Whale-watching in Polynesia

By Jennifer Gacich, February 25, 2010

Humpback whale - photo by Jennifer Gacich

Humpback whale - photo by Jennifer Gacich

Swimming with humpback whales in the South Pacific. From July to October a small number of humpback whales megaptera novaeangliae make their annual migration to the sheltered waters of French Polynesia’s Australs archipelago to reproduce.

I spent months planning every detail of our Polynesian adventure and the island of Rurutu was destined to be the highlight of our trip. A far flung tropical paradise in the Pacific Ocean, some 600 kilometers south of Tahiti, the island forms part of the Australs archipelago. We had flown halfway across the world to get to this remote, windswept isle and we knew we were about to have one of those magical, once in a lifetime experiences.

In the months preparing for the trip, I had scoured YouTube for tourist video footage of the island and its crystal-clear blue waters. I soon became obsessed with shaky hand-held images of tourists bobbing up and down on the ocean’s surface, marvelling at their close encounters with humpback whales. Despite my terror of the open ocean, I was determined to overcome my fears and be one of them. Of course, I couldn’t set off on our journey without buying accessories for my underwater camera. If I was going to immerse myself in bottomless ocean waters with whales the size of planes, the moment would be captured, framed and proudly displayed on my living room wall for years to come.

After endless hours transferring from one aeroplane to another, we finally landed in the wild and rugged isle of Rurutu. It was the middle of August and the chilly gusts of southern equatorial winter winds took us by surprise. Nervous glances were exchanged as we started to wonder about our choice of island, but we were soon reassured by the numerous whale-watching posters adorning Rurutu’s makeshift airport walls. We had come at the height of whale-watching season, as every year, from July to October, a small number of humpbacks migrate to these sheltered waters to reproduce.

Humpback whale - photo by Jennifer Gacich 

Humpback whale – photo by Jennifer Gacich

With only four days on the island, we had to maximise our time, so our first whale-watching trip was organised before we even got to the guesthouse. As it turned out, Viriamu, the stern-looking owner of our little pension, offered to arrange all our excursions for us. He persuaded us to snub the reputable French whale-watching tour operator I had read about in the guidebook in favour of local fishermen (his cousins) who supposedly charged less and offered the same service. Despite our initial reservations, we decided to take our host’s advice and support the local economy.

The following morning, with the sun shining and our excitement mounting, we gathered our snorkelling gear and climbed into the back of the jeep that awaited us. After some time surfing the waves in a little speed boat, we established contact. The boat slowed and we got ready to jump in the water, hoping to catch a glimpse of the whale that was just off-shore. Incredibly, the curious young whale came straight towards us. This was the moment I had been dreaming about, and yet, I felt a surge of fear as the giant creature came nearly within arm’s reach. Thankfully, I remembered that I had a camera in hand and started taking as many photos as I could. The whale took one good look at me and my strange flashing apparatus, then gently veered off into the blue.

We were ecstatic and desperate to have another close encounter with these majestic creatures so we arranged to go out again the following day. However, reality soon set in as the dream faded. We watched in horror as the fisherman broke all the international rules of whale- watching. Rather than being observed from a distance, they were harassed and trapped between the boat and the shore. Whales had once been hunted by the locals and their approach to whale-watching seemed to follow the same strategy.

The question is: can hunters become conservationists? Clearly, local residents of Rurutu lack training in sustainable ecotourism and conservation awareness. Without the sustainable management and protection of precious resources, both the local economy and environment will lose out on the long-term benefits of ecotourism. Fortunately, there are those on the island who believe in conservation and are trying to raise awareness. Viriamu and his biologist wife are among the few who are working towards a sustainable future. Their hope is to involve the Ministry of the Environment in their efforts to train local fisherman in ecotourism and safe whale-watching practices. However, as we have learned, tourists also need to be more aware of their impact on local ecosystems and make the right choices.

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