Following the Call of Moorea's Humpback Whales

French Polynesia is home to one of the largest whale and dolphin sanctuaries in the world, where marine biologists are now beginning to make sense of the songs that reverberate for miles on end beneath the ocean waters.

Written by
Loulou Baylis
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8
min read
Summary
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“The song was so loud; it was making my whole body vibrate.”

As Matthieu Petit dived into the deep blue in French Polynesia, his eyes met a 40-tonne male humpback whale. The whale was vertical, head pointing towards the seemingly endless depths of the Pacific. It wasn’t moving. It was singing.

“I was discovering a totally new and mysterious world,” says Matthieu. 

It’s been 15 years since that first encounter, and Matthieu has now experienced thousands of interactions with these peaceful animals around Moorea, a volcanic island in French Polynesia, 10 nautical miles from Tahiti.

Each time I spend in the water with these giants is as amazing as the first.

Today, Matthieu runs Moorea Ocean Adventures, an ecotourism company based on the island. He switched to spending more time in the field after working as a Project Officer for Te Mana O Te Moana, a local NGO that protects the sea turtles of French Polynesia. 

Moorea is a humpback’s playground. They come to French Polynesia between the months of July and November as part of the humpback whale migration, enduring an extraordinary 6,000km journey from their feeding grounds in Antarctica. Then, at the end of the South Pacific’s spring, they return to the Antarctic Ocean on a route that normally takes two to four months.

The Shaping of a Humpback Sanctuary 

During their four months in Moorea, humpback whales are arguably in one of the safest areas possible. French Polynesia is a vast sanctuary for marine mammals, sharks, and sea turtles. “Marine wildlife needs sanctuaries where animals can grow, feed and breed without being strongly affected by overfishing and human industrial activities,” says Matthieu. 

Today, French Polynesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) spans five million square km (the size of Europe) and since 2002 has been designated as a whale and dolphin sanctuary. The area comprises 118 high and low islands with stunning oceanic, coastal and lagoon ecosystems, and Polynesian water temperatures of 21-27 degrees celsius. 

The man responsible for authoring the proposition to create this sanctuary, and for writing the draft legislation, is Dr Michael Poole, a world specialist on marine mammals and an advocate for their protection.

In 1992, Dr Poole first set out his proposal for French Polynesia to be declared a marine mammal sanctuary. Finally, on 13th May 2002, the legislation was passed. “It took 10 years of effort and a lot of patience and persistence to get that done,” he tells us.

In 2013, the World Wildlife Fund awarded French Polynesia the Gift to the Earth Award (their highest accolade) because of the sanctuary. And, on World Tourism Day in 2008, French Polynesia’s Ministry of the Environment and the Tahiti Tourism Office gave Dr Poole an award in recognition of his contributions to the environment and tourism and his work in creating the sanctuary. 

Dr Poole has studied whales and dolphins for over 40 years (35 of them in French Polynesia) and during this tenure made a number of groundbreaking discoveries. For example, he unearthed that Tahiti, Moorea, Huahine, Raiatea, Taha’a and Bora Bora each have their own resident populations of spinner dolphins. 

But perhaps his most important finding to date was that French Polynesia is a previously unknown breeding ground for a previously unknown population of humpback whales. “People thought they were just passing through to go somewhere else to breed like the Cook Islands, Tonga, or Samoa,” he says. “But in fact, they’re breeding here, and that was unknown.” 

Thanks to Dr Poole’s work, we now know that French Polynesia’s resident population of humpback whales comes back and breeds. However, taking that further, Dr Poole and his team unearthed that members of this population sometimes go elsewhere. “Every now and then, some of our whales are going to the Cook Islands, American Samoa, Tonga, and New Caledonia. Even over to Western South America,” he tells us. “By going somewhere else, they can avoid inbreeding problems.”

The Many National Anthems of the Humpback Whale

For humpback whales, songs are part of a complex communication system. They comprise various sounds that are arranged to form ‘themes’, which in turn are arranged to form the song. Amazingly, these songs can be transmitted from one breeding ground to another, and change as whales from differing populations and parts of the world communicate and socialise to form an incredible acoustic network.

“The most fascinating thing I think we’ve discovered [about humpback whales] is that we have this song transmission across the Pacific Ocean,” says Dr Poole. For years, Dr Poole has worked alongside Dr Ellen Garland, based at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, who is the driving force behind discovering song transmission across the Pacific.

Dr Garland and Dr Poole are studying what Matthieu refers to as the whales’ “sophisticated kind of language”. “It’s arguably the most complex vocal display on earth, after human song,” says Dr Poole. “It’s so much more complex than birdsong.”

“Each breeding population of humpback whales in the world has its own national anthem”, explains Dr Poole. “But sometimes, French Polynesia can have two songs in a single season.” 

“We’ve discovered that their national anthem experiences revolutions over time,” says Dr Poole. “It can be a slow evolution as in other areas of the world, or be rapidly replaced by a new song – a revolution of song – and it moves across the Pacific from the west (Australia) over to the east. 

“Whitney Houston [might have] sung [The Star-Spangled Banner] with more soul. Somebody else might make it a little more hip hop. But imagine if next year, Americans sing Oh, Canada instead,” says Dr Poole. “That’s a revolution! We’ve dropped what we’ve had. And that’s what’s going on with humpback whales in the South Pacific. That’s absolutely a favourite finding and a fascinating one.” 

The Migration of Anthems

Dr Poole, Dr Garland, and their team are currently working with people in South America to see if the transmission is reaching even further to the east, from Moorea towards South America and South America back to Moorea. 

Sometimes, though, French Polynesia’s humpback population doesn’t accept transmitted songs. “Our whales might not accept that revolution, and so we have two songs present until the newly arrived one is dropped and they keep their previous song,” says Dr Poole. “So you can start asking questions, like, how is the song transmitted? Are individuals from one breeding ground going to another or are they meeting somewhere else or what?” To gain more understanding, Dr Poole and his team are also working with colleagues at Pitcairn Island and Easter Island to cover the areas between French Polynesia and Western South America.

They use photographic, acoustic, and genetic databases to identify the whales and track their movements. “We have both the photographic and genetic passports of individual whales,” says Dr Poole. “The idea with these passports is to look at individual [whales] going elsewhere. Maybe some individuals went to another breeding ground and were singing the song they had last year. Or they could be meeting in areas between the breeding ground and Antarctica. And it could be they’re hearing something there and bringing it back.” 

Matthieu and Moorea Ocean Adventures also collect data about each marine mammal sighting and send them to the Environment Office of French Polynesia. In addition, they give their photo and video banks to local NGOs alongside whale skin samples for genetic studies. 

Although Dr Poole has studied whales and dolphins for over 40 years, his purpose has remained the same throughout: to learn more about them – and understand them. “To learn more about them so we can better protect them”, he clarifies. “Then governments will listen. We use our scientific data for conservation ‌to protect species and spaces.”

Where Tourism and Conservation Meet

Dr Poole also runs his own boat-based eco-tour: Dolphin & Whale Watching Expeditions. A pioneer in the field, he was the the only person to offer such tours in French Polynesia when he first set out back in 1992. So, how can boat tours be incorporated into conservation work? “Being in the ocean almost every day, we witness more wildlife behaviours and events than most scientists and NGOs,” says Matthieu. “So, we’re a precious source of information, data and pictures, which can be used by research centres in participatory research and by stakeholders to help set up conservation programmes.”

Two years ago, Matthieu and his team watched a minke whale with a young calf. Although Dr Poole had already confirmed this species presence in French Polynesia, Matthieu’s observation was the first of a minke calf in the area. It is findings like Dr Poole’s, Matthieu’s, and others’ that lead to significant developments for conservation in French Polynesia – and the world. For example, The Cook Islands, Samoa, Papua New Guinea, and New Caledonia have similarly declared sanctuaries in their respective EEZs. 

By interacting with hundreds of guests a year, both Dr Poole and Matthieu have the perfect opportunity to help raise awareness about protected and endangered species and the urgent need to safeguard our oceans. “Exposing people to real animals in the real world is different from seeing them through 3D glasses or on a screen,” says Dr Poole. “But it’s not sufficient just to see things. People need to be given information, shown how these animals live, what’s happened to them, how they’re doing at present, and what the projections for the future are.”

Dr Poole’s advice for wanting to observe these animals? “Choose a company that promises to teach you something about them,” he says. “Don’t just see them, but learn about them.”

But Dr Poole also mentions an aspect of French Polynesia and whale interaction that remains a problem: there’s currently no limit on the number of boats and operators allowed on and in the water. “Sometimes [there are] more than 20 boats around a single whale,” adds Matthieu. 

Both Matthieu and Dr Poole believe in a revision of the legislation to limit the number of boats and permits allowed. “We’re making our voices heard,” says Dr Poole. Matthieu agrees: “We are for a limitation on the number of whale permits, which in our mind, is the only way to limit the number of people around the animals.” He continues: “We will try to make ourselves heard in the [upcoming] months and years so our activity can stay respectful and doesn’t become a threat to our wildlife.” 

Supporting Respectful Ecotourism 

Dr Poole never takes people out to “swim’’ with humpback whales. “We say observe them in the water”, he clarifies. This is to eliminate the expectation that being with these animals will be like interacting with Flipper or that the sole purpose is to swim right up to them for the perfect selfie. “That’s not what my company does,” he says. “We go out, and we observe them in the water. There’s no trying to interact with them whatsoever. We’re not trying to touch them at all. We’re not doing anything other than observing them during an incredible experience and teaching people about them”. 

The more people know about something, the more likely they are to care. And people that care are more likely to take action.

“With our tourism, we don’t just take people out to see dolphins and whales. We want to share correct and important information, but in a really fun way,” says Dr Poole. “We also show that commercial but respectful animal tourism can generate local jobs and an important economy while keeping the animals safe and alive,” adds Matthieu.

Working in the field and on the ocean also gives both teams an unexpected advantage. “We have an important role as whistleblowers,” says Matthieu. They can speak up when they encounter signs of ecosystem disruption or a direct negative impact from human behaviour. “In the last few years, we’ve informed local organisations of coral bleaching events, whales tangled in nets or fishing lines, and injured turtles,” says Matthieu.

“Ecotourism, if it’s done correctly, can minimise the impact on the environment and the animals”, says Dr Poole. “It brings people up to a higher level of awareness about these animals and the needs that they and their environment have.

“We can’t protect everything everywhere. That’s unrealistic, and we shouldn’t try. But we absolutely have to preserve some things in some areas by protecting species and spaces. So, by taking people out and sharing some of this, hopefully, they’ll care more. And if they care more, then they’ll likely do something about it as well.” 

“One of my favourite facts about humpback whales is that they are now increasing their numbers a little bit everywhere”, says Matthieu. Today, the current world population has rebounded to over 100,000 humpback whales after the 1986 moratorium that ended whale hunting. That’s up from their lowest point of 10,000 to 15,000 during commercial whaling. “There’s either no genetic or cultural memory of what we did to them, or else they’re very forgiving of us”, says Dr Poole on why he thinks humpback whales still approach boats after everything that’s happened throughout history. “And they certainly have extreme tolerance and patience with boats and people.” 

Photo credit: ©2015 MPOOLE

Dr Poole and Matthieu, along with others, do incredibly important work in an incredibly stunning place on earth. “There is no regular day right here, and that’s so exciting,” says Matthieu. “It's like being immersed in a Nat Geo documentary.” 

And what’s Dr Poole’s favourite thing about this ‘mysterious world’ that Matthieu first encountered 15 years ago? “That humpback whales sing,” he says. “And that only adult males sing. Most often, but not always, the male is upside down when he’s singing – between 30 and 90 degrees. You just can’t make this stuff up.”

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Author Bio

Loulou Baylis

Loulou is a freelance copywriter by trade and adventurer at heart. Based in the UK, she has over nine years of copywriting and content marketing experience, specialising in action sports and the outdoor industry. Loulou is passionate about storytelling and spending time in nature. When the laptop’s closed, you can find her paddleboarding, skiing in the mountains, or bookmarking inspiration for the next trip. To get in touch, visit louloubaylis.com or connect on LinkedIn.

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