A Trip Around French Polynesia: Water, Whales, and Wandering in the South PacificMar 09, 2022 10:37AM ● By GLENN OSTLE
Thoughts of tall green mountains and shimmering blue lagoons occupied our minds as my partner, Pam Hadfield, and I began the long trip to Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia, located on Tahiti. From there it was only a short ferry ride to Mo’orea, one of the larger Windward Islands, part of the Society Islands, where we joined up with a group of photographers to snorkel with whales.
French Polynesia is the stuff of legends. France’s sole overseas country, it is a collection of more than 100 exotic islands and atolls stretching more than 1,200 miles in the South Pacific.
August through early November is humpback whale season in these islands. After an incredible 6,000-kilometer journey from Antarctica, the whales arrive to give birth to their young in these rich, calm waters, which makes this a perfect location for whale encounters.
French Polynesia has been a sanctuary for whales and dolphins since 2002, and strict laws dictate how interactions with marine life must occur. For example, a boat cannot approach whales closer than 300 feet (and at least twice that distance if the mother has a calf). Snorkelers must stay in a group with their guide, and no freediving, chasing, or swimming after the whales is allowed.
Despite their size, humpback whales are some of the gentlest animals in the world, and swimming with them is safe as long as you are respectful of them, follow directions, and understand that encounters must take place on their terms.
Working from our large 31-foot Zodiac, we had varying whale encounters. Some days we found very few, and while we waited the captain would periodically drop a hydrophone into the water so we could hear the whales “singing” in the distance. On other days we had a number of whale interactions, many with a mother and calf.
Humpback calves stay with their mothers for about 12 months, during which time the mother spends a lot of time resting in deep water, periodically coming to the surface with her calf to breathe. It was not unusual for us to spend 10 to 15 minutes in the water, close to a 50-foot, 40-ton mother humpback and her 15-foot calf.
French Polynesia is one of the few places in the world where it is still possible to swim with humpbacks, and the experience is nothing short of exhilarating and a little surreal.
CRUISING THE ISLANDS
Following our whale encounters, we traveled back to Tahiti to continue our Polynesian adventure aboard the newly renovated Windstar Cruises Star Breeze for a 10-night cruise through the Society Islands of Huahine, Raiatea, Taha’a, Mo’orea, and Bora Bora, and the atolls of Fakarava and Rangiroa in the Tuamotu Archipelago.
Each morning we would be up early and seated on the bow with our coffee as the ship quietly approached a new island. We were mesmerized by the bright blue lagoons and the halos of clouds that often encircled the high green cathedral-like mountains that seem to rise straight up out of the sea.
At various ports of call passengers had the opportunity to join excursions ashore, which included activities such as diving, snorkeling, or learning more about local culture and history. Some highlights included visiting vanilla farms, as well as learning more about the famous black Tahitian pearls that account for a large percentage of island exports.
There was also an opportunity to delve more deeply into the lives of a few famous island residents such as James Norman Hall, who was co-author of Mutiny on the Bounty, and French post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin, who spent 10 years painting people and landscapes in French Polynesia in the early 1900s.
Pam and I made a number of scuba dives during the trip, most notably on some of the famous dive sites on the atolls of Fakarava and Rangiroa, where we swam over wide fields of hard corals and schools of colorful fish in search of manta rays, sharks, and large Napoleon wrasse.
The Polynesian people have inherited a rich, expressive culture from their ancestors, which was on display one evening during a beach barbecue as local dancers performed a fire dance. Many of the dancers’ bodies were covered with symbolic manta ray, shark, whale, and turtle tattoos, which marked them as people of the sea. Tattooing is part of the Polynesian culture, with distinctive designs that express each person’s identity and personality.
Swimming with whales and learning more about Polynesian culture easily exceeded our expectations, and we flew home feeling honored to have been among people who have such a love and respect for the ocean, the creatures that reside there, and their beautiful island home.
Glenn Ostle is a long-time TOTI contributor living in Charlotte, North Carolina. For almost 30 years, he and his partner, Pam Hadfield, have traveled the world pursing their interest in underwater, wildlife, and bird photography. Ostle’s photos and articles have appeared in a number of dive and travel magazines. To see more of his photos, go to featherandfins.smugmug.com.