Swimming with whales

By | Category: Travel tips & opinions

Jean-Bernard Carillet shares a remarkable experience from the road


It was a perfect sunny day, with optimal conditions, and there were only three of us scheduled to join our captain and guide in the inflatable boat. After the brief at the dive shop, we embarked and headed towards the eastern tip of Tahiti Iti, the most pristine part of the island. The setting was dramatic to say the least – a cobalt blue ocean with towering basaltic sea cliffs as a backdrop – and the atmosphere truly wild.

That day there was only one boat out there: ours. Then, after about half an hour of fruitlessly searching for the smallest sign of a whale, it happened.

‘Two! On the left!’ Our guide shouted. ‘A mother and a calf!’

I swiftly dropped into the sea and it wasn’t long before I saw what looked like an apparition appear. Just a few metres away was a massive humpback, along with its infant calf. I was absolutely mesmerised by the power and grace of these leviathans as they played with each other in the shallows.

At one point the mother gently came closer to me and we shared a glance, me peering into its enormous eyeball. I had no fear. Instead, I had the feeling it was greeting me as if an old friend – it was a deeply moving moment. After about 20 minutes, the pair slowly swam away.

I got back on board, totally exhilarated. And as a perfect coda, the mother leapt into the air with its two pectorals open and landed back in the water with a tremendous splash, about 100m off the boat. As if it was waving goodbye.

By Jean-Bernard Carillet


The take away
On top of the indelible recollections of the thrill I felt during the encounter, I can say that this experience has turned me into a true lover of whales. Now I feel the urge to go whale watching at regular intervals and I have started planning some trips accordingly.

The build up
Most dive shops on the islands of Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora lead whale-watching tours between July and October, when humpbacks swim near shore to breed before heading back to the icy waters of the Antarctic.

It’s important to book ahead as most outings fill up fast. Prices start at US$70 for a half-day outing, and gear (wetsuit, fins, mask and snorkel) is included. All whale-watching trips should be led by a qualified instructor who will give a comprehensive brief on board prior to immersion. This activity has exploded in recent years, and unfortunately the way some operators conduct trips leaves something to be desired – it’s important to stick to established outfits that are ecologically sensitive and follow animal welfare protocols. Check with Mata Tohora (facebook.com/matatohora), which encourages good practice and can give you recommendations.

Some words of warning: whale sightings are not guaranteed; and the sea can be rough, so be prepared.

Reproduced with permission from Best Moment of Your Life, © 2018 Lonely Planet

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