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

Swimming with Whales in Tahiti: Picking an Ethical Tahiti Whale Snorkel Tour

Humpback whales are something unique and majestic, titans who communicate through a complex system of songs and make some of the world’s longest migrations.

As part of their annual migration, they take a break in the waters off of French Polynesia — and particularly Tahiti and Moorea — in order to bask in the warm waters (same) and birth and raise their youth (okay, you lost me there).

For a few blissful months a year, you’re allowed to swim and snorkel with these humpback whales who pass through Tahiti.

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

But is it sustainable and ethical to swim with whales in Tahiti? I think so, for now at least, and this post will explain why (and who I suggest you go with).

As an avid diver passionate about ocean conservation, I’m here to help you answer those questions and decide whether or not to do a Tahiti whale swim tour on your upcoming trip to French Polynesia.

When to Swim with Whales in Tahiti

View of people swimming in the waters at the surface, with two humpback whales below them rather deep in the ocean

The official season for humpback whales in Tahiti runs from July to November each year, but note that by the time November rolls around, the whales are starting to leave the area, and tour companies slowly stop operating.

You cannot swim with whales at all in July though, even though whales are in the area, so don’t plan a visit for July if you want to swim with whales!

When exactly in November the whale season ends depends on where on the island you choose to go.

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

The area around Tahiti Iti (the smaller peninsula area in the south of the island) tends to be the final departure point for humpback whales, so the season runs a little longer there than the area around Fa’a’ā and Pape’etē.

Some tours will stop running in the first week of November, and others will go up until the very end of November.

The best time for swimming with humpback whales in Tahiti runs from mid-August to mid-October, when you have the highest chance of seeing whales and also the calmest waters.

Rules of Swimming with Whales in Tahiti

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

There are a few key rules before you try to snorkel with whales in Tahiti — here are the guidelines that tour operators must follow when running whale excursions.

  1. Always maintain at least a 100 meter distance between yourself and a whale — of course, you can’t control if a whale swims towards you, but you are not supposed to swim towards them within that 100-meter buffer zone.
  2. Do not surround the whales — whales should only be approached on one side, so that if they feel uncomfortable and wish to swim away, they can do so unbothered.
  3. When swimming, approach the whales only from the side — you should not pursue a whale head-on or from behind, which can make them feel chased or threatened. Approaching them from the side shows that you come in peace, and allows them to either continue their behavior or slowly start moving away if they feel uncomfortable.
  4. Boat operators should never trap a whale against the reef — all attempts to swim with whales should occur out in the open ocean where it is easy for a whale to get away if they wish.
  5. Never separate a mother and her calf by getting in the middle of them! This should go without saying.
  6. All whale encounters should be limited to 15 minutes at a time for groups of whales, and less (though it’s not specified) when it’s a mother and her calf.
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

You can read a full guide to the rules here, available in both English and French.

In addition to these rules, be aware that swimming with whales in Tahiti is not guaranteed.

For one, these whales are wild creatures in their natural habitat, going about their natural behaviors of mating, eating, and raising their young.

While your tour operator will attempt to locate the whales and give you a chance to swim with them, they can only impact the factors within their control.

For another, in addition to locating the whales, the conditions also have to be safe enough to swim with the whales.

These encounters must happen out in the open ocean, and the waters there can be rough (as anyone who has ever watched the Tahiti season of Below Deck — only me? — can attest).

Ethics of Swimming with Humpback Whales

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

The executive director of the World Animal Protection NGO said: “The sad paradox is that it’s often animal lovers that contribute to animal suffering — they want to interact with animals, but don’t realize what goes on behind the scenes… Whale-watching in the wild is a good alternative to captive animal shows. It’s far less exploitative.”

I believe that so long as a tour company follows all of the above rules, which were developed in tandem with marine scientists specializing in cetacean behavior, it is perfectly ethical to swim with whales in Tahiti.

Whales are not naturally disturbed by the mere presence of humans, and they are already well habituated to swimming in regions with boats.

So long as the boats do not pursue or corner the whales and maintain that 100-meter (300 meters at speed) buffer that they are required to, there is really not a big difference between whales’ interactions with boats in a whale watching capacity vs. in a typical maritime capacity.

Whale watching can turn unethical — Prince of Whales, a respected whale watching operator in Canada, explains where the differences lie.

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

People with strict moral codes about interacting with animals, particularly vegans, sometimes have differing views that there is no such thing as ethical animal tourism, as any sort of money exchange creates exploitation.

As a non-vegan who nonetheless cares very much about ocean creatures, I don’t agree and I believe that viewing whales in their natural habitats can lead to greater preservation of our oceans.

My math on this is that the very minor stress of a whale deciding to turn away from a human or boat is a lot less negatively impactful on their lives than their lives being taken away by whaling or their habitats being destroyed by overfishing.

Whale watching often occurs in tandem with marine protected areas, which preserve the ecosystems of the whales, and I think that so long as a whale can safely flee without distress at any point, there’s more to gain than to lose from whale watching and whale swimming.

Best Company for Snorkeling with Whales in Tahiti

Humpback whale swimming in Tahiti with a group of three whales near the surface of the water

I recommend going with Mobydick Tahiti, which was recommended by my dive shop operators (who are familiar with all the companies on the islands) in both Moorea and Tahiti.

They follow all directives of the DIREN (short for the Direction of the Environment), following principles of respectful and passive wildlife observation.

They are upfront that seeing whales doesn’t always happen, and even if you can see them from the boat, you aren’t always guaranteed to be able to get into the water.

They do have a hydrophone system on board for listening to whale songs from the male whales, which is an incredible experience! I’ve heard whales singing as I dive before and it’s absolutely magical.

humpbacks swimming together in the wild in the waters of Tahiti

I recommend this tour in particular because they operate where few other tour operators do, since their marina in Pahiarepo is a little out of the way, further south than most tour companies.

They search for whales in the little-visited area between Pā’ea and its gorgeous black sand beaches and the small islets (motus in Tahitian) of Mataiea, close to Tahiti Iti.

As I mentioned above, there is a greater chance of seeing whales in the southern area around Tahiti Iti, where there’s less boat traffic and interruption.

They run their tours from August through to early November, as you’re not permitted to swim with whales (even if they’re in the area!) outside of August through November.

Check whale swimming tour availability here!

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

Another tour operator runs daily tours through to the end of November, Tahiti Iti Diving.

They run later in the season because they will take you out to the further part of the Tahiti peninsula where the whales tend to stay longer in the season.

I didn’t get a chance to dive with this shop when I was in Tahiti, but dive shops tend to be conservation-minded and follow rules about not harassing wildlife, so it seems like another good option for swimming with whales in Tahiti.

Best Place to Swim with Whales in French Polynesia

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

Tahiti, as well as Moorea, is a consistently good place to try to swim with whales in French Polynesia.

Compared to other tourism destinations like Bora Bora in the same Society Islands cluster, it’s much more likely that you’ll find whales in Tahiti.

However, the absolute best place to find whales in French Polynesia is the island of Rurutu located in the far-flung Austral Islands portion of French Polynesia, a whopping 600 kilometers away.

half-in, half-out view of a whale swimming outside of the island of rurutu, a popular destination for whale watching in the far-flung archipelago of austral islands

It’s hard to get here, but if you do, this place is known as ‘whale island’ and you’ll find tons of mama whales raising their baby calves and teaching them the ropes of life as one of the most impressive creatures in the sea.

And calves learn fast! I had the inexpressible honor of seeing a 6-hour old baby humpback whale while whale watching in Oahu.

It was one of the spectacular things I’ve ever seen, watching a little baby splash and practice its breach just a few hours after being born.

Scuba Diving and Whales in Tahiti

Person in a wetsuit in the water with a whale taking a photo or video near the surface of the water

Whale watching operators are not allowed to seek out whales and drop you in the water with scuba gear in Tahiti — only snorkel gear.

That said, if you happen to be diving in Tahiti and a humpback whale were to pass you by, it’s not like that would be illegal.

However, it would be exceedingly rare to see a humpback whale while you are scuba diving in Tahiti, as whales prefer the open ocean areas to reefy areas.

Though it definitely isn’t uncommon to hear whale song when diving, or to spot whales from afar while you’re making your way to your dive site!

Humpback whales tend to surface about every 3-7 minutes when they’re just cruising along, so they spend more time near the surface than they do at recreational scuba depths, meaning it’s better to be at the surface than down below diving, anyway.

According to PADI, “scuba diving is generally not allowed with whales, as the bubbles produced can be interpreted by these cetaceans as a sign of aggression or danger. This is because they can emit bubbles from their blowhole as well.”

But swimming with whales near the surface of the water is still an utterly magical experience that doesn’t need scuba gear to be enjoyed!

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