Since 2002 when they officially became a “sanctuary” for MARINE MAMMALS, the waters of French Polynesia have been home to over twenty species of these animals. In this vast ocean, whales and dolphins roam in total freedom, preserved and protected.
“BIG FISHES”… WHICH ARE NOT FISHES!
First, you should be reminded that WHALES and DOLPHINS are part of the cetacean species, a term derived from the Greek “ketos”, meaning “big fish”.
But despite the origin of their name, whales are mammals! Thus, they breastfeed their young. Some species even have a few hairs left over from their terrestrial ancestors. WHALES and DOLPHINS are born, live and die in the water. Also note that unlike fish, their caudal fin (flukes) is horizontal. They have one or two vents called blowholes, located at the top of their heads, visible when they come to breathe at the surface. The 90 species of these cetaceans that are known to this day have colonized all the world’s oceans, most of the seas and even some rivers. They are divided into two main groups: the Baleen Whales and the Toothed Whales.
THE BALEEN WHALES…
The BALEEN WHALES are so named because of suspended horny blades in their upper jaw. These blades act as filters, and let them swallow large amounts of food. These animals, which have two blowholes, are mostly migratory: they migrate between their feeding grounds and their breeding grounds. Six species have been observed in Polynesian waters, most famously, the HUMPBACK WHALE.
… AND THEIR STAR, THE HUMPBACK WHALE!
Observed in Polynesia between June and November, the HUMPBACK WHALE is named for the small bump on which its dorsal fin is located. Often spectacular, it regularly brings out its flukes above water before diving. Females are larger than males, and can reach 13 to 15 meters in length and weigh up to 40 tons. During their stay in our islands, they give birth and nurse their calves without feeding themselves. They may then lose a third of their weight! Males sing powerful songs, perhaps to mark their territory and attract the females they escort for a few hours or days. Then they leave for the waters of the Antarctic, where the Polynesian whales feed during the austral summer.
THE TOOTHED WHALES
The TOOTHED WHALES, which have a single fluke, are well represented in Polynesia. We observe three distinct families: SPERM WHALES, BEAKED WHALES and even DOLPHINS. In English all cetaceans over 4-meter long (including DOLPHINS) and the ELECTRA DOLPHIN are called “WHALES“. Observed occasionally in the Polynesian waters, SPERM WHALES can measure up 18 meters in length and weigh 50 tons. It is an animal of legend. A pelagic whale, i.e. living in the open sea, it seldom approaches the coast.
SPERM WHALE, AN ANIMAL OF LEGEND
The SPERM WHALE is recognizable by its large brown and wrinkled body mass, its huge rectangular head can measure up to a third the size of his body. To feed, it is capable of diving down to depths of 3,000 meters and stays a half hour without breathing! The females and their calves gather in the Polynesian latitudes, while large males travel long distances to feed in the rich waters of the sub-Antarctic and temperate latitudes.
There are two other Polynesian species of SPERM WHALES, present but difficult to observe, the PYGMY SPERM WHALE and the DWARF SPERM WHALE. With a length of 2 to 3.5 meters, they can be seen in calm weather, when they come up to breathe at the surface: they then look like floating tree trunks.
THE BEAKED WHALES
Despite their name, BEAKED WHALES are actually TOOTHED WHALES. Two species are regularly observed in Polynesia, the BLAINVILLE’S BEAKED WHALE and CUVIER’S BEAKED WHALE. Discrete when at the surface and little known, these animals, 4 to 7 meters in length, have a light brown body dotted with scars and topped with a small eccentric dorsal fin. Adult males have two prominent teeth on their lower jaw, the females have none.
ELEVEN SPECIES OF DOLPHINS
Eleven species of DOLPHINS share the waters of the Polynesian archipelagos. Among them, the SHORT-FINNED PILOT WHALE, a big BLACK ROUND-HEADED DOLPHIN usually seen in groups of 40-60 individuals. It can be spotted at the surface with its wide and often crooked dorsal fin. Generally curious about boats, it sometimes even sticks its head above water.
The ELECTRA DOLPHIN or MELON-HEADED WHALE is abundant in the Marquesas where groups of several hundred individuals can be seen near the coast. Recognizable by its dark body, its rounded head and its pointed snout lined with white lips, it is a little-known dolphin.
The BOTTLENOSE DOLPHIN is very accessible in the northwest and in the center of the Tuamotu islands, where it dwells around the atolls’ coastal fringe, the access to passes and the lagoons.
The ROUGH-TOOTHED DOLPHIN has a dark back, a pinkish-white belly and sides dotted with round spots. Its flattened head and its sharp beak give it a strange look. Demonstrative and often curious around boats, it travels regularly with other species.
The PANTROPICAL SPOTTED DOLPHIN and the SPINNER DOLPHIN are the smallest Polynesian cetaceans. The SPOTTED DOLPHIN is abundant in the Marquesas, but rare in other archipelagos. The LONG-BEAKED SPINNER DOLPHIN is often seen around the Society Islands, where groups of 30-60 individuals come to rest every day around the passes and in the bays and lagoons. Both species are known for their spectacular jumps.
PRESENT IN ALL THE ARCHIPELAGOS
The distribution and the abundance of cetaceans depend on the riches of nutrients in their habitats, the surface of their territory, the depth of the ocean floor and some local characteristics that give a picture of the various presence areas.
Thus, the archipelagos of the Austral and Tuamotu-Gambier islands host HUMPBACK WHALES during their season, and also low densities of SPERM WHALES and BEAKED WHALES. The northwest and the center of the Tuamotu Archipelago have been colonized by BOTTLENOSE DOLPHINS, visible near the coast.
The Society Archipelago is home to a good diversity of species with the remarkable presence of SPINNER DOLPHINS, BOTTLENOSE DOLPHINS, ELECTRA DOLPHINS, BEAKED WHALES, PILOT WHALES and HUMPBACK WHALES during their season.
In the Marquesas, the very rich waters are sheltering, namely, SPOTTED DOLPHIN, ELECTRA DOLPHINS, BOTTLENOSE DOLPHINS and PILOT WHALES. Other species such as RISSO’S DOLPHINS prefer the open ocean and are rarely observed. Finally some, such as KILLER WHALES, FALSE KILLER WHALES or FIN WHALES are seldom seen and/or are seasonal animals.
MYTHS AND LEGENDS
Strangely, stories about the ancient presence of HUMPBACK WHALES in Polynesian waters are absent. The early whaler boats, which stopped in Tahiti during their long hunting campaigns at sea used to capture large SPERM WHALES in the Marquesas. It is also in the Marquesas that we find ancient myths about hunting DOLPHINS to ride them as a mount. Precious objects made from whales’ teeth were once worn by chiefs and their families.
Until the 1970s, on Ua Pou, small species of DOLPHINS (KUMIA or KOHIO) were hunted. As to hunting HUMPBACK WHALES, it developed sporadically in the Austral islands with the arrival of European whalers in the late 19th century. But be reassured, the last whale was killed there in 1957, i.e. over 55 years ago.
OBSERVING THE CETACEANS
Observing CETACEANS in the wild is an unforgettable experience accessible to everyone. In calm weather, it is easy to spot a blow, a whirlpool, as many clues betraying their presence. Since 1992, “whale watching” tours can approach Polynesian CETACEANS in their element. Unfortunately, an excess of whale watching tours can also harm WHALES, as they are a source of disturbance and stress.
It is therefore important to learn about the species encountered, animal behavior and regulations to ensure satisfactory observation and minimum inconvenience. Here are some simple rules: never cut in front of a CETACEAN, obstruct it, circle around it, try to touch it, separate a mother from her calf, shout or bang on the boat. Despite their reputation, do not forget that WHALES and DOLPHINS are wild and powerful animals. Misunderstanding their behavior, activities or social groups structure can result in unpleasant surprises.
The marine mammal sanctuary of Polynesia was officially created on May 13, 2002 through the work of Franco-American marine mammal specialist, Dr. Michael Poole, who for 25 years dedicated his life to the study of Polynesian CETACEANS. This 4.8 million km2 sanctuary is the largest in the world in size in one single ocean! The principle of a Wildlife sanctuary is to preserve the natural life of animal populations, and to allow them to continue to live their lives free from human activities.
This is the same purpose pursued by GEMM (Study Group on Marine Mammals). In this vast sanctuary, unique at the planet’s scale, WHALES and DOLPHINS can now move freely, and be protected and respected. This is a true “paradise” for these animals, and a great opportunity for people to come and meet this precious wildlife.