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Swimming with humpback whales

Having paused their Pacific cruise in Mo’orea, Josh Shankle and Rachel Moore find wonderment swimming with humpback whales

“Slip into the water, don’t jump. Try not to splash, and follow me,” our guide Torea hurriedly told us as the panga-style boat slowed to a stop, only 100m away from a sleeping giant.

“Stay together, stay close to me. Ready? Let’s go!” As the boat clicked into neutral, Torea was already in the water and swimming away, urging us all to follow quickly. Lowering myself into the water, I barely had time to take in the vast blue void of the open ocean below me. By the time I took my first breath, he was already 10m away, kicking toward where he’d last seen the whale spout.

From the boat, the distance we had to swim didn’t look far, but once in the water fighting the wind chop and current, I realised the 100m swim was going to take more effort than I’d realised. I’m unsure of how far we really swam or how long it took in the end, as the excitement and adrenaline rush distorted details. Once we reached the spot Torea believed the whale to have last been, we slowed our pace and searched the endless blue below us. He kept reminding us to stay together and stay close, which in the emptiness of the Pacific, I was happy to do.

We strained our eyes trying to make out a shape in the depths. Light rays pierced into the abyss, dancing around and playing tricks on our eyes. Then, slowly out of the blue expanse, a silhouette began to take shape. She didn’t seem to be moving, slowly ascending from the depths with ease and grace, seemingly unaware of our floundering, awkward presence. As she rose, her calf also came into view just below her.

Time slowed to a stop as these magnificent beings rose to the surface, just metres in front of us. I was torn between raising my GoPro to capture the sight, albeit viewed through a tiny LCD screen, or forgetting my camera to instead be fully present in the moment.

‘Time slowed to a stop as these magnificent beings rose to the surface’ Photo: voyagesofagape.com

The mother humpback took one massive breath and with a gentle flick of her tail sank back below the surface, staying just within sight. Her calf, on the other hand, was feeling playful, and after a moment of hiding behind its mother, swam to the surface to gambol around our group.

It was a truly unforgettable encounter. To look into this sentient being’s massive eyes and see the curiosity, playfulness, and wonder within is nothing short of life-changing. We had several such meetings, and even after almost two hours of swimming with this mom and her calf, it was still not enough. Like a good showman, the whales always left us wanting more.

Migratory passage

For millennia, these incredible cetaceans have travelled through the rich and diverse waters of our world. From gravity-defying acrobatics at the surface to swimming through the crushing pressures of the depths, whales have been exploring our planet’s ever-changing oceans for 50 million years. After being nearly hunted to extinction by whaling fleets, they are just now starting to make their comeback. It may seem like ancient history, but if you have a classic plastic or 1970s-era boat, as we do with our 37-year-old Tayana 42 Agápe, don’t be surprised if your original transmission manual asks for Dexron type A or B oil – in other words, whale oil.

Agápe moored off Mo’orea in French Polynesia. Photo: voyagesofagape.com

While we no longer have a can of sperm whale oil on board, these behemoths are still very much a part of our world as liveaboard cruisers. Agápe’s journey has been in parallel with these deep-sea voyagers since the start.
From our home port of Ventura, California, we sailed south along the coast of California and Mexico with pods of humpback and grey whales often alongside breaching, singing, and playing, sometimes a little too close for comfort. Every time we spotted the whales breaching or breathing at the surface, we slowed the boat down and it was all hands on deck as we tried to capture photos of the encounter. We joined them on their annual 10,000-mile migration south from the nutrient-rich feeding grounds of the Pacific Northwest into the warmer waters of Mexico and Central America. Our journey that year, in comparison, was a measly 2,000 miles.

From there, we made a big right turn to start our Pacific crossing, leaving our whale friends in the warm waters of Panama to birth and mate before they returned to the cool, nutrient-rich coast of Alaska. Just like the whales have their traditional migratory routes and seasons, yachts, too, have seasons and routes that we tend to favour for weather and currents. The route that lay before Agápe’s bow led us from coastal cruising out into open sea, crossing the world’s largest ocean to the South Pacific.

Mo’orea is one of the premier whale watching locations in the world, with strict rules governing organised tours. Photo: voyagesofagape.com

Entering the famed waters of French Polynesia, we found ourselves enthralled by the rich and diverse marine life that lay just under our keel, but also sometimes petrified by the razor-sharp corals and sweeping currents that seemed to be a constant threat to our little floating home. Our first year in the South Pacific left us feeling exhausted as we learned the hard way about squalls, coral passes, and lagoon navigation. As we sailed into the benign north pass of Mo’orea in the Society Islands and dropped our anchor in the clear and protected water, we decided it was time to take a break from non-stop passagemaking. For the past three years, we’d averaged moving the boat every three to five days.

My wife, Rachel, and I still live aboard, but instead of moving our home every few days, we came to think of our Tayana 42 as more of a floating apartment. A very small apartment. We soon learned that the tropical island of Mo’orea is one of the premier whale watching locations in the world. A distinct population of humpback whales makes the arduous journey here every winter to birth their calves, mate, and rest in the warm waters before making the long migration back south to the feeding grounds of the Antarctic.

Who’s watching who? Photo: voyagesofagape.com

Immersive experience

Safely tucked into the lagoon, we’d sit in Agápe’s cockpit having our morning coffee and watch as the mothers led their calves along the outer reef, often stopping to sleep while their calves played at the surface. Occasionally, we’d take our dinghy out to see them, but as one person had to stay in the boat with the engine running, it left the other alone in the water with the whales. The whales are not dangerous, but there are oceanic white tips that are known to sometimes follow the whales, and it’s advised to always swim closely in a group, constantly checking your surroundings. For that reason, we opted to go on several guided tours.

In the US it is illegal to swim with whales or marine mammals of any kind, but in some countries, including French Polynesia, you can still immerse yourself in their world. There are restrictions in place for both your and the whale’s safety, but here you have the opportunity to encounter them respectfully.

playful whale calf swims with Joshua Shankle – among his most memorable ocean experiences. Photo: voyagesofagape.com

Whale watching tours here are often done in panga-style fibreglass boats or large RIBs. Usually, there are 10-12 people per boat, including the guide, captain, and photographer. The chances of seeing and swimming with whales through a tour company are much better than going on your own, as the tour companies all communicate with each other and can travel at over 25 knots in the open ocean. And when you do see a whale, you don’t have to worry about who will stay behind with the dinghy and miss the encounter.

I find myself morally on the fence about whale watching tours, or similar encounters like feeding sharks and stingrays. On one hand, I believe that limiting human interaction with nature is the best approach to reduce our impact, while on the other, I have seen first-hand how people who have never experienced something have no reason to strive to protect and steward it. Tours offer people a chance to connect with the animals in their natural habitat, leaving a lasting impression and hopefully conveying the importance of protecting our ocean and its inhabitants for years to come.

After spending five months in Mo’orea, we had completely fallen in love with the island. Slowing down long enough to make friends outside of the cruising community opened doors for us to see and experience things that few passersby will ever do.

We became good friends with several of the tour operators and guides, getting to know their views and opinions on the tour activities. We learned of their deep respect for the ocean and all it provides for them.

Living in harmony with the sea is firmly rooted in the Polynesian tradition and lifestyle. It only takes a moment of talking to our friend Maui, owner and operator of Corallina Tours, to realise his passion and love for all things aquatic. Running tours might be how he makes a living, but his passion is showing visitors his island and the magic that lies just below the surface.

This love and deep connection to the sea are what help make the tours in Mo’orea unique. Rachel and I have taken part in several whale watching tours around the island and, to date, these are some of our most memorable experiences in the ocean. Swimming with a whale is nothing short of magical and cannot be fully comprehended until you have experienced it.

Agápe has spent four years now exploring the alluring waters of Polynesia, and the feeling of excitement every time we spot a blow or breach has not diminished.

We enjoy all of our encounters with marine life whether above or below the water, but there is something special, an extra feeling of reward and accomplishment when you see such a large, sentient animal, and even more so when you see it from your own yacht.


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