Since 2002, French Polynesia’s territory constitutes one of the largest protection zones in the world for marine mammals. Humpback whales are sheltered from whaling when they gather here very July through November. They travel from the Antarctic to seek refuge around our islands, where they give birth and raise their young. Read on to meet and learn about the whales!
A migratory species from Antarctica, humpback whales are expected in our islands every year between July and November. These magnificent marine mammals tirelessly cross the largest ocean on the planet. Some of them return to French Polynesia, others are spotted in neighboring countries. Around 15 meters long (50 ft) and weighing about 40 tons, scientists refer to humpback whales as Megaptera novaeangliae (the large wings of New England), due to their long pectoral fins that can reach 5 meters (16 ft). During their passage through French Polynesian waters, they put on a superb spectacle for whale enthusiasts and nature lovers who wish to see them jump, hear their powerful blowing, see their fins, and of course, get a glimpse of their calves. The males are the first ones to arrive in French Polynesia, followed by younger whales, females accompanied by their one-year olds, and females ready to give birth. Exhausted after having journeyed 7000 km (4350 mi), the mothers-to-be often choose a spot in our mild, warm waters close to shore and safe from predators, so they may calmly bring their calves into the world. The weight of a newborn, which is about a ton at birth, doubles two weeks later after nursing about 400 liters a day (110 gallons) of a mother’s extremely rich milk.
A calf’s development in French Polynesia is facilitated because it doesn’t have to struggle against the frozen waters of Antarctica. Its rapid weight gain is vital to escape predators and to prepare itself for an arctic environment, which actually provides a huge advantage due to its abundance of krill, the tiny crustaceans that are a main staple for this type of whale. On the other hand, because our warm waters are virtually devoid of krill, nursing females can lose up to a third of their weight. This is why migration to the great south is critical for them to build up their fat. In French Polynesia, mothers socialize and educate their newborns, then accompany them for the journey back to Antarctica, where they teach them to feed themselves on krill. The following year, the mother-child duo returns to the Pacific together. Once they have learned their lessons, young ones aged one to two years old are released onto their own. Then, females can again mate in our safe zones. The notoriously poignant male chant attracts the attention of the females. They engage in magnificent nuptial parades in which their spectacular jumps are visible from shore. From the sea, people need to be extremely vigilant. Each of these giant mammals weighs close to 40 tons as it hits the water.
From being hunted to being in one of the greatest sanctuaries in the world
Humpback whale populations and their migratory patterns are known all over the world by…whalers. Ironically, it is due to their knowledge that we can retrace South Pacific whale history. From July to November, between the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, whaling ships hunted whales from New Zealand to New Caledonia via Fiji, the Cook Islands, Tonga, and Australia. Archival records indicate that no humpback whales were killed in French Polynesia during this era. However, as soon as the 20th century, whalers present in French Polynesia hunted a great number of toothed whales. The presence of humpback whales was not mentioned. It was during the mid-20th century that hunters killed thousands of humpback whales within the waters of southern French Polynesia. In fewer than 40 years, from 1920 to 1960, more than 2 million whales were slaughtered, of which 200,000 were humpbacks. Almost 97% of the world’s humpback population was decimated. By 1962, only 3% of their original numbers remained. In 1986, the International Whaling Commission officially introduced zero catch limits for commercial whaling; however, several humpback whale hunting expeditions still take place in the Pacific for “scientific” reasons. Today, whales and all marine mammals can come to French Polynesia in pure tranquility to mate, give birth, and in some cases, settle down. In 2002, due to an initiative of authorities in the territory, what constitutes one of the largest sanctuaries in the world with an oceanic surface of 5 million square kilometers (2 million sq. mi.) was created in French Polynesia. It shelters 24 species of whales and dolphins, which constitutes a high level of biological diversity. French Polynesia’s environmental codes strictly regulate whale activities and penalties for non-compliance are enforced. As such, the harassment, capture, and hunting of whales are strictly forbidden. Approaching by boat and from the water is regulated. Commercial activities, scientific studies, and audiovisual endeavors must be authorized by DIREN (Direction de l’Environnement, the environmental management agency).
There is nothing more sensational than watching humpback whales and dolphins move in their own natural environment. Whale watching is an ecotourist activity that has replaced whale hunting. Professionals, taught by DIREN, know the rules about respectfully approaching the animals; however, every year a large number of boats approach the whales without respecting basic rules, through either ignorance or impertinence. Due to this increasing stress for the whales and their calves, the Mata Tohora association, supported by the Ministry of Ecology and DIREN, has developed the program, “C’est Assez!” (That’s Enough!). For the third consecutive year, this program will take place between Tahiti and Moorea. The main objective is to educate people through approaching them on the water to inform them about the existence of the sanctuary, and to explain the rules of approach so that they may observe the whales and the dolphins safely without disturbing them. Due to its success and good results, the program is now in effect annually. You may take part in this program through contacting the association and even becoming a watcher from Mata Tohora’s observation network.
The association organizes outings onto the ocean from July to November in order to educate boaters and sea professionals, as well as to inventory the humpback whales and study their behavior. How does their behavior develop in light of all the boats? Does human presence affect the development of the calves? How can we ascertain whether the observed whales are the same ones or new ones? Mata Tohora executes the identification of humpback whales through taking photos of the tail fin, which is unique to each whale. This basic information is transmitted to DIREN, which allows a clearer picture of the humpback whale population visiting our seas. In collaboration with colleagues throughout the South Pacific, the association also studies their migratory movement. Protection, observations, and respect for these majestic mammals is at the heart of the association’s mission so that this French Polynesian sanctuary remains not only a welcoming place for this threatened species, but also a privileged space for the coming together of humans and whales.
Doctor of Marine Biology
President of the Mata Tohora Association
Director of PROGEM (protection and management of marine ecosystems)
Mata Tohora Association (Eye of the whale)
Mata Tohora, which means “eye of the whale” in Tahitian, is an association much in demand by marine mammal enthusiasts wishing to unite for the wellbeing of the whales in French Polynesia. As such, an interdisciplinary team of marine biologists, sound engineers, teachers, facilitators, naturalists, artists, graphic designers, and veterinarians has come together. Due to the diverse skills of the volunteers, Mata Tohora regularly offers a number of marine mammal-related activities. These include communicating with people on the water; scientific studies; emergency interventions; participatory research; a series of lectures for the public; educational outreach in schools; and presentations over whales in the pediatric department at the Taaone hospital in Papeete to help children forget about their shots and treatments. Through supporting Mata Tohora by either your physical participation (volunteering, sabbaticals, internships) or financial support (sponsoring, adoption, material donations, etc.), you would be contributing to the protection and increased awareness of marine mammals in French Polynesia.