It is that time of the year again, when the humpback whales have arrived to Mohéli, Comoros. A remote, isolated island in the country of Comoros located in the Indian Ocean north of Madagascar. These clean, calm and safe waters have been the birthing ground for Humpback whales for as long as the locals remember, and every year from July to October pregnant mama’s travel all the way from Antarctica to give birth here.
Photos by the ever talented Philipp Oppermann.
Humpback Whale Migration
The current scientific understanding, is that there are two major populations of humpback whales. The ones in the Northern Hemisphere and the ones in the Southern Hemisphere. The Humpbackwhale migration is on average, 5000km and is one of the longest mammal migrations on the planet.
Typically, the Humpback Whales spend winters in warm, low latitude, tropical waters to breed and give birth while The remainder of the year they spend in cooler, high latitude polar waters to feed. (in the Northern hemisphere, while Humpback Whales in the Southern hemisphere partake in the opposite migration.)
Since the winter and summer seasons are inverted on either side of the equator, the two populations probably never meet.
Humpbackwhales are capable of traveling 8km/h although on the long migration, they average around 1.6km/h. They rest and socialise on the way. In Australia, Humpback Whale populations have been studied extensively, and their travels have been documented that always the first to arrive are older juveniles, then mature males and finally mothers and calves on their descent to Antarctica.
Swimming with the Humpbacks
There are only a few locations in the world, where you are allowed to jump into the water and have the opportunity to see these beautiful, fantastic, creatures underwater. These include :
and of course, Moheli, Comoros.
In 2017, the Humpback whale season was incredible, with tourists getting the opportunity to see several mothers and their calves, calmy floating near the surface. Occasionally a curious calf would come over and say hello, with mother’s staying nearby with a watchful eye on their baby.
Protocols of Swimming with Humpback Whales
Of course, these mammals are highly protective, and wherever you are in the world, strict whale observation protocols must be followed to ensure the divers, and the whale’s safety.
Here in Comoros, a combination of protocols from around the world have been compiled to ensure all customers have the best experience, while ensuring the Whale’s are not stressed.
- When spotting a whale, the boats decrease their motor speed and head towards the whale from the side. Careful to NEVER cut off the whale’s path or come directly from the back.
- Motors are turned off 100m from the whale.
- Snorkellers in groups of maximum 4 (plus 1guide) prepare in the boat and quietly slip into the water. A life jacket or wetsuit must be worn to avoid diving down and scaring the whales.
- Minimal speaking, splashing and sound are created during the swim towards the whale.
- The group must stay close together and behind the guide.
- Approach the whale to a maximum of 20 meters and let the humpback whale dictate the interactions!
These rules are briefed to all individuals wishing to interact with whale’s underwater. 3 Entries per whales maximum, and if the Whales swim away, let them go. Some simply do not like interacting with humans or want some private time.
Dangers of Swimming with Humpback Whales
Some recent in water interactions between Humpback Whales and snorkellers in Reunion have shown potential threats when these rules are not adhered to and the mother feels threatened.
If mothers feel threatened, generally they will dictate the zone of no approach by swinging her pectoral fin in an arc. This creates a wall of bubbles that SHOULD NOT BE CROSSED. This is typically a sign, that divers should exit the water as the whale is becoming agitated.
While Humpback Whale’s are kind, gentle giants, if they feel threatened a hit from their fin or tail can cause major damage to individuals. Recently, a group of humpback whales was approached far too close by a fishing vessel and they attempted to protect themselves by exhibitting aggresive behaviour. Unfortunately, this defense mechanism, was misinterpreted as malition by the passengers of the boat.
The Bond Between a Mother and Calf
As humans, we have to remember these beautiful giants are in their home, and especially here in Mohéli they are feeling particularily vulnerable, with their calves that they have grown inside them 11-12 months. The mothers and calves have a strong bond, with females staying with their mothers for many years. Mothers have to teach their babies how to swim, find food, communicate and navigate. If you ever hear Humpback Whale singing, you can tell juveniles from adults by the complexity of their songs.
These mammals have complex family structures, language and song. We have the enormous priviledge of swimming with them, but also have to respect their world.
Let me know, will you come visit to dive with humpback whales? Mohéli Laka Lodge is the dream destination.