Rurutu - Humpback Heaven!
Rurutu is the most northerly of the islands that make up Austral
Archipelago, the most southerly of the island groups in French
Polynesia. 350 miles from Papeete, the Austral Archipelago
have a slightly cooler climate than the Tuamotus, and from
July to October the air and water temperature range between
20 - 24C. While it may be pleasant in the daytime the temperature
drops at night, and some warmer clothing is necessary during
Rurutu is a very pretty island, 18 miles in circumference;
topping out at a height of 1280ft the island drops dramatically
into the sea on all sides and is peppered with caves that
have been eroded by water over the millennia, creating wonderful
formations of stalactites and stalagmites. These caves are
steeped in legends like those of Hina, an ogress who lived
in a cave near Mt Manureva and Moko, a giant lizard. The island's
mild climate means that a huge range of fruits & vegetables
grow; the coastal strip near the airport offers rich soil
and allows 2 crops of delicious potatoes a year, giant carrots,
turnips and greens. Every garden is planted up with papayas,
limes, mangoes, grapefruit and the ubiquitous banana palm.
Exotic flowers adorn the roadside. The mountainous interior
even has alpine forest!
Rurutu is most famous for the humpback whales that come to
the shallow waters between July & October. On their annual
migration the humpbacks come north from the Antarctic to Rurutu,
where the waters are calmer, and comparatively free from predators.
Here they can calf in relative safety, giving their offspring
a fighting chance before the long journey south to Antarctica.
(If I were a baby humpback I would kick a fuss! Why go to
freezing Antarctica when you can stay in Tahiti?!!!) The humpbacks
usually stay for about 4-6 weeks after calving. The mothers
do not feed for the duration of their stay in Rurutu, and
as they are suckling their young, they need to rest up during
the day to conserve energy. The mothers "sleep" on the sand
and coral covered seafloor, often in only 80 or 100ft of water.
They sleep for perhaps 30 minutes, their eyes open, so they
are aware of their surroundings and the safety of their calf.
The calf can only hold its breath for perhaps 5-8 minutes,
and must therefore return to the surface to breath. While
at the bottom with their mother they nestle under her body
for protection, and return to the surface for air. Being young,
intelligent and inquisitive, they come up to the snorkellers,
checking you ought through eyes that show vast expression.
You know this is no dumb animal! My final day in Rurutu brought
my best encounter - a mother asleep, floating above the coral
seabed, just off shore from Avera Village on the east coast.
Her calf was hiding under her chin, and came up to breath
on a number of occasions. On one occasion the mother woke
and came to the surface with her calf to breath, and then
descended again to sleep. The calf continued to pop up to
the surface and on one occasion swam straight past me, no
more than 2 or 3ft away. A marvellous experience!
You will also often see bulls breaching - showing off to
each other and prospective females, they launch themselves
up out of the water, only their tails remaining submerged.
They then flop back into the water with a mighty splash, the
sound cracking loudly through the air. I was fortunate enough
to see two large bulls, 40ft & 50ft in length, performing
for over 2 hours in the bay off Moerai, on the north west
coast of the island.
Humpbacks grow to a maximum length of about 60ft and can
way as much as 50 tons. After an 11-12 month gestation period
the calves are born approximately 8ft in length and weighing
as much as 2 tons! The calves are suckled for about 5 months
and then weaned before the journey south to the Antarctic.
Scuba diving is also available in Rurutu, the dive sites
offering a more sub-tropical flavour to those of the more
northerly islands. While there is plenty of coral and associated
tropical fish, some more cold water species can also be observed
Snorkelling trips are about 3 hours in duration, starting
at 9.00am and at 2.00pm, giving you the opportunity to relax
and enjoy lunch between sessions. 5mm wet suits and thick
windcheaters are provided on the sessions, as the sea is cool
and the process of jumping in and out of the water to observe
the whales can drain your body heat quite quickly. We would
also recommend a woolly Jacques Cousteau hat for additional
warmth. A limit of approximately 8 people per boat is imposed.
You will see whales on almost every snorkelling session,
but this does not guarantee you will get in the water with
them; if the mother is travelling across the bay she will
be moving too fast for an in water encounter. This is not,
as you can appreciate, an exact science. For those who just
want a good whale encounter we would recommend a 4 nights
stay, with perhaps 3-5 snorkelling sessions. For photographers
we would recommend a week, with 7-10 sessions. This will give
you the maximum opportunity to get that dream shot!
A tour of the island is also an essential part of a visit
to Rurutu - marvellous caves full of stalagmites & stalactites,
rich in legend and visits to traditional villages, particularly
on the south coast, where pandanus basket weaving is a speciality.