In 2018 I crossed one of my bucket-list items off my list; I went swimming with humpback whales in Tonga. It was easily one of the best experiences of my life and something I knew I wanted to do again should I have the chance. Well, I got my second chance and was able to go swimming with whales in Tahiti.
The experience was quite different from that of Tonga, but it was still incredible being in the water with these gentle giants. On our first day, we saw 3 whales together: a female, her calf, and an escort male. On our second day, we found a male whale who sang to us (you can FEEL it in the ocean, it’s amazing) and then a second stop with a mother and her calf who swam incredibly close to us. Just as in Tonga, I was in awe.
So, for anyone else headed to French Polynesia, here’s what you need to know about the Mo’orea whale swim.
Where Can you Go Swimming With Whales in Tahiti?
Quick geography lesson, Tahiti is an island in French Polynesia. Not the nation itself although most people frequently associated ‘Tahiti’ with all the islands. The whale swim actually takes place on the island of Mo’orea which is just a 10-minute plane ride or 40-minute ferry away.
Out of all the Society Islands, the whales really only frequent the waters around Mo’orea. At least on a regular basis- enough for the people of Mo’orea to be able to offer whale swim tours. You may occasionally see whales around the other islands like Huahine and Bora Bora, but they usually just pass by and don’t hang around like they do in Mo’orea.
What Time of Year is Best for Swimming With Whales in Mo’orea?
Swimming with whales in Mo’orea is a seasonal activity. Whale season starts in July and runs to the end of November, but the best months to go are mid-August to the end of October. This is when you have your best chances at sightings and it’s also your best bet to see the newborn calves who can be very curious and playful. The calves are born around these waters and spend a few months close to the island staying protected from their natural predators, the orcas, before migrating to Antarctica. Since they stay so close to the island (which is pretty small) they are easy to find during the whale season.
How Much Does it Cost to do the Mo’orea Whale Swim?
Swimming with humpback whales in Mo’orea is actually less expensive than you would think, especially for those who read my Tonga article. Here, I paid $115 USD for the tour. This was a half-day tour (we found morning tours to be better) but had no additional inclusions. You can borrow fins and a mask and snorkel if needed (I always advise bringing your own! I use TUSA brand and love them). This price is pretty comparable to most full-day tours in French Polynesia and, for those like me who want to do it more than once (because some days are better than others), it makes it more affordable.
What Happens During the Mo’orea Whale Swim Tour
Swimming with the whales in Mo’orea is very different from my experience in Tonga. If I am being completely honest, I was actually quite shocked and maybe even a bit disappointed on our first day because it was so different to the experience in Tonga.
In Tonga, there can only be 1 boat per whale with a maximum of 4 people in the water with the guide. Interactions are cut off at 30 minutes and there is absolutely no chasing. If the whale wants to interact-great. If not, you move on to another whale.
It’s a bit different in Mo’orea. There are no limits on boats or people in the water. So both days had multiple boats and easily 20-30 swimmers in the water. I feel like this is especially worth keeping in mind for anyone considering hiring a private boat for the tour- you all end up in the same spot anyway.
Now, don’t get me wrong. The whales are still absolutely magnificent. But being surrounded with 20+ other people all trying to move in for a better angle with their cameras and go-pros outstretched really isn’t as magical as being 1 of 4 people with a whale. I still loved being in the water with the whales and seeing them so close, but it didn’t feel quite as special as it did in Tonga. I was definitely spoiled there.
Requirements for Swimming With Whales in Mo’orea
To swim with the humpback whales in Tahiti you, as you guessed it, need to be able to swim. You don’t need to be a ninja in the water but you do need to be comfortable enough to swim in the open ocean. Boats can’t go too close so you will have to swim at least 100m to the whale but probably further because they move. Fins, masks, and snorkels are all worn and our tour offered little floating boards to help those who felt they needed a little more assistance with floating above to look down.
Again, this is the open ocean so if seasickness is something you have an issue with you will want to make sure you take some medication ahead of time. The swell can get pretty rough once you are out of the lagoon.
So, is Swimming with Whales in Tahiti Ethical?
Despite the number of boats and swimmers in the water, there are still rules in place. Boats can’t go more than 100 meters from the whale and swimmers need to stay back as well. You also are not meant to chase them. As usual, there are some rule-breakers but the guides are pretty good at reigning them in.
When we told our guide about our Tonga experience he was surprised, but also quickly admitted that he wished it was the same here. I have no doubt that our local guides have a lot of respect and care for the safety of the whales and I did feel good about our tour company.
I didn’t feel bad about going on the tour. However, Chantae and I did jokingly compare ourselves (and the other swimmers) to mosquitos as groups of swimmers excitedly swam towards them.
What Tour Company to Go With
All tours run the same way. Half days and, as mentioned earlier, chances are you will have every boat out with the same whale. We used Dolphin and Whales Spirit Adventure for both our swims. Our guide, Mitch, was great. The driver mainly conversed with the French-speaking guests but he found the whales so that was good. I would suggest just reading reviews and going with who you think sounds best. Prices should be similar too. We ended up going with Dolphin and Whales Spirit Adventure because they had a policy where if no whales were sighted, you get another tour for free or if you only saw the whale but didn’t get to swim, you’d get 50% off your next tour (between August 1 and October 30).
I will add, Mitch told us that of all the operators out there only seven are actually local. The rest are all expats from France who came over with a lot of money and bought boats. This is common in tourism across French Polynesia so I would suggest trying to choose local if possible.
Final Thoughts on Swimming With Whales in Tahiti
I’m, obviously, quite biased about swimming with whales in Mo’orea after I swam with them in Tonga but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an incredible experience. Based on my personal experiences, I would say that if you are looking to travel somewhere specifically to swim with whales, then go to Tonga. However, if you are travelling through French Polynesia and happen to be in Mo’orea during whale season, then definitely do it. Swimming with humpback whales is absolutely incredible and will forever be some of my favourite travel memories.
A Note on Travel Insurance in French Polynesia
Please, do NOT travel without travel insurance! I’ve had to rely on mine multiple times. While the cost may seem annoying and better spent elsewhere, trust me when I say you’ll be sorry if you don’t have it. For just a couple bucks a day, you can save yourself a whole lot of stress and money. I like to recommend SafetyWing for travel medical insurance as they are one of the most affordable options I’ve found, plus, they are who I use and I have had great experiences with them. Learn more about the importance of travel insurance here.