a humpback whale seen half-in, half-out of the water in a photograph in Tahiti

Swimming with Whales in Moorea: Picking an Ethical Moorea Whale Snorkeling Tour

Humpback whales are one of the earth’s most incredible, gentle creatures — and one of the few places on earth you can swim with them is off the shores of the beautiful island of Moorea in French Polynesia.

These peaceful giants of the ocean are almost otherworldly, communicating with each other through an intricate system of songs and undertaking some of the longest migrations known to man.

Every year, during their epic migration, they hang out in the balmy waters near French Polynesia — especially preferring the areas around Tahiti and Moorea, where there’s lots of deep water just off the shores.

During this period, they warm up from colder parts of their journey and enjoy the warm waters to mate, birth, and nurture their young calves.

For a couple of months each year, namely from August through November, you have a potential chance to swim and snorkel with these humpback whales as they pass through the waters near Moorea!

Whale visible near the surface of the water while swimming in Tahiti

Now, you might wonder, is it really okay to swim with whales in Moorea?

As with all animal encounters, there’s an element of personal belief here. I believe it is, at least for the time being, and I’ll explain why in this post (including some recommendations on who to go with).

As someone who’s super passionate about diving and protecting the ocean, I’m here to help you figure out if you should consider a whale swim tour in Moorea — and who to go with if you decide to go!

When to Swim with Humpbacks in Moorea

a humpback whale seen half-in, half-out of the water in a photograph in Tahiti

There’s a brief window for swimming with humpback whales in Moorea: only from August through early November each year.

While humpbacks often arrive as early as July, it’s not permitted to swim with them during that month, so as not to interrupt their arrival to the islands.

You can do regular whale watching tours during July, but you would not be allowed to get in the water with them, even if you did see them from the boat.

View of humpback whales out in the wild near Tahiti and Moorea

The exact end of the whale season in November depends where you are in Tahiti or Moorea.

Down near Tahiti Iti, the smaller part of Tahiti in the south, whales tend to stick around a bit longer than they do in Moorea, so if your trip is in November that’s something to keep in mind — you may want to allocate some time to swim with whales in southern Tahiti as well.

If you’re looking for the prime time to swim with whales in French Polynesia, aim for mid-August to mid-October. That’s when you’re most likely to see whales, and the sea is usually at its calmest, too.

Guidelines for Swimming with Whales in Moorea

A few people swimming with humpback whale in the water in Tahiti

If you want to swim and snorkel with whales in Moorea, there are some guidelines that have been created for whale safety and to have the minimal possible impact on whales in their environment.

These guidelines should be stuck to by all tour operators who offer whale excursions — no exceptions.

You can read a full guide to the rules here, available in both English and French, but I’ll give you the basics here:

Rule number one: the 30-100-300 rule. Always keep a personal distance of 30 meters from any whale, and the boat should keep 100 meters of distance (and 300 meters to lower its speed). 

Of course, if a whale decides to swim closer to you, that’s okay — you can hardly outswim a humpback! — but don’t swim towards them within this 30-meter buffer zone.

Next, don’t encircle around the whales — this goes mostly for boats, but the same rules apply to people as well. 

People at the surface of the water while whales are down below in the waters off of Moorea for a whale snorkeling tour

They should only be approached from one side so that if they want to leave, they can do so easily and without creating a stressful environment for them.

Similar to that note, when swimming, always approach them from the side, as approaching them head-on or worse, from behind, can make them feel threatened.

If you approach from the side, they can just gradually angle away if they’re not interested in an encounter… or they can choose to near you if they are curious, which they very well might be!

Another important consideration is that boats should never corner a whale against a reef — this is incredibly dangerous for whales!

Swimming with whales should always happen in the open ocean, where they have plenty of space to move freely.

Person swimming in the water with whales in Tahiti and taking photographs of whales in the wild

Finally, please, never get between a mother whale and her calf. That’s just common sense.

Keep in mind, swimming with whales isn’t a sure thing — after all, these are wild animals in their natural setting. They’re not employees of the whale excursion company; they are beautiful wild creatures busy with their lives, like mating, feeding, and raising their young.

While your tour operator will do their best to find whales for you to swim with, they can only control so much, and a lot is out of their hands.

View of people swimming with whales, the surface of the water reflecting above, two people in the water, and two whales in the distance.

Another important thing to consider is that water conditions need to be safe for swimming with whales, since these encounters happen in the open ocean, which can get pretty rough at times.

Your captain’s first objective is always your safety, and then your satisfaction with the tour. Full stop.

Do not give them any grief if they say you can’t get into the water — they know a lot more than you do about what the currents and water conditions are like.

The Ethics of Swimming with Whales in Moorea

People at the surface of the water while whales are down below in the waters off of Moorea for a whale snorkeling tour

The head of the World Animal Protection NGO once pointed out a bittersweet truth: animal lovers, in their eagerness to connect with animals, sometimes end up causing them harm without realizing it.

It’s always more ethical to encounter animals in their natural environment — there’s a reason any serious animal lover hates places like SeaWorld.

But do whale watching tours bother the whales themselves? That’s really where the question lies.

I’m personally of the opinion that swimming with whales in Moorea can be ethical, so long as the tour operators stick to the stringent rules developed by whale behaviorists and conservation experts.

I reason that so long as boats respect the required 100-meter distance (and 300 meters before reducing their speed) and don’t chase or trap the whales, the interaction between boats and whales isn’t much different from what whales experience with typical maritime traffic.

Now, what about the swimming portion? I think a similar rule applies here: whales just generally aren’t bothered by the presence of humans — we’re just like weird, large, surface-dwelling fish to them.

Two whales deep in the water below with people at the surface observing

So long as we don’t create stressful environments for the whales by chasing them or attempting to touch them (follow a 30-meter distance rule), we can have a safe and respectful interaction from afar — or rather, from however close the whale chooses!

I will allow that some people, typically vegans, believe that nearly every form of animal tourism is unethical and exploitative once money gets involved.

As someone who isn’t vegan but deeply cares about ocean life, I take a different view — one that I think is pragmatic.

The realistic answer is that we live in a capitalistic society where whales’ value is considered through a financial lens: with whaling and mass commercial fishing, whales’ lives and environments are threatened.

A mother humpback whale and her young swimming in the waters near Tahiti during whale migration season

But in areas where whale watching occurs, there’s usually also a high degree of ocean conservation.

My reasoning is that the minor stress a whale might experience from avoiding humans or boats is far less harmful than the devastating effects of whaling or habitat destruction due to overfishing.

As long as a whale can easily leave an encounter without stress or impact on their natural behaviors, I think the benefits of swimming with whales – both for people and for whale conservation – outweigh the potential downsides.

Best Company for Whale Swimming in Moorea

A half-in, half-out picture of the Tahiti landscape above the water and a humpback whale below the water, taken while swimming with whales in Tahiti

In Moorea, the most reputable whale watching tour operator is Moorea Expedition, which follows all the directives of safe and ethical whale watching.

Note that because they follow the regulations and stay at least 100 meters away from the whales with the boat at all times, you must be comfortable swimming in the open ocean.

They will provide you with floatation devices as well as snorkeling gear, but you still have be confident enough in the water — and sometimes in choppy water conditions — to swim closer to the whales (note that you must observe a minimum distance of 30 meters).

That minimum distance is for your approach: if whales want to get closer to you, that’s perfectly fine, but you should not get closer than that on your own.

While you’re not guaranteed to see whales (and even if you see them, you may not be able to swim with them unless ocean conditions are safe enough), the tour will also aim to give you a chance to see or swim with dolphins.

Allison swimming with a blacktop reef shark in Moorea in the French Polynesia area

And you are all but guaranteed to get the chance to snorkel with stingrays and blacktip reef sharks (an extremely gentle and docile shark that should not be feared!) when you swim in Moorea’s lagoon at the end of the tour.

This is a good option because no matter what you will see something beautiful in the ocean, whereas on Tahiti whale swimming tours, they don’t bring you to a lagoon where you can see rays and sharks if you are unsuccessful at seeing whales.

On this tour, you are guaranteed to walk away with some sort of memorable ocean experience, even if the whales or the ocean doesn’t cooperate on that particular day.

Book your whale watching and whale swimming tour here!

Top Spots for Whale Swimming in French Polynesia

A humpback whale in Moorea seen near the surface

Tahiti and Moorea are your go-to spots for a chance to swim with whales in French Polynesia. 

Both these islands have deeper waters off the coast of the islands, which makes it more promising for whale encounters compared to other tourist spots like Bora Bora in the Society Islands which are primarily shallow lagoons.

But the crown jewel for whale sightings in French Polynesia is Rurutu Island in the remote Austral Islands, about 600 kilometers away. It’s a trek to get there, but if you do, you’re in for a treat! 

Whale underneath the water with the landscape above it also visible (half in half out of water photo style)

Rurutu is fondly known as the ‘whale island’, bustling with mother whales teaching their young the ways of the ocean.

Speaking of young whales, they catch on quickly — I once saw a 6-hour old baby humpback in Oahu, a truly unforgettable sight. 

The little one was splashing around, practicing breaching just hours after birth!

Scuba Diving and Whale Encounters in Moorea

humpbacks swimming together in the wild in the waters of Tahiti

In Moorea, whale watching tours only allow swimming and snorkeling, not scuba diving, when looking for whales. 

That said, if you’re scuba diving and a humpback casually swims by, that’s not against the rules. But seeing a humpback whale while diving in Moorea or Tahiti would be exceedingly rare, as whales prefer the open ocean to reef-filled areas. 

Yet it’s not unusual to hear their songs during a dive or to spot them from a distance on your way to a dive site!

Humpbacks usually come up to the surface every 3-7 minutes, so they’re more often near the top than at depths divers explore. 

But you don’t need scuba gear to have a magical experience with whales. Swimming with them near the surface is an incredible experience all on its own!

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