Every year from August through October, hundreds of whales migrate from Antarctica to mate, give birth, and raise their babies in the warm shallows of the South Pacific. The mission of One With Whales is to connect you to the people, whales and ocean of Polynesia. We do this by combining swimming with humpback whales with cultural immersion on the remote island of Rurutu.
The program combines swimming with whales and immersion within Polynesian culture— our goal is to help you become one with the people, whales and ocean. The island of Rurutu is your home for the week, and the Tavita family becomes your family. We spend long days on the water, and you must be a strong swimmer comfortable in open water to successfully participate in this program. This is not a diving program, rather, we snorkel with the whales.
The program fee is $3500 USD.
This includes airport pick-ups and drop-offs in Rurutu, our whale boat (4 hours a day), whale guide, all accommodation in Rurutu, all meals, gear rentals (if needed, sizes are limited), and all scheduled activities. It is exclusive of flights, insurance, personal gear and personal spending.
Sunday: Arrival Day
We will pick you up from Rurutu Airport in the afternoon (there’s just one flight today in the late afternoon from Tahiti) and welcome you to this beautiful little island of 2,400 people. We’ll host a Polynesian welcome dinner at the house and have a safety briefing and group introductions this evening.
Monday through Saturday: On the Water
Every morning, after a home cooked breakfast at the house (07:00 am), we pack into our refitted pickup truck for the short drive to the pier, where we change into our wetsuits, gear up, and load everything onto our boat— the Apo Apo 2. Captain Onoi, or sometimes her father Nahuma, then navigates out of the harbour and we head out in search of whales.
For the next four hours (08:30 am - 12:30 pm), we look for whales, and when we find a group, we approach them carefully and responsibly by sending two scouts into the water first. The boat stops approximately 100-150 metres away from the whales and we must swim the rest of the way. This is to help protect them from any potential contact with the boat, as well as not scare them with the boat’s engine.
We return to to shore mid-day and have a fresh lunch in Moerai. While the menu is not extensive, it’s all fresh and delicious, and very seafood heavy. The fish are all line caught or speared locally, and many dishes are prepared cru (raw) with lemon, coconut milk and fresh vegetables.
Depending on the day, the afternoons are generally reserved for local cultural activities. Some things to expect may include a tour around the whole island, visits to local artisan workshops, cooking lessons, a hike to the highest point on the island, taro farming, fishing, and Polynesian music and dance.
Home cooked dinner is prepared at the house by Teiti, who is an incredible chef. He uses local ingredients in his dishes so you can expect a lot of fish, fresh vegetables, taro leaves, taro root, potatoes, salad, pomelo, guava, papaya, coconut and banana. He even makes a new dessert each night.
Sunday: Departure Day
On the morning of our departure day we head out on the boat in search of whales. After whale watching with Onoi, we return directly back to the house for a farewell lunch with our host family. We pack up and head over to the airport around 4pm, where you bid farewell to our host family and the island of Rurutu, carrying back amazing memories of the seas, whales and smiles of this incredible little island.
MEET THE FAMILY
When you walk down the streets in the village of Moerai, people will ask who you are with, and when they find out you’re with the Tavitas, everyone smiles. That’s because most of them had mama Gisèle as a teacher; she spent 30 years teaching Polynesian language and culture at the high school before retiring a few years ago. Father Nahuma is also a well known local personality, being the most famous captain on the island and a descendent of the old Rurutuan royal family.
Their children, Onoi and Teiti are following in their parents’ footsteps, free diving, captaining the boat, cooking, and organizing cultural excursions with us all over the island.
Meet them here.
Mother, Storyteller, Manager
Gisèle is the matriarch of the family. From coordinating our swims, preparing meals and getting the house ready, Gisèle takes care of everything. She taught traditional Polynesian language and culture for 30 years around the Austral Islands and is compiling a book of her own on the history and culture of Rurutu. She sings and writes songs in her free time.
Father, Captain, Fisherman
Nahuma is a Polynesian Ron Swanson. He’s an expert captain and fisherman, has stared in two French documentaries, helped scientists document whale populations, line catches wahoo with traditional hooks made from wood, plays the ukulele, lead a Polynesian dance troop around the world, and so much more. He’s also a deacon in the church.
Sister, Captain, Whale Guide
Brother, Chef, Manager
Onoi and Teiti are a wonderful, friendly, jovial sibling duo.
Onoi is the first female captain in Rurutu and she is also a trained whale guide. She’s following closely in her father’s footsteps on the water. She also has three little ones of her own to look after. She has an infectious smile and laugh.
Teiti graduated from hospitality school in Tahiti and is an amazing chef. He takes care of all of our meals and helps us get around the island. He’s one of the kindest and warm hearted people you’ll meet.
MEET THE ONE WITH WHALES TEAM
Trek Leader, Co-founder, Photographer
Matt is an entrepreneur and photographer from Vancouver, and a co-founder of Inertia Network. Matt has worked on media projects from the freezing high Arctic in Canada, to the warm waters of the Polynesia, documenting people, culture, wildlife, and events. He's an experienced expedition leader and has visited over 100 countries to date. Matt speaks English, Chinese, Spanish and French, and is one of our underwater photographers.
Besides the arrival day, we try to swim with whales every day of this program. Each morning, we wake up and have breakfast, then drive to the dive shop in order to change, and we set out on the boat directly from there. For the next four hours we’ll look for whales. If the weather is bad, we may move our whale swimming hours to the afternoon, as wind and large swells is not great for whale swimming and interactions.
Besides whale swimming, we also embark on several cultural activities with the Tavita family around Rurutu. This includes a cultural tour of the island with mama Gisèle, who taught Polynesian culture and language at the local school for 30 years. She will show us ancient coral caves, ceremonial grounds, farms and explain the stories of the island.
We also organize activities with other family members, like farming taro with Nahuma, Polynesian cooking lessons with Teiti, and more. Other days, we just relax at the beach or nap at the house, depending on how successful our morning swims are.
While in Rurutu, we stay with the Tavita family. The six bedroom house is clean and simple, located a five minute walk from the beach on the northern tip of the island.
There’s a common space where we can all hang out with couches and chairs, a dining area where we have our meals, and bedrooms for sleeping. Each room has a shower, but you can expect water pressure and temperature to vary.
There’s a garden and patio area outside, as well as a place to hang clothes to dry.
We have internet at the house, but it’s slow and cannot handle downloads or uploads beyond sending emails and Whatsapp messages. It’s a great space to unplug from the outside world and enjoy Polynesia.
Fresh fruit and coconuts are always available whenever you’d like.
All of our breakfasts and dinners are home cooked at the house. Teiti is an amazing chef and he uses lots of local ingredients, combining elements of Polynesian and French cuisine. Breakfasts consist of freshly baked baguettes, homemade jams, butter and eggs, along with fruit juice and coffee grown and roasted on Rurutu.
Dinners are all unique and incorporate freshly caught fish and seafood, taro, potatoes, salad, local vegetables, and a Polynesian or French dessert. Local fruits— pomelo, banana, papaya, coconut, guava— are widely available. For lunch, we eat in town at one of the handful of restaurants in Moerai. Their menu du jour changes daily, but some staples include: sashimi, poisson cru, fish Javanese, grilled fish, carpaccio, salad, fries and rice.
The program includes all breakfasts, lunches and dinners while in Rurutu. We suggest you bring your own snacks and drinks, or purchase them from one of two local shops in Moerai. Imported snacks and wine are available on Moerai, but prices are not cheap. We can accommodate vegetarians and vegans; pescatarians will have an easy time here.
“It was an awesome, life changing experience. I came within feet of these massive, beautiful, graceful animals. It made me reconsider my relationship with the world. The pace of the trip and flexibility made our off time very enjoyable.”
How does swimming with whales actually work?
If and when we find a playful whales, our captain and trip leaders will discuss our approach. Each situation is different; sometimes we encounter extremely playful adults, sometimes we find moms and their babies, sometimes we see heat runs where males are jostling for position in pursuit of a female in heat— it’s imperative to listen to the whale guide and captain before getting into the water. Our goal is to keep both whales and humans safe and feeling unthreatened.
Touching the whales is not permitted. While we may be very close to them, at times within inches, humans are not permitted to initiate contact with them. This is for their safety and yours. Free diving is only acceptable when we are with a particularly playful adult whale. You will be informed by your whale guide if and when free diving is permitted. For the most part, you should expect to be snorkelling at the surface with the whales.
Do we swim with whales everyday?
While we try to swim with whales every day, some days are luckier than others— weather and conditions are definitely at play. There are some days where we don’t swim with whales at all, sometimes for several days in a row, and there are other days where we may swim with the same group for hours days on end. It’s impossible to predict, but we know that whales generally arrive in Rurutu around the end of June or beginning of July, mate and have babies, and then stick around until early November. Many whales also stop in Rurutu on their way from the other Polynesian islands back towards their feeding waters in Antarctica.
How many people are in the group?
Our boat holds a maximum of 9 participants plus our captain and whale guide, enabling small group interactions with the whales. This means there are eleven people on the boat in total. Our house only has six bedrooms (single supplement is available on a first come first serve basis), otherwise you’ll be paired up with a roommate from the group.
Is is dangerous to swim with whales?
It’s important to remember whales are wild animals and we do not have control over the interactions— they do. While they are highly sentient and gentile, we still approach and interact with caution. One humpback weighs the equivalent of 10 elephants after all. Successful interactions hardly require swimming after the whales, rather, you’re best off waiting for them to approach us.
Adult humpbacks have better control over their movements and bodies than the babies, so it’s important to maintain more distance from the babies than the adults. Even with adults, try to stay near their head and close to their eyes so they can see you, as the tail is incredibly powerful— they can lift their entire bodies out of the water with just three pumps from their tail muscle. For your safety, stay behind the whale guide in the water and always listen to instructions.
Does this activity disturb the whales?
We do our absolute best to ensure our activities in the water are not disruptive to the whales. The way we are able to accomplish this goal is allowing the whales to become the architects of their interactions with us. We wait for them to approach, we do not chase after them, and if they want to play, we play on their terms. If they would like to be left alone, they will make that known by swimming away or not approaching us at all.
This being said, many times our presence in the water is enough to spark curiosity and whales may very well approach us to see what we’re all about. When this happens, it’s important to just float in the water— do not swim at the whales. Let them remain in control. Our boat will always maintain a distance of at least 100 metres away from the whales as to not disturb them, so be prepared to do a lot of swimming.
What is Rurutu Island like and how do I get there?
Rurutu is one of the main islands in the Austral Archipelago, a remote group of volcanic islands in the southern part of French Polynesia. Rurutu is one of the most traditional islands left in all of Polynesia, where the local language flourishes, culture and traditions are maintained, and many things on the island originate on the island, including food and produce. White sand beaches form a good amount of the coastline, with fringing coral reefs just off shore. The interior of the island is fertile, full of conifer trees, and small farms. The total population is about 2,400 people spread across three major villages.
Rurutu is reachable from Tahiti on Air Tahiti four days a week. The flight takes about an hour and a half to reach Rurutu’s little airport and tickets can be reserved online directly from Air Tahiti’s airport. We’ll pick you up from the airport when you arrive.