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A humpback whale off Rarotonga
Expert, Nan Hauser
In the Cook Islands, the whales come to you!   Humpbacks migrate into the South Pacific waters of Oceania from summer feeding grounds in the high latitude waters of the Southern Hemisphere.  And from July to October, you don't even need to venture into the water to see them because they swim so close to shore.  They pass by the Cook Islands in a 4,000 mile journey en route to warmer waters to mate, give birth and to rest
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WHERE  AND WHEN TO WATCH
The whole of the territorial waters of the Islands - some 2 million square kilometres of ocean - is a designated whale sanctuary.    And whichever island you're on, you have a good chance of whale watching.   My friend and Atiu island guide, Marshall Humphreys was lucky enough to see a baby calf being born just off shore on Atiu.  If you're in Rarotonga, The best places to watch are....The Paradise Inn, The Fishing Club,  the shore line in front of the main street through Avarua, Trader Jacks, Black Rock and  the Edgewater Resort

EXPERT EYES
Nan Hauser (left) is internationally acclaimed for her studies.  And she is often to be seen during the whale watching season furthering her work in the waters around the islands. Sadly, the whale and wildlife centre she helped to establish on Raro closed in 2017

Nan has a special permit from the Prime Minister which allows her to get up close to the whales for the purposes of her research.   But she's concerned about others doing the same because they could harm or even drive the whales away from the Islands.  To that end, she's helped provide below some guidelines for responsible whale watching.
Photo credits, 1, Cook Islands News, 2, Greenpeace, 3 and 4, whaleresearch.org (1, 2 and 3 are humpbacks, 4 is a beaked whale)
The whale that's stunning scientists
A VERY RARE SIGHT
In 2011, a fisherman reported a whale off the seawall on Rarotonga "with a real ugly head, logging or bobbing at the surface".  Nan Hauser says that from his description is was the critically endangered Wright whale which has never been seen previously in Cook Islands waters.  There are thought to be only about 30 left in the world.  Another sighting was of an almost completely white whale (pictured above) which experts across Oceania say they've never seen before.
Whale breaches off Rarotonga
AT CLOSE QUARTERS
And if you're wondering what it's like to see a whale at close quarters, click the play button in the window on the left to watch this video posted on YouTube by Nan Hauser
WHAT YOU CAN EXPECT TO SEE
It's not unusual to see many species...15 different types of whales were spotted off the coast of Rarotonga over a three day period in mid July, 2013. They included humpbacks which are likely to give birth in local waters.  Other species enjoying the safety of the Islands waters were the sperm, short finned pilot, Culver's beaked whale, and Blainville's beaked whale.

New Zealand visitors, Miles and Kristine Patterson captured this stunning shot of a sunbathing humpback and its calf during a morning dive with Cook Islands Divers. They were near Papua Passage on the southern coast of Rarotonga.

The photo bottom right is a rare sight from 2020...a young humpback frolicking with dolphins. Whale scientist, Nan Hauser has been studying whales for 30 years and she'd never before seen anything other than brief interactions between whales and dolphins and described the behaviour as "very unusual and intriguing".



Humpack and calf off Rarotonga
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Meeting Ronnie the whale
Out of all the whales spotted by Hauser in 2013, one was particularly dear to her heart.  She christened it 'Ronnie Bridge' after the father of Air New Zealand's Cook Islands' manager, David Bridge.  Hauser told David and his wife Nolene that when she saw the coolest whale, she would name him after David's recently deceased father.  Ronnie breached and played with Hauser for an hour and 18 minutes in the Rarotonga waters near Arorangi.
Humpback with dolphins
Photo credits: Three whale pictures at the top of this page, whaleresearch.org; whale and dolphin frolicking, Cook Islands News; Nan Hauser, her own picture
SAFE AND RESPONSIBLE WHALE WATCHING
 
BOATS Approach slowly from the side, never closer than 100 metres (110 yards).    Whales are free to approach you. It is acceptable to stop a boat 300 meters ahead and to one side of the whale and wait quietly for it to pass. Never approach a whale head on or directly from behind. Never approach, pursue or come between a mother with a calf.  A whale with a young calf may protect her offspring aggressively if she feels threatened.  Circling around any whales is forbidden.  If there are 2 boats present, position yourself 'one behind the other' and stay together. Never have 3 boats around the whales or they head out to sea.   Never separate a group of whales, cut off their path, or 'box' them in. Vessels should not be operated at high speeds around the whales. Avoid sudden or repeated changes in speed or direction.  Never approach closely with fishing gear out. Leave a whale that seems disturbed by your presence
 
JET SKIS AND JET BOATS  Jet skis and jet boats must never approach whales and should stay at least 300 metres away from the animals. The sound is damaging to their ears and interferes with their song and communication
 
KAYAKS AND PADDLERS Kayaks and paddlers should stay at least 100 metres away from the whales for passenger security, but the whales may very well be curious and approach you!
  
SWIMMERS AND DIVERS  Swimmers and divers are forbidden to approach whales or enter the water with a whale.  If the whale approaches someone already in the water, enjoy the encounter but don't swim toward the whale. Aggressive behaviour can occur when whales feel threatened or harassed underwater.  Active whales may consider you a threat during their mating season when males compete for females and engage in rough battles