Swimming with sperm whales, humpbacks and dolphins in Mauritius

I’ve dreamt of snorkelling with whales for a long time but after our plans of going to Tonga failed due to it still being closed to tourism we started researching other countries. I discovered that the Indian Ocean surrounding Mauritius was home to sperm whales and we didn’t need anymore persuading. The female sperm whales and their young live in these waters year round whilst the males swim south in search of food at certain times of the year. During the winter months humpbacks also come to the warm Mauritian waters to give birth to their calves. There’s only a couple of people offering trips to swim with the whales and while communication was a big struggle (Mauritians are very chilled and living on island time) we managed to book on.

The boat departed from Tamarin bay which was about 15 kilometres from our apartment in La Gaulette so we had to wake at 5am to catch a bus. We arrived super early, which is better than late at least so we took a stroll along the beach and watched the sunrise behind the Matterhorn or Mauritius, a very cool, pointy peak that has Bora Bora vibes. There were 13 other guests on the boat plus a cameraman filming for a documentary about Mauritius (with a heavy focus on our captain, otherwise known as the whale whisperer).

The boat sped off into the open sea as we had to go about 7km offshore. Sperm whales are big divers, they can hold their breath for up to 90 minutes and dive to depths of almost 1500m. They have the largest brain of any creature known to live on earth and they’re longer than a school bus with their tail alone measuring 16ft tip to tip. Once we were in the right sort of area our guide put the hydrophone into the sea to listen for any whales. As he put his headphones on he beamed from ear to ear and said “ooooh so many whales!!” Which got us all very excited. The whales make a clicking noise which is their echolocation, used for navigating and identifying objects in the complete darkness. We headed towards the noise until we spotted water spouts blowing into the air. As we got closer we could see the huge head and back of a whale rising above the blue water like a submarine close to the surface. Then we saw a second body that was 10 times the size and we realised the first one was in fact just a calf!

Everything became a little frantic on the boat as people prepared to swim with them. The people at the back were told to very slowly slip off the edge and only swim alongside the whale, never towards it’s face. We didn’t get to go on the first swim so just witnessed the absolute giants swimming beside our boat. They were on a bit of a mission so the swimmers only had about 30 seconds to get a very close glimpse of them before they swam off and eventually took a deep dive. As soon as you see the fluke rise out the water and sink right down that means their diving down and could be gone for 10 to 90 minutes.

So we searched for more sperm whales and this time it was our turn to get in the water. I was quite nervous about swimming in the open ocean. Firstly I hate not seeing the floor below me and this isn’t just deep water, this is 1500m deep, it makes me shudder just thinking about it. I was planning on going without a life jacket but as I watched the swell moving up and down I had a change of heart and asked for a life jacket. The last time I swam in open water like this was in Egypt when we went swimming with dolphins and I nearly drowned. The boatman had to swim out and rescue me, I was mortified so I didn’t want a repeat of that experience and once I had the life jacket on I was full of confidence. After sitting at the back of the boat for a while we were told to get in the water. I didn’t even know where the whale was at this point and looked down to see sunbeams piercing through the endlessly deep blue water. But as I looked ahead I saw the whale right in front of me. It actually looked smaller underwater than I expected. It’s body was very compact and stocky with lots of deep creases across it’s grey body. It almost looked a similar shape to a manatee but way bigger.

The whale was resting at the surface, gently moving it’s giant tail which propelled it much quicker than us humans could swim. The cameraman and his model kind of hindered peoples view which was a shame. It was impossible to take a photo without them in the shot but as it turns out the model gave a good size comparison against the gentle giant.

We were lucky to swim alongside the whale for a few minutes before he took a final breath and dove down into the abyss. It was fascinating to watch as he just slowly started to vanish as he got deeper and deeper. When he was about 20 or 30 meters down his tail took one more wiggle and then he was gone. Once he’s in the deep sea where the sun can’t penetrate he’ll be diving in complete darkness and using his sonar to find prey. The clicking noises bounce off objects so he can tell how close they are, kind of like a car with its reverse sensors on but way more impressive. We were all whooping and cheering after that experience.

We tried to swim with another sperm whale but it dove down so the captain headed towards some humpbacks instead. Apparently the humpbacks are much harder to swim with here as they’re moving a lot and it’s impossible to tell where they’ll pop up next. We all got ready to jump off the boat to swim with a mum and baby but no one expected what we were about to see. The mum was just a few meters away from us!!! Some swimmers had to actually go in reverse to give her space. There were people ahead of me again which meant there were a lot of bubbles in the water from everyone kicking so I didn’t get a perfect view but I still saw the front of this humongous whale in front of me with the white stripy part of her body visible. Woweeee!!! The baby was soooo small compared to the mum and she stayed right by her side. We were able to swim alongside them for a few seconds before they turned in a circle and dove back down.

Once again everyone was cheering as we stuck our heads out the water and floated on the surface. It was kind of wild to think that the humpbacks could be anywhere now and we were just bobbing in the open sea. Our guide and the cameraman said it was the closest they’d ever been to a humpback!! We attempted another swim with her but we were much further away and the visibility was poor so we could only get a glimpse of her white belly and her huge fin gliding through the water.

Next up we headed to a bay that was home to spinner dolphins. There were dozens of them and they were really not bothered about having us humans in the water with them. The bay was really nice with calm water so I felt comfortable without a lifejacket and we could see the sea-floor below us. It was about 10m deep but the visibility was great with a lovely rippled, sandy floor. So we spent the next 15 minutes swimming with these amazing animals right beside us. They pooed a lot though and I wondered how much dolphin shit was in my hair as a mass of murky fish scales surrounded me.

It was really fun swimming with these playful dolphins. We witnessed them socialising together, a couple below us were tapping fins together which was ridiculously cute. It was the perfect end to a fabulous trip…but now we were hooked and wanted more.

We asked our guide if he had availability for the following day and he said yes…but he just needed to check the space. A classic, vague answer. It was very frustrating once again trying to get booked on, sometimes the replies wouldn’t come until 3am. I had to set my alarm for 5am for the next few days as he kept suggesting there was space but then he wasn’t sure. It was driving us mad to be honest but finally we booked on and I made sure to check that it would be a trip to see the sperm whales as I really wanted to try and see them again, especially if they were sleeping vertically or socialising in a group.

The weather was pretty terrible on our second trip. It was overcast and cold with a bit of drizzle for good measure. Two tourists kept us waiting so we set off 30 minutes late and were told that four humpbacks were nearby. It sounds a little crazy but I was actually disappointed to hear that – the humpbacks are so hard to swim with as they’re in shallower water so the visibility is poor and they’re moving fast. But alas, that’s where the captain was taking us and we soon spotted the mum and baby…along with a few boats. We were given the go-ahead to slip into the water but the whales were already quite far away and swimming away. I also had the same problem as last time with the cameraman and model swimming in front of me. So it wasn’t a great experience in my opinion, I was just frantically swimming, trying to get a better view but bubbles from other swimmers kicking made it even harder to see the whales.

The next group of 6 people waited for their turn and this time they were dropped off in a better position. The whale dove down and was swimming right below them. The problem was many people didn’t realise she was there and were looking straight ahead so only a handful of people saw her apparently. The ones that did had a great view as the mum and baby were directly beneath them and the mum turned slightly, revealing her white-stripped underside, so I was told.

We tried again for another swim but we ended up sitting at the back of the boat, poised for the go-ahead for about 30 minutes. It was bitterly cold now that we were wet and the clouds blocked the sun. More boats appeared and it felt like a bit of a chase for these two whales, I hated it. Some skippers weren’t abiding by the speed limit rules near whales and others were blocking her path as she swam by. Our captain stayed to one side which was good to see, but we were still one of the 20 boats contributing to potentially stressing the whales out. Although the baby didn’t seem too fazed as we watched her leaping out the water multiple times, sometimes dangerously close to a group of other swimmers. I just don’t understand why we stayed there when we could of left them be and headed out into the open water to look for sperm whales. But the longer we spent aimlessly looking for these humpbacks the more I realised there was no chance of us going to see the sperm whales so I was pretty disappointed as that’s the only reason we did a second trip. We did eventually leave the humpbacks as there were some bottlenose dolphins nearby so we had two very brief swims with a pod of about a dozen which was nice. But when I say brief I mean 30 seconds.

I know wildlife is totally unpredictable and you never know what you’ll see, especially in the underwater world, but I was a little sad that we didn’t try to see the sperm whales and just ended up joining 20 boats to basically chase humpbacks. Anyway, I guess we had such a special first trip that it was always going to be hard to beat so I’m still very grateful for that experience.

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