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

One comment on “Swimming with Humpback Whales in Rurutu

  1. Your time there has been like a dream (for us to hear about) Maybe when you do your second trip we will be able to come with you for part of it!!! :-) Thanks for sharing so much of your trip, it makes it seem like you are a little close!