Whale Whisperers
Win the trust of humpback whales and its possible to interact with them for long periods. Tally Pozzoli got to know some of these not-always gentle giants around the Pacific island of Rurutu - including a calf called Crazy Baby which has taken scientists by surprise

THREE EXCITED HUMPBACK WHALES SURFACE right next to the boat. Eric immediately recognises Blanche (so-called because of her large white markings) and her three-week-old calf. They are being harassed by a young adult male.
     His name is Mr Wrong and he is confused. His attentions are unwelcome, and Junior is clearly stressed. The water becomes white as tails, pectoral fins and heads pop furiously above the surface.
     In such circumstances it is normally advisable to stay out of the way of these 30 ton giants, which are anything but gentle at the moment. Im speechless when Eric and Lionel, my husband, decide to slide into the water for a closer look. Blanche sees and heads straight for them. As the two men dive, the water turns whiter than ever. I cant help but scream.
     Long seconds pass before the whales resurface, with Eric and Lionel behind them, in one piece and very excited. Just when all seems safe, poor Blanche turns and heads straight back. Mr Wrong, it seems, is still determined to attach himself to her.
     The next few seconds are as frightening as the first, and this pattern is repeated again and again. I want to cry when I realise that Blanche keeps coming back to us for help. She has grown so used to seeing humans with masks, fins and snorkels watching her calf grow bigger since its birth, and always giving her the respect and space she needs. Now 15m-long Mr Wrong is giving her none of that, and she sees us as her saviours.
     When the men get back on board we hear the details. The male is much smaller than Blanche and is being beaten up badly. Thats more like it!

     That was our first day in Rurutu, the northernmost island of the Austral archipelago, 360 miles south-west of Tahiti. With just over 2000 inhabitants, Rurutu is unique among the French Polynesian islands.
     It is surrounded by a barrier reef and lagoon formed 12 million years ago. Since then the island began to sink and be eroded away until about 1.5m years ago volcanic activity pushed limestone from the old reef 100m upwards. Rain and sea spray shaped this limestone into cliffs and tunnelled into the rock, creating numerous caves in which calcium deposits formed surprisingly shaped stalactites and stalagmites.
     Eric Leborgne is from the French Caribbean island of Martinique, which might have something to do with his affinity with the sea. He arrived in Polynesia on national service with the French army in 1986, and two years later moved to Rangiroa atoll, which has some of the worlds best manta ray and shark dives. He became a diving instructor with Raie Manta Club.
     In 1996 Eric visited Rurutu. He had always been fascinated by whales and it was rumoured to be a safe and popular resting point for them on their way north in winter, and again on their return to the Antarctic.
     Humpbacks (Megaptera novaeagliae) inhabit all the oceans. At the end of autumn they leave their cold, rich feeding grounds for warm tropical waters, fasting until they return to the cold in early spring.
     Eric soon found that Rurutu was a place for pregnant females to give birth, feed their young and let them gain enough weight and strength for the long journey home. Its shallow waters are free of deep-sea predators, and in case of a storm there are calm lagoons on both sides.
     What these females could not know is that there has been no whale-hunting here since 1958.

     Every year from the beginning of June until October or November, Eric comes back to meet his friends. He can recognise each whale by its markings and characteristics and knows how much space each one needs to feel safe and comfortable. He has gained their trust.
     The following day Eric points Blanche out to us from the car on the way to the harbour. Things are slightly different today - Mr Wrong has a competitor. From the surface the situation seems not too aggressive, so we waste no time putting masks and fins on.
     Blanche comes to us as soon as we touch the water. Having her huge body so close, her eye looking into mine, is an experience one can feel only once in a lifetime. Junior, beside her, is extremely stressed, clapping his jaws together and making strange, loud sounds. It must have been a while since his mother was able to feed him.
     The two males are grumping and swearing at each other. One has his sexual organ out and ready for action. They are blowing large columns of bubbles, a sign of aggression, and rubbing against Blanche and each other. Shed pieces of their skin decorate the ocean like black stars, and heads and tails keep coming out of the water, though not as violently as yesterday.
     We spend two hours with them. Blanche probably understands by now that there is little we can do to help her, but our presence gives her some kind of reassurance.
     When the two males start charging the boat, we decide to leave.

     Noireaude, unlike Blanche, is very dark. Her calf is six weeks old. We usually keep a distance because she is shy and prefers it that way. The following day we see mother and baby with two males escorting them - one is Mr Wrong, the other one Eric has not seen before. The group is cruising; we dont follow.
     We join Blanche and Junior at the surface of the flat water of Avera Bay. Junior keeps coming close to look at us, Blanche at his side. In such situations snorkellers should not try to swim to whales, as this unnerves the mother. If we float on the surface motionless she will stay as long as it takes to satisfy her sons curiosity.
     Some 30 minutes pass before Junior asks to breast-feed. They dive to 20m and his head disappears under his mother towards the tail, where her two mammary glands lie. When he has finished he moves away, gurgles and then opens his mouth. Milk floats into the water, hanging there in a huge white cloud that slowly spreads and dissipates.
     Whale milk has a fat content of about 40 per cent, 20 times that of human milk. A young calf consumes 100 litres a day to gain about 80kg in body weight. Blanche will nurse Junior for the next 10 months, by which time she will have lost 10 tons, a third of her own body weight.

     Later that day another new male takes us by surprise and breaches his entire gigantic body out of the water next to the boat.
     The sound of him landing back onto the surface is amazingly powerful, the splash huge. Some of us scream with delight while others look unhappy - the photographers did not have their cameras ready. But their expressions change as the whale celebrates his arrival with at least 10 more breaches.
     What makes whales breach, lobtail (slam the tail down on the surface, repeatedly) and flipper (slap their huge pectoral fins on the water) is a mystery, but they do it all year round.
     It might be to get rid of dead skin or parasites, or simply for fun or excitement.
     Tache Blanche is very dark and has a large white birthmark in front of her dorsal fin. Her calf is Toufou (Crazy Baby), some 6-7m long and weighing about 4 tons.
     He is certainly the biggest two-month-old I have ever seen. Pier, our captain and, ironically, the son of a retired whaler, keeps a respectful distance.
     Toufous short pectoral fins, long snout and large number of pleats on his chin are unusual in a humpback, though would be normal for a blue whale. It seems that a blue whale fathered Toufou - as the first such hybrid to be found, he is to prove a great surprise to scientists the world over.

     Eric watches carefully and, once he thinks Tache Blanche is asleep, slips into the water and finds her in less than a minute. Toufou is by his side in seconds. Joining Eric calmly and slowly as instructed is difficult. It is clear that this calf is a special one.
     As Eric swims away on his back, Toufou races to catch him and pets him softly with the tip of his snout. When he notices us, he goes crazy. For 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. Normally a whale gets scared by snorkellers diving down, but with Toufou we can do as we wish. The previous week he had somehow pulled a free-divers bathing suit off!
     All this time Tache Blanche is resting on the ocean bed about 30m down. Half her brain is sleeping, the other half making sure her baby is safe.
     When she decides to move, she signals him audibly and he is immediately at her side, where he will stay until her next rest.
     When Eric met Tache Blanche for the first time, Toufou was two days old and she was nervously trying to keep her curious calf away. As Toufou grew older and bigger, however, she found it harder to control her rebellious child and today understands that were harmless.

     It is our last day and the sky is grey, the wind blowing and the waves high. Tache Blanche and Toufou mount a spectacular breaching show which is terminated only by the arrival of Mr Wrong. Tache Blanche leaves almost as fast as Mr Wrong arrives.
     An hour later, Eric finds a singing male in full glory, head down, tail up. The singing is hauntingly beautiful, overpowering. Humpback whales sing the most complex songs in the animal kingdom, consisting of many themes sung in a specific order. A song can last half an hour. Then the whale begins the same song again, going on for hours, even days.
     This vocal display is probably related to breeding, attracting females or announcing territory, to maintain spacing between adjacent males or to advertise the fitness of the singer. Sound travels better and faster in water than in air, so the sea is a perfect place for acoustic advertising.

     At the end of the day, as we return to harbour, we find Tache Blanche and Toufou waiting, and join them in the water. As mother goes to sleep, Toufou dances for us, rolling on his sides while his long pectoral fins move to music I cannot hear. He playfully blows bubbles from his air holes. During this time he keeps visiting his mum, caressing her softly for reassurance before coming back to play.
     After a breast-feeding break, he returns more energetic than ever. When Eric swims down to the sleeping mother, Toufou dives and pushes him out of the way. Then he turns and swims up to me. He seems to enjoy watching how I swim fast out of his way, and does it again.
     This time I muster the courage to stay put. He keeps approaching until he seems a little too close. Im about to give way when he turns just a little, brushing against me as he passes by. I still have to move fast to avoid his tail.
     He dives to about 20m then, just as it seems he is about to visit his mother again, turns to us and starts moving faster, accelerating as he nears the surface.
     Before I know whats happening, he manages to throw his whole body out of the water, only to hear us screaming with excitement. I dont know whos having a better time, him or us.

     In the last century the humpback population was reduced from 100,000 to 2500 by whaling. They were reprieved just in time. With the oceans safer, they will keep coming back to Rurutu.
     They might be giants, but humpbacks are fragile. Their light-hearted character fascinates us, and its only a matter of time before Rurutu is swamped with tourists. If the situation gets out of hand it would be tragic for both man and whale. If controlled correctly, however, we will all benefit.

  • XXL Encounters arranges trips to Rurutu. Call 0800 028 75 42 or e-mail xxl@europe.com

  • another
    another mother and baby humpback whale pair
    Tache Blanche gives a breaching display
    On the pull - a male humpback flirts with a female
    Toufou the hybrid calf plays with Rurutu whale expert Eric Leborgne
    Toufou starts a breach
    leading underwater cinematographer Christian Petron used rebreathers when filming this male and female humpback in Rurutu for a TV documentary

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