A Family Humpback Adventure in Moorea

Five amazing days snorkeling with humpback whales with the whole family - truly the trip of a lifetime!
By Bryan Chu

“Get ready” our guide William said excitedly, in his characteristic French accent. “It’s a juvenile, playing on the surface.” We could see fins and a fluke splashing about not too far away. Adrenaline pumping, I prepped my mask, pulled on my fins, grabbed my camera. 

Ever since convincing my fiancée Lisa, my sister Jenny, her husband Alex, and my parents Mary and Derek that we should book the whole boat for one week for this Bluewater trip, I had been nervous that it would not live up to expectations. The first day of the trip had involved a long swim with no in-water encounter, and many hours fruitlessly searching for more whales among large-ish ocean swells. 

But this morning, our second day out on the boat, the wind speed was low, the water was calmer, and there was an animal the size of a truck splashing around in the water. Just for us.

Our First Encounter

“Slide into the water quietly – don’t make any splashes. Keep your fins under the surface. And remember to stay together and follow me. OK we go.” 

We slid into the water and followed William, and after a short-ish swim, he slowed down and we came up next to him. And all of a sudden, like magic, there it was, the prehistoric-looking nose materializing out of the brilliant blue water and coming straight for us! 

William had told us to stay still if we had a whale come up to us, so we did our best to just float there without any movement. I watched it come closer and closer, lining up the shot on my LCD screen. This is when I experienced my first case of true whale awe.

Whale awe: a palpable, visceral sense of awe which permeates your entire being with a childlike sense of wonder, and amazement that you are IN THE WATER WITH A WHALE! As the whale approaches you, you feel an insistent need rising in you to yell out loud, to scream in exaltation, and wonder at the sheer beauty and grace of one of Mother Nature’s finest creations.

It was soooo close that I could barely hold in my whale awe; I was only a few seconds away from screaming into my snorkel like a maniac. It kept on coming. My heart was pounding in my chest like the rollicking bass-line of the Iron Maiden classic, the Trooper. Closer still. My breath was quick and ragged, and my throat dry. Closer still…and at what seemed to be the last second, the whale turned and passed us, giving us a really good lookover. 

 

Then it circled around underneath us for another look before heading off. It was insane, in the best way possible. Off the hook. Ill. Groovy. Ridonkulous. Bonkers. Cray-cray. Whatever the cool kids say these days. Actually, I looked it up, and I think it’s this (courtesy of Online Slang Dictionary):

Crunk (adjective)

Extremely fun; exciting; wild.

So yes, it was crunk

On the surface, we had our first collective exaltation.

Collective exaltation: In a group 3 or more people, everyone pops their head above the water, pulls out their snorkel and does some form of screaming, whooping or yelling to indicate their amazement.

We returned to the boat full of excitement, and were back in the water 15 minutes later. This time we got to watch it playing on the surface, though it did not come as close.

Endless Breaching

After lunch we continued our search, and although there were no more good opportunities to get in the water, we were treated to an amazing show of breaching humpbacks. One after another after another. This was fortunate because it turns out to be quite difficult to get a good photo of a breach!

Maman et bebe

Early on the next day, we heard the magical words for the first time. “Maman et bebe” shouted William. Mom and baby - we would get very used to this phrase, very quickly. “Get ready!”

Get ready: hurriedly stuff away your hat, sun buff/face gaitor (very important) and topside camera, spit in your mask, get on your gear ASAP…and then wait at least 15 minutes before going in.

We waited to see if they were in their resting period. We would know that if we saw the baby surface in the same spot multiple times in a row.

Resting period: when humpbacks sit maybe 20-30 ft below the surface, resting, and come up to the surface for a breath every 20 minutes or so (6-7 mins for calves). When resting, they don’t move, or move very slowly, so even a poor swimmer like myself can keep up with them.

After a few minutes of staring intently at the same patch of ocean, the baby came up right where we wanted it to. Resting period!

We slid into the water, and after a moderate swim, we found ourselves looking down onto the mom and calf. It was only our group, with no other boats around.

Then, some movement – the baby was coming up for a breath! It was like watching an alien spacecraft, a small shuttle taking off from the mothership and rising towards us. It was magical the way it slowly pumped its tail fluke. It came right up, on the far end of the group from me, took a breath and swam up to them. Even though I was a bit disappointed that I was on the wrong end of the group, it was so cool…and it was right in front of my dad!

I fought the temptation to kick hard to get clear of the group – I knew that I needed to stay motionless and we had to stay together, so as not to cut the encounter prematurely short. So I waited, enjoying the experience with the best sensor ever created.

Best sensor ever created: human eyes and brain. Seriously, the dynamic range, resolution and low light performance is out of this world!

After visiting the front of the group, the baby circled all the way around us, so I got a nice look, and then it went right under us.

After dropping down, the mom and baby moved along, though not particularly fast. Unfortunately, very slow for a whale is the equivalent of very fast for a human. 

We got back on the boat so full of excitement that we could barely contain it. “We’ll find them again” promised William. 45 minutes later, I was back in the water with the baby right in front of me. It was surreal. Sublime. I could barely contain my whale awe.  

 

A Chaotic Encounter

Our next encounter for the day was with two adults. We got in the water and quickly found them resting below, just at the edge of sight. So we waited. And waited. Then, next thing you know, we looked up and there were people everywhere.

Fortunately, William was amazing, and got us to a point away from the mass of people. The whales came to the surface, seemingly unperturbed by the excitement. We stayed together as a tight group, while the people behind us, now behind the whales as well, created a general underwater ruckus.

General underwater ruckus: a large group of people, with some kicking on the surface, some freediving, some chasing the whales, and guides yelling at people to stay with their group, etc.  

A Marathon Swim

Just as we thought the day couldn’t get any better, we heard the call: “Maman et bebe! Get ready!

There were three other boats in the area; this meant we would have lots of swimming, through – you guessed it – more general underwater ruckus. As it was the end of the day and our group was tired, only Alex and I went with William. We got into the water and went for a long swim. Next thing you know, we were sitting on the surface just ahead of the mom and baby, who were down about 30’ below. They were swimming along at such a leisurely pace that you could barely tell they were moving. But kicking to keep up with them took all the strength and energy I had.

It was worth it as the baby launched up towards the surface to take a breath. William had us in the perfect position, and it came right up to us. Everyone else was far enough away that it was like a private encounter. The baby’s movements were energetic and playful as it lunged up to the surface for breath, and quickly flicked its fluke up and down to circle us. 

Not only was it beautiful, but it was just the reprieve my lungs needed. As soon as the baby went back down again, I let out a big groan. It was time to stop floating and start kicking in earnest. We plowed on for another 6 minutes or so, and then the baby came back up for another breath. At this point we had been going for about 25 minutes, and I was exhausted.

All too soon, it was over, and we were back to swimming. My lungs were on fire and my legs were screaming at me. I tasted my lunch again (fortunately it had been a nice lunch). I felt every day of my 33 years, especially those days during the past 2 months driving around Alaska which involved minimal levels of cardio exercise, many hours of sitting, and above-average levels of sugary or salty snacks. 6 minutes later, my breath even more ragged, the baby came up again. This time, the mother came with it. If they thought about or noticed me at all, they surely must have thought I was dying, and probably felt some sympathy for the sick-sounding swimming monkey. I was close enough to get a couple of decent photos, and then they went down again. 

Alex tried to help by taking my camera, but at this point I was more cooked than a well-boiled Nova Scotian lobster, and probably just as red-looking. That was it. What an amazing encounter.

Could it Get Better?

After day 3, we told ourselves it couldn’t possibly get any better. For day 4 we had very calm water and minimal wind, so we decided to circumnavigate the island. This is where we really had the advantage over the day boats – we could go far offshore or go far from harbour to go looking for an amazing, private encounter, while they had to play it safe.

We had a quiet start to the day, but about 2 hours in we found a mom and baby pair all for ourselves. They surfaced right in front of us, all 6 of us. Talk about a family experience!

With this pair the baby was pretty shy, and did not come to check us out. So instead of following them, we decided to get back in the boat and go looking for more.

Triple Threat

3 hours later it paid off in spades, as we found ourselves alone, with our whole group in the water, above THREE adult humpbacks. We watched and waited, and then, rising up like benthic behemoths, they surfaced no more than 10 feet from our group. Insane! Crunk!

We waited above them as they spent their next 20 minutes resting, though unfortunately one of them went off, leaving two. Then Henri pointed down, and we saw them coming up. Straight up. Right towards us.

I’m not scared of whales or being in the water with them – we just need to follow our side of what I like to think of as the unspoken pact.

Unspoken pact: give the whales their space and treat them respectfully – stay together in a group (no freediving), don’t make sudden movements, don’t rush towards them or chase them. Let them decide how close they want to come to you. You can position yourself where you think they will come up, but then leave it up to the whales. Then they will hold up their side of the pact – not smacking us puny humans out of the way with their massive tails or flippers, either from annoyance or from being scared or spooked.

But even thinking this as much as I could, I was still nervous. They were coming so close!

Look Mom – No Hands

By this point I had been so busy taking photos of whales when they were close that I hadn’t had a really great uninterrupted eye-to-eye moment. So although I lined up one photo, it was a bit absentmindedly. I spent most of the encounter getting in some excellent non-camera enjoyment, including looking the closest school-bus-sized adult in the eye!

Non-camera enjoyment: spending most or all of your time and attention using your best sensor ever to just watch the whales, feel the emotions they bring up in you, and log every detail of the experience in your memory. 

They surfaced 6 feet in front of me, and it was beyond words. So much better without worrying about taking photos. I felt a level of whale awe I did not realize was possible. This time I could not stop myself from yelling into my snorkel. I was probably trying to say WOOOWWWWWW but it sounded more like uuuurrrggrgrgghhghghg. As soon as the whales were past, every one of us raised our heads out of the water, spat out our snorkels and engaged in a frenzied collective exaltation. I even included some expletives, which I never use around my parents!  This ridiculous encounter had just bested all other amazing ones of the trip.

As we got back to the dock, none of us could stop talking about how great of a day we had had. It went beyond our wildest imaginations. Surely it couldn’t get any better, right?

Could it Get Better? Part 2

We told William that for our final day, we’d prefer to skip out on encounters with moms and babies with other boats around. There were only two things we wanted – to get in the water with a singing male, and to find pilot whales. First though, we encountered a big pod of spinner dolphins while leaving the harbor. William advised us that they are quite shy, so there was no point trying to get into the water with them, so we enjoyed from the surface.

We then headed off the West end of the island, putting in the hydrophone. We heard two males singing, which was really cool. Of course, the problem with a singing male is that he sings facing down in the water, and you can’t see him. We didn’t have any luck, so we decided it was time to look for pilot whales! We spent about 2 hours heading offshore and looking around, but didn’t see any signs.

We headed in for lunch and came across another mother and baby. “Get ready!” In we went, and we were shortly joined by one other group. However, they followed the rules and the unspoken pact, stuck close to their guide and left us lots of distance. And we were treated to an amazing spectacle – mom and baby at the surface, baby nursing. They were so calm, and quite near to us and the other group. Not close enough for a really great shot with my fisheye lens though (and no way I was going to try to sneak closer, in the process risking messing up the encounter for my family and the other group).  

After getting back on the boat, we told William we wanted to spend more time looking for pilot whales. So we headed out for another hour. As we were motoring out across the blue water of the open ocean, I saw something jump, far off in the distance.

I pointed the direction and we turned that way. A couple of minutes later, we saw something dark stick out of the water and then go back down. Some kind of whale tail. That was promising!

And suddenly, we saw some dark backs with hooked fins sticking out of the water. Pilot whales!!! This was so exciting that I could barely contain myself, as I suffered a strong case of pelagic exhilaration.

Pelagic exhilaration: you are so excited that you actually found <insert cool pelagic> and can get into the water with it/them that you don’t even know what to do. You start putting your topside camera into your dry bag, but then stash it somewhere to be able to take photos. Then you grab your mask to get it ready. But you decide that you want to take a photo so you grab your topside camera. And you’re so excited that you can’t get a stable shot because you’re just thinking about getting in the water. But you really want that topside shot. And your fiancée gets annoyed with you because you are bumbling around frantically trying to do everything, and yet accomplishing nothing other than getting in the way of the others.

We slid into the water and headed for some pilot whales. The water was full of particulates, so visibility was poor. But we found whales! They were friendly, in that they just hung out in the water and watched us, but they didn’t get too close nor let us approach too close either. But it was still nice, as it allowed me to continue to develop my skill at non-camera enjoyment.

Then an oceanic white tip found us, and came in for a look. I am not scared of sharks, but as this was my first encounter with one of these, I was a bit nervous. It was very curious, and bold. William had already briefed us though on what to do - stick together very closely, and keep an eye on it, and we would be OK. 

We got on and off the boat a couple of times, and then sighted a humpback! How cool would that be to see humpbacks and pilot whales in the water together?

I grabbed my camera and flicked the on/off switch on my housing to check the battery. That is when I suffered a powerful setback.

Powerful setback: When the power switch for your camera housing falls off.

Crap. After making sure my housing was still watertight and stashing the loose pieces, I scrambled into the water. We came across the humpback quickly, but there were no pilot whales close, and the visibility was still poor. 

After this, we got into the water one more time. This time we came across something unexpected – a few rough-toothed dolphins. They were too far off for a great picture.

Finally, exhausted, spent and having consumed many mouthfuls of saltwater in the excitement, we were finished. Somehow, Day 5 had managed to top day 4! So we headed back in to shore. En route to the harbour we came across a mom and baby with 3 boats of people in the water. We watched from the boat, knowing that whatever happened, it would not match what we’d already seen this week.

It was seriously the trip of a lifetime - unbelievable on so many levels. And very accessible, as my parents who are in their 60s got lots of great encounters (with some towing and help from the amazing guides). The guides/boat captains William and Henri were fantastic, and we could not have asked for more. Indeed, we could have gotten a lot less out of this trip and it would still have been the best family trip ever.

Although this is listed as a photo trip, I think it’s much more useful to think of it as an experience trip. Experience something amazing like you’ve never seen before. And if you want, get some video and some photos to remember the trip by. But make sure that the experience is your top priority.

As I learned on this amazing trip, the only thing better than having a great experience is sharing that experience with one or more people who matter to you. If you can get a friend to go with you, or even better, a group of family and friends (6 to take the whole boat for yourselves) then you will build shared memories and experiences to truly last a lifetime. There's no real way to describe how fantastic it was being in the water with my whole family, and having two huge adult humpbacks surface right in front of us. I have no doubt we will be talking about this trip fondly in 10, 20 years, and beyond. 

So what are you waiting for? Sign up for one of Bluewater’s humpback trips!


Moorea Humpback Snorkel Trips

August/September 2019 - $2,995 per person

 

Silver Bank Humpback Trip

March 28 - April 4, 2020 - Starting from $3,795

 

Equipment & Settings Used

I shot an Olympus OM-D E-M1 with an Olympus 8mm fisheye lens and a Nauticam housing. The fisheye made sure I could be very close to the whales while still getting the whole whale in the frame. And as the visibility was decent but not amazing, the fisheye helped get the sharpest photos possible (ie least amount of water between camera and subject).

Shooting with a fisheye lens, especially on a crop-sensor camera, I was much more concerned about shutter speed than depth of field. f/5 on a micro-four-thirds camera gives a depth of field closer to what f/10 gives you on a full frame camera. If the shutter speed was a bit slow and the photo had motion blur, then it was no good. But if the aperture was a bit low, it wouldn’t have as much of an effect. So I shot in shutter priority at either 1/125 or 1/160 sec, and adjusted ISO if my aperture opened up too much.

Post-processing

I did not do anything particularly complicated. The main tip I would have for shooting subjects like this in really blue water is to modify the white balance by warming up the temperature. It’s easier to show than explain.

 

The other thing to keep in mind is that in some cases, black and white will give you a more dramatic photo than color. This is the most true when you really want to emphasize light, shape and texture, and color is a distraction from that. Black and white can also work very well with subjects which are a bit further away, and are being "lost in the blue." So after you adjust your photos with color, I would highly recommend taking a few minutes to try some of them out in black and white. You may be surprised with what you find!

Gear Links

Additional Reading

If you want to learn more about my experience on the trip, drop me an email at bryan@uwphotographyguide.com. I’d be more than happy to chat!

-Bryan

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bryan is an assistant editor for the Underwater Photography Guide. He loves any activity that takes him out into nature, and is especially fond of multi-day hiking trips, road trips to National Parks, and diving. Any kind of diving. He discovered the joy of underwater photography on a Bluewater trip to the Sea of Cortez, and after "trial and erroring" his way to some level of proficiency, has been hooked ever since. He has not done nearly as much diving as he would like, but has so far taken underwater photos in a diverse range of places, including BC, the Sea of Cortez, Greenland/Iceland, Northern Norway and the Galapagos. 

After working as a chemical engineer at a major oil & gas corporation for 9 years, Bryan finally had enough (and it didn't help that he was living in landlocked Edmonton, Canada with frigid winter temperatures and no real diving to speak of). He and his girlfriend decided to pack up their things and travel the world; they will start their journey mid-2018 and visit a number of great dive locations along the way. He is very excited to expand his underwater photography experience and skills while experiencing new cultures and exciting parts of the world. Though he is also a bit worried about the following equation that has so far defined his dive travels: Corporate job ($$) = Dive travel ($) + Underwater Photography ($). Taking away the left side of that equation seems like it might put things a bit out of balance. But as he reasons, what's the point in life if you can't take some big risks and have some fun along the way?

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