Whales of Rurutu
Lionel and Talley Pozzoli
By Lionel and Talley Pozzoli
There are Humpback Whales all around us as we try to approach, but we are completely ignored. We are about to give up when three excited animals surface right next to the boat. Eric immediately recognizes Blanche and her calf (she is called Blanche because of her large white markings). They are being harassed by a young adult male. His name is Mr. Wrong and he is completely confused—a mother whale with a three-week-old calf at her side is simply not in the mood. The water becomes white as the pectoral fins and popping heads stir the surface. Junior is only three weeks old; his small size makes him easy to recognize, and it is clear he is very stressed.
Normally in such circumstances it is advised to stay out of these behemoths’ way. Nicknamed the gentle giants, at the moment they’re anything but. Unfortunately we are not all normal and I’m speechless when my husband and Eric decide to slide into the water to get a closer look at these animals—about 30 tons each bashing against each other with fury. Blanche notices the men straight away, wastes no time and heads right up to them. As the two dive down, the water turns whiter than ever. I can’t help but scream. A few long seconds pass before the whales surface again with Eric and Lionel behind both of them in one piece and very excited. Just when all seems safe, poor Blanche turns and heads straight back with Mr. Wrong, who’s as determined as ever to attach himself to her.
During the last three weeks she has grown accustomed to seeing humans with masks, fins and snorkels watching her calf grow bigger. We have always given her the respect and space she needs. Now that Mr. Wrong is giving her none of that she (a 45-foot giant) sees us (!) as her saviors.
Back on board we get a detailed report. The male is much smaller than her and is getting beaten up badly. That’s more like it.
This was our first day in Rurutu.
Eric Leborgne was born in Martinique, which might have something to do with his unique affinity with the sea and its inhabitants. He first came to French Polynesia in 1986 as part of his two-year national service in the French army. In 1988, he moved to Rangiroa (in the Tuamotu Archipelago), which has some of the world’s most fantastic Manta Ray and shark dives. With Raie Manta Club, owned and run by Yves Lefevre, he became a diving instructor and has been so ever since.
In 1996, Eric and Yves Lefevre visited Rurutu (in the Austral Islands) for the first time. He has always been fascinated by whales and rumors were that Rurutu was a safe and popular resting point for them. Success was immediate. Eric soon realized that Rurutu is not only a quick stop along the way, but it’s also a place favored by pregnant females, who would stop off to give birth to their young, feeding them until they gained enough weight and strength for the long journey home.
The water surrounding the island is shallow and free from deep sea predators. During storms, there are calm lagoons on both sides, and there has been no whale hunting here since 1958.
Every year from the beginning of June to early November, Eric comes back here to meet his friends. His understanding of these animals is phenomenal. Each mother has a very different character. Eric can recognize each whale and knows how much space each one needs in order to feel comfortable. He has gained their trust and the results are something worth seeing.
This morning Eric points Blanche out to us from the car on the way to the harbor. Again she is not alone.
Once we are near enough we realize things are slightly different from yesterday. Mr. Wrong has a competitor. From the surface, he seems not to be too aggressive, so we don’t waste any time putting on our masks and fins.
Blanche’s reaction is again immediate. She turns and comes to us as soon as we touch the water. Having her huge body so close to me, her eye looking into mine, is an experience that comes once in a lifetime. Junior is right next to her. He is extremely stressed, clapping his two jaws together and making some strange loud sounds. It must have been a while since his mother had a chance to feed him. The two males are grousing and swearing at each other.
One of them has his sexual organ out—ready for action. They are blowing large columns of bubbles, which in whale language is a sign of aggression. They are also rubbing against Blanche and against each other, rather like a dance. In the process, pieces of their skin get removed and decorate the ocean like black stars. Heads and tails keep coming out of the water, but there is nothing as violent as yesterday.
We spend two hours with them. Blanche likes to have us around. She probably understands by now that there is not much we can do to help her, but our presence definitely gives her some kind of reassurance.
When the males start charging the boat, we decide to leave.
Noireaude is very dark and doesn’t have many white markings on her. Her calf is a month and a half old. We have spotted them before but always kept a distance, since she is very shy and prefers it that way. Today they have two males escorting them. One of them is who else but Mr. Wrong, and the other must have arrived one or two days ago. Eric has not seen him before. The group is cruising. We don’t follow.
We find Blanche and Junior in the flat water of Avera Bay. They are fully relaxed and just float on the surface. We join them for a while.
Junior keeps coming close for curious looks with Blanche right by his side. She does not risk letting him approach us on his own. In this kind of situation, the snorkelers should not try to swim to the whale. It will make the mother nervous and she will quickly shield her calf. If we float on the surface motionless we do not look threatening to her, and she will stay for us as long as it takes her son to satisfy his curiosity. About half an hour passes before Junior asks to breast-feed. They dive to a depth of 60 feet and his head disappears under his mother towards the tail, where there are two mammary glands. When he is finished, he moves away and gurgles the milk left in his mouth, and then he opens it. A large volume of milk floats out into the blue water. It just hangs there like a white cloud, slowly spreading until it finally disappears.
Later on that day we are searching the horizon for any sign of action when a new male takes us completely by surprise and breaches his whole gigantic body out of the water, right next to the boat. The sound of him landing on the water’s surface is amazingly powerful.
The splash is huge. Some of us are screaming with delight while others—photographers have a very unhappy look on their faces—did not have their cameras ready. Their expressions soon change. In the next few minutes this whale celebrates his arrival in Rurutu with at least ten more breaches. For the next week or two, many whales will be passing here on their journey south to Antarctica, which is the reason we keep sighting new males.
Tache Blanche is called that because she is very dark and has a large white birth mark right in front of her dorsal fin. Her calf’s name is Toufou (crazy baby). I’m not quite sure about his exact size, maybe six to seven feet long and about four tons in weight; definitely the largest two month old I’ve ever seen.
Pier, our boat’s captain and, ironically, the son of a retired whaler, keeps a respectful distance. Eric carefully studies Tache Blanche’s behavior. Once he thinks she has gone to sleep, he slips into the water quietly. He swims to where he believes she is and finds her in less than a minute. The calf appears right by his side in seconds. Joining Eric calmly and slowly as we have been instructed is difficult. It is clear this calf is very special.
Eric is on his back swimming away from him fast, but Toufou is racing to catch up and pets Eric softly with the tip of his snout. When he notices us he goes completely crazy. For the next 20 minutes he plays like a puppy, blowing bubbles, rubbing against us, proving his masculinity. Avoiding physical contact with him is impossible. He feels big and strong next to us and is having a great time. While normally a whale gets scared by snorkelers diving down, with Toufou we can do as we wish. Apparently last week Toufou somehow pulled a freediver’s bathing suit off!
During this time Tache Blanche is resting on the ocean bed about 90 feet down. Half her brain is sleeping and the other half is making sure her baby is safe. Once she decides to move, she will signal him audibly. He will then immediately leave us and position himself right by his mother’s side, where he will stay until she is ready for her next rest.
When Eric met Tache Blanche for the first time, Toufou was two days old, about 12 feet long and 700 kg in weight. Tache Blanche was very nervous, trying to keep her curious calf away. As Toufou grew older and bigger, Tache Blanche found it harder to control her rebellious child, and today she understands we are harmless.
The weather is bad—the sky is grey, the wind is blowing and the waves are high. Tache Blanche and Toufou seem to be very happy with this and give us a spectacular breaching show. It would have probably continued if Mr. Wrong did not suddenly appear again. Tache Blanche takes no nonsense, and the young suitor leaves almost as fast as he arrived. When we turn the boat around to leave, she turns and follows us for a while.
An hour passes before Eric finds a singing male. How he finds it is a mystery to me, but here it is in full glory, head down, tail up. The singing is hauntingly beautiful. We and the ocean seem to be overpowered by the magnificence of these sounds. I could never get enough of this.
At the end of the day, as we make our way to the harbor’s entrance, we find Tache Blanche and Toufou waiting for us. We join them in the water. While Mom goes to sleep, Toufou dances for us. He keeps rolling on his sides, his long pectoral fins moving to music I cannot hear. He playfully blows bubbles from his air hole. During this time he keeps visiting his mom, caressing her softly for reassurance and then coming back to play.
After a breast-feeding break, he returns to us feeling more energetic. When Eric swims down to the sleeping mother, Toufou notices this and has no intention of letting anybody near his mom. He dives down and pushes Eric out of the way. Then he turns and swims right up to me, delighting in how quickly I swim out of his way. He enjoys this so much, he turns again and comes directly back to me. I gather some courage and stay put. He comes closer and closer until he seems to be a little too close. I’m about to give up my position when he turns just a little and brushes against me as he passes by. I still have to move fast to avoid his tail. He dives down to about 60 feet when, just as it seems he is about to visit his mother again, he turns to us and starts moving faster, accelerating as he nears the surface. Before I know what’s happening, he manages to throw his whole body out of the water only to hear us screaming with excitement. I don’t know who is having a better time, him or us.
Now, with the oceans being a safer place for the Humpbacks, there is no doubt that whales will keep coming back to Rurutu in the years to come. Now that we have discovered how wonderful these creatures really are, we will make sure to be back here, too.
Scientific name: Megaptera novaeagliae
Average length: (adult female) 43 feet,
(adult male) 41 feet, (newborn calf) 14 feet
Average adult weight: (female) 25-30 tons
Breadth of tail: 15 feet
Length of flipper: 13 feet
Longevity: 40-50 years
Humpbacks sing the most complex songs in the animal kingdom. A song consists of many themes, which are sung in a specific order. An entire song can last up to half an hour. Once completed, the whale will start the same song from the beginning. Whales will sing for hours at a time and sometimes for days. The function of the vocal display is probably related to breeding—attracting females, announcing territory, maintaining space between adjacent males or to advertise the fitness of the singer.