to be petted (especially by blondes!), hence the name.

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5 star Luxury at Bora Bora Hilton

We really worked the system to get 4 nights in a villa on the beach at the Hilton for free – and it was worth it! We have been thinking about this for over a year, when we both got American Express cards to collect points which were then converted to Hilton points, along with some of our AA miles :) So the 75GBP annual fee bought us $2400 worth of hotel. The Hilton owns the motu opposite the main town of Vaitape – it’s home to some beautiful coral and some very friendly fish. We met my friend Chelsea who flew in from St Paul to relax in her overwater bungalow for a few days and catch up.

John in front of the main island on the ferry from the airport to Vaitape:

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Chelsea and me in her over-water bungalow where we spent a lot of time:

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Our time in Bora Bora was spent doing 3 things: swimming, consuming food & wine & catching up with Chelsea. Oh- and enjoying the crazy nice accomodation and grounds of the Hilton. Our room was so big and comfortable I just wanted to hang out in there all day, however, we did manage to pull ourselves away from the motu on two occassions and take the ferry to Vaitape for some village exploration and a fabulous lunch at the famous “Bloody Mary’s”.

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Chelsea also brought a MUCH appreciated care package from my family which included my favorite brownies ready to eat, post cards from Mom, Dad, Lisa, Tom, A Anne, Grandma, AK, Sarah, Samm and loads of beautiful art from Annie, Lucy and Sophie. I read everything 3 times and we ate brownies for breakfast all 4 days. I also got a seamstress tape measure which Chelsea used to measure me for my wedding dress so I can finally order it- thanks guys!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Muma- you must have spent loads of time collecting all the notes- thank you so much:)

Me with coffee, brownie and all our notes, I’m feeling a little closer to home:

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Us with our art work from the girls (BTW, this is our balcony):

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The snorkeling was surprisingly good here, just under the bungalow we saw loads of colorful fish, octopus X2, a sting ray, sea urchins, sea clams- purple, green & blue, and pretty good coral. I’m sure Hilton crew remove a lot of urchins so people don’t step on them, and people regularly feed the animals here so their behaviour is quite different but it’s fun that they followed us around waiting to be fed!

A little octopus that we found right under Chelsea’s bungalow:

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Me and Chelsea entertained ourselves for quite awhile feeding these and several other fish with Triscuit crackers and bread rolls:

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We ended up eating at the beach restaurant at the Hilton which had pretty good food for a price that, whilst 5-6X what we are used to paying, was still within reason. But the service was astoundingly BAD. I couldn’t believe how inept the staff in the restaurant was which, when spending that amount of money for a room, is really surprising. Anyway, we did enjoy some poisson cru and fancy cocktails. Oh- and you’ll notice for the first time in 8 months, I’m wearing new clothes!!! Chelsea brought me some new items which were much appreciated!

The three of us at the Beach Restaurant Bar at the Hilton splurging on fancy cocktails- $17 each!!

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John and I really thought a fancy break at the Hilton would do us good- but actually, it had the opposite effect! We both were reminded what it feels like to have the comforts of home, friends and family, and the loads of other things we generally take for granted- and instead of motivating us to continue travel, we really want to go home! Earlier in the trip, we had a really nice break staying on the gorgeous luxury sailing boat in Raja Ampat for our 12 day dive trip- and that did give us motivation and excitement to continue the adventure. This time, I think we are just getting a bit tired- still loving the travels and blessed to have the chance to do it, but generally, spend more time thinking about friends and family and weddings and work…

Mom and Dad at Washington Square in WBL, MN having leaving drinks:

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Our room in Bora Bora:

View from the main entrance:

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Our villa is the one in the middle:

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View from our balcony:

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Standing near the office:

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Guest services & infiniti pool:

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Paradise in Maupiti – my favorite place in the world

Sadly, we only got 2 nights here but it was amazing from the moment we landed. This is the smallest airport I’ve ever seen and consisted of one open-air building and about 2 staff.

Us on arrival on beautiful Maupiti wearing our goodbye laias from Raiatea and our welcome laias from Tea:

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We were greeted by our Tea (Tay ah), who owns the pension where we stayed. He helped load our stuff into a small boat and we (and 4 of his friends) were off- first stop, the main island to pick up some beer from the single shop that sells it! We then plopped ourselves under a palm tree for an hour, getting to know the guys and settling into the Maupiti way! (or should I say, Polynesian?). Tea translated as needed since the guys didn’t speak English but we had fun speaking French and it never ceases to amaze me how much people can communicate without language anyway.

Relaxing under the palm tree with our new friends:

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We got to the pension and met the 2 other couples and had dinner. Tea and his wife prepared outstanding food which we enjoyed on the outdoor patio near the sea-side beach (as opposed to the lagoon side). The next morning, Tea took us to the manta cleaning station where we spent an hour snorkeling with 3 big mantas! The lagoon is pretty small and very shallow so even as we approached the pass, you could see the bottom.

John and one of three mantas at the cleaning station:

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Three large reef mantas playing around at the cleaning station:

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We headed to the main island for lunch- at the only restaurant around. We saw a few other people we knew from Raiatea- then hiked to the top of the mountain- 400m even though it was hot, we just couldn’t resist the view since the sun came out and it was clear. It took us about an hour to get to the top- it was short, but it was hard and I think John suffered a bit (and for the next 3 days!) but it was well worth it.

View from the top- you can see the barrier reef all the way around the island and the single pass (here) between 2 small motus:

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Panoramic view from the top- ours is the motu on the left:

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It had been an amazing day so far but to finish it off, sat on the lagoon side beach at our pension and watched a beautiful sunset.

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The next day we had half day until our flight to Bora Bora so we snorkeled the sea side of the motu. It was really cool to see the reef so close to the beach- on most other islands, the barrier reef extends miles away but here, just outside the pension it is as close as 15m away. We were tempted to swim to the edge but it’s so dense with coral and the water is so shallow, it’s impossible. We did enjoy some very careful snorkeling though and the crystal clear water, healthy coral and plentiful fish made for a top-notch snorkel!

John snorkeling with his hands amongst the coral on the sea side of the motu, about 20m from our bungalow:

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Amazing clear water a short walk down the beach, at least it was deep enough to swim but just barely!:

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I feel like Maupiti is French Polynesia’s little secret- and I desperately hope it stays that way. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, that’s for sure, but it’s somehow better than so many other places and I’m not sure I can articulate why… I think it’s because I didn’t feel like a tourist, I felt like I was seeing the REAL Maupiti, seeing real people living their normal lives, and for a short time, we got to live there too. Maupiti is home to only 1100 people so it’s no surprise that everyone knows each other. But maybe it is a surprise that they appear to genuinely like and respect each other- they are always greeting and helping and chatting- in stark contrast to the cities of China, actually, a stark contrast to most places I’m most familiar with.

John walking the beach on the sea side of the motu where we snorkeled on the last day:

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Another factor is that for the first time, the idealic beach paradise that has long eluded us proved its’ existance. The IKEA art and desktop screen savers always present vacant beaches in crystal water with bright green palm trees – but everytime we find such beauty, it’s scarred with people, buildings and other human “things” and it’s barely recognizable as the thing it once was. But here, what you see is what you get. These photos are not an illusion of a place that is no longer here, it’s REAL. I hope we have the occassion to find some more of these treasures before they are gone.

The beach on the lagoon side- the lagoon is behind me:

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