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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 the evenings.

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 here.

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.


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