The marine mammals of French Polynesia

Since May 2002, the waters of French Polynesia have officially become a Marine Mammal Sanctuary.  This 4.8 million km2 sanctuary is the largest in the world and is now a true paradise for over 20 preserved and protected species of whales and dolphins.

 

Whales of French Polynesia

1. Humpback whale

 
Size: 11 to 18 m (86 to 59 ft). Weight: 24 to 49 tons (52 910 to 88 184 pounds). Top speed: 17 km/h (11 miles/h).

 

 

Feeding habits: Krill, plankton and schools of small fish.

Daytime activity: Resting and  socializating.

Reaction to approach: Curiosity – avoidance.

Social organization: Individuals live alone or occur temporarily in small groups o 2 to 4 individuals. Every year, from July to November, humpback whales migrate a stunning 12 000 km all the way from the Antarctic where they feed to French Polynesia in order to give birth and breed as well as seek shelter from predators.

Distribution in French Polynesia: Can be found, from July to November, close to the reef barrier and inside the bays and lagoons. Easily observed in the Society and Tuamotu archipelagos.

Fun facts: Male humpback whales sing to attract females. Their songs can last more than 20 hours and can be heard more than 200 kms (124 miles) away.

2. Sperm whale

 
Size: 10 to 20 m(22 to 65 ft). Weight: 15 to 5 tons ( 33 000 to 125 000 pounds). Top speed: 46 km/h (28 miles/h).

 

Feeding habits: Squids and pelagic fish.

Daytime activity: Mainly hunting.

Reaction to approach: Mainly avoidance.

Social organization: Groups of 2 to 20 females and juveniles; older adult males are usually solitary when not breeding.

Distribution in French Polynesia: Important groups in the Tuamotu islands, also observed in the Society and Marquises islands. Found during the austral winter.

Fun facts: It is the world champion for breath holding, reaching depths up to 2500m (8208 ft), while not breathing for 90 minutes!

3. Dwarf Sperm whale

 
Size: 2 to 2.7 m (6 to 8.8 ft). Weight: 135 to 275 kgs (300 to 600 pounds). Top speed: 5.5 km/h (3.4 miles/h).

 

Feeding habits: Squids a fish.

Daytime activity: Unknown.

Reaction to approach: Avoidance.

Social organization: Groups of 2 to 8 individuals.

Distribution in French Polynesia: Present in the Marquesas and the Society Islands, close to the shore.

Fun facts: For a long time mistaken with the pygmy sperm whale, the dwarf sperm whale is very shy and we know very little about this species.

4. Blainville’s beaked whale

 
Size: 3 to 5 m (13 to 16 ft). Weight: 1 ton (2200 pounds). Top speed: 10 km/h (6 miles/h).

 

Feeding habits: Mostly cepholodops (squids) and fish.

Daytime activity: Resting and hunting.

Reaction to approach: Avoidance.

Social organization: Groups of 2 to 8 individuals.

Distribution in French Polynesia: Society Islands.

Fun facts: The upper jaw (rostrum) in adult males is the densest bone of any animal (higher density than elephants’ ivory).

5. Cuvier’s beaked whale

 
Size: 5 to 7 m (16 to 22 ft). Weight: 2 to 3 tons (4 400 to 6 600 pounds). Top speed: 5 km/h (3 miles/h).

 

Feeding habits: Cepholodops (squids) and fish.

Daytime activity: Unknown.

Reaction to approach: Avoidance – Indifference.

Social organization: Groups of 2 to 5 individuals.

Distribution in French Polynesia: In all Society Islands.

Fun facts: its nickname is goose beaked whale.

Dolphins

1. Short-finned pilot whale

 
Size: 3.6 to 7.2 m (12 to 24 ft). Weight: Around 3 tons (6 600 pounds). Top speed: 32 km/h (20 miles/h).

 

Feeding habits: Squids, hunts mostly during night time.

Daytime activity: Resting.

Reaction to approach: Indifference – avoidance.

Social organization: Groups of 10 to 40 individuals.

Distribution in French Polynesia: Present throughout the year, especially close to the Marquesas, Tuamotu and Society islands, present offshore and inshore.

Fun facts: Its name was given after being frequently seen at the bows of boats.

2. Electra dolphin or melon-headed whale

 

 
Size: 2 to 2.8 m (6.6 to 9.2 ft). Weight: 150 to 210 kgs (330 to 462 pounds). Top speed: 1.85 km/h (1.15 miles/h).

 

Feeding habits: Pelagic fish, cepholopods and occasional crusteceans.

Day time activity: Resting – socializating.

Reaction to approach: Avoidance.

Social Organization: Groups of 40 to 200 individuals. Sometimes observed with Fraser’s dolphins and rough-toothed dolphins.

Distribution in French Polynesia: Throughout the year, mostly in Marquesas and Society islands. Present in open ocean and nearshore waters.

Fact: It is frequently mistaken with a young short finned pilot whale even though the melon headed whale has a much thinner body.

3. Bottlenose dolphin

 
Size: 2 to 4 m (6.6 to 13 ft). Weight: 190 to 500 kg (400 to 1100 pounds). Top speed: 35 km/h (22 miles/h).

 

Feeding habits: Fish, cepholopods and crustaceans.

Daytime activity: Variable, often hunting.

Reaction to approach: Curiosity – approach.

Social organization: Groups of 5 to 25 individuals. Sometimes observed with false killer whales, spotted dolphins, short-finned pilot whales and rough-toothed dolphins.

Distribution in French Polynesia: Present all year, in the Marquesas Islands and Tuamotu passes. Mostly found inshore and occasionally offshore.

Fun fact: Researchers witnessed some of them using sea sponges placed on their rostrums to protect their mouths when feeding on a rough seabed.

4. Rough-toothed dolphin

 
Size: 2 to 2.8 m (6.6 to 9 ft). Weight: 130 to 150 kg (286 to 330 pounds). Top speed: 24 km/h (15 miles/h).

 

Feeding habits: Fish and cepholodops.

Daytime activity: Mainly predation.

Reaction to approach: Mainly avoidance.

Social organization: Groups of 10 to 50 individuals, sometimes observed with melon-headed whales, Fraser’s or bottlenose dolphins.

Distribution in French Polynesia: Present all year in Society islands. Found inshore, or a bit more further from coasts.

Fact: The Rough-toothed dolphin’s curious name and difference to other dolphin species refers to its very prehistoric reptile look, having wrinkles and ridges on their teeth.

5. Spinner dolphin

 
Size: 1.6 to 2.4 m (5 to 7 ft). Weight: 55 to 80 kg (120 to 175 pounds). Top speed: 37 km/h (23 miles/h).

 

Feeding habits: Mesopelagic fish and cepholodops (squids).

Daytime activity: Resting (they are night hunters).

Reaction to approach: Curiosity, playful.

Social organization: Groups of 20 to 100 individuals, possible association with spotted dolphins.

Distribution in French Polynesia: Inshore in the morning and a little bit further offshore in the afternoon. Present all year in the Society Islands, the northern Tuamotu Islands and Marquesas islands.

Fun fact: The spinner dolphin can rotate up to 5 times in the air during a single spin, as well as 7 spins in a row and can jump up to 3 meters (9 ft) high.

6. Spotted dolphin

 

 
Size: 2 to 2.5 m (6.6 to 8.2 ft). Weight: 100 to 120 kg (220 to 265 pounds). Top speed: 33 km/h (20 miles/h).

 

Feeding habits: Fish and cephalodops (squids).

Daytime activity: Hunting.

Reaction to approach: Curiosity, approach.

Social organization: Groups of 20 to 100 individuals possible association with spinner dolphins.

Distribution in French Polynesia: Present mainly in the Marquesas, inshore and offshore.

Fun fact: In Hawai, Mexico and Peru, fishermen use them to spot schools of fish and purposefully catch them in their fishing nets.

7. Risso’s dolphin

 

 
Size: 2.5 to 4 m (8 to 13 ft). Weight: 300 to 500 kg (660 to 1100 pounds). Top speed: 12 km/h (7 miles/h).

 

Feeding habits: Mostly cepholodops (squids), fish.

Daytime activity: Resting- socializating.

Reaction to approach: Indifference, approach and avoidance.

Social organization: Group of 2 to 20 individuals.

Distribution in French Polynesia: Seldom seen,  mostly above depths of 500 to 1500 m (1640 to 4921 ft).

Fun fact: As the Risso’s dolphin gets older, white scares cover its body (may be caused by bites from other Risso’s, squid bites, or parasites). An old Risso’s Dolphin can look practically white!

8. Fraser’s dolphin

 

 
Size: 2 to 2.5 m (6.5 to 8 ft). Weight: 160 to 210 kg (350 to 460 pounds). Top speed: 20 km/h (12 miles/h).

 

Feeding habits: Fish, squids and crustaceans.

Daytime activity: Resting (they are night hunters).

Reaction to approach: Curiosity, approach.

Social organization: In groups of 25 to 100 individuals. Frequently observed with melon-headed whales and sometimes with rough-toothed dolphins.

Distribution in French Polynesia: Present in Marquesas and Society Islands. Observed offshore.

Fun fact: The Fraser dolphin was first described in the 50’s and not observed in the wild until the 70’s.

9. Killer whale

 
Size: 5 to 9 m (16 to 30 ft). Weight: 4 to 9 tons (8 800 to 19 800 pounds). Top speed: 45 km/h (28 miles/h).

 

Feeding habits: Fish and cetaceans.

Daytime activity: Variable but mainly predation.

Reaction to approach: Curiosity, approach.

Social organization: Groups of 2 to 5 individuals.

Distribution in French Polynesia: Present in the Tuamotu, Marquesas and Society Islands.

Not so fun fact: The Killer whale is one of the 3 cetaceans (with the false killer whale and pygmy killer whale) that feed on other marine mammals.

10. False killer whale

 

 
Size: 4 to 6 m (13 to 20 ft). Weight: Up to 2.2 tons (4 850 pounds). Top speed: 19 km/h (12 miles/h).

 

Feeding habits: Squid, big fish (tuna) and small dolphins.

Daytime activity: Variable, including hunting.

Reaction to approach: Curiosity, approach.

Social organization: Groups of 3 to 20 individuals.

Distribution in French Polynesia: Present in all French Polynesia. Mostly observed offshore.

Fun fact: In captivity, a false killer whale male reproduced with a female bottlenose dolphin, the hybrid is called wholphin and is fertile.

11. Pygmy killer whale

 

 
Size: 2.2 to 2.5 m (6 to 8 feet). Weight: 11o to 170 kg (240 to 370 pounds). Top speed: 3.1 km/h (2 miles/h).

 

Feeding habits: Fish, cepholopods and occasionally other cetaceans.

Daytime activity: Unknown.

Reaction to approach: Rarely observed.

Social organization: Groups of 15 to 20 individuals. Present in offshore and sometimes inshore.

Distribution in French Polynesia: Present all year long in the Society Islands.

Not so fun fact: This species is known for its aggressive behavior towards other cetacean species.

Where

Species encountered in French Polynesia can be residents, nomads or migrators.

Resident species such as spinner dolphins, bottlenose dolphins and rough-toothed dolphins are sedentary and will spend all year feeding and reproducing within their home range.

Nomads species such as killer whales and sperm whales females and their young cruise between archipelagos or between islands looking, looking for food and mating opportunities.

Migrating species found in French Polynesia include the humpback whales and adult male sperm whales.

Depending on the archilepagos, populations vary. Their presence is conditioned by orientation of the island regarding the current, the topography and the presence of a shallow depth submarine shelf.

 

Take the chance to encounter them either diving on board the French Polynesia Master or after/before your liveaboard dive cruise with Fluid Dive Center. The French Polynesia Master offers year-round diving around the Tuaomotu Archipelago and the Marquesas for 7 and 10 nights cruises.  A perfect way to enhance your full French Polynesian experience is to join a dolphin and whale watching excursion Fluid Dive Center offers dolphin and whale watching excursions. And SHARK DIVING TOO!

For more information and booking of both options, please contact our reservations team.

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