Winter is the season for spotting humpback whales in New Caledonia’s southern lagoon. That’s the time when the calves are starting to learn the ways of the ocean while still safely under mother’s watchful eye. Whale watching is a highlight of any boat charter, and the lagoon offers the perfect location for observation in season.
Winter in the Life of a Humpback Whale
After a summer spent in Antarctic waters feeding up for the adventure that awaits them, the southern hemisphere’s humpback whales migrate north to winter in the warmer waters of the tropics. After a two to three month journey the New Caledonia humpbacks calve and mate, all the while without food having left their main diet of krill behind.
During the early months of winter the whales stay closer to shore, mum keeping her newborn between herself and the land, instinct telling her she only needs to protect the calf from one side. By August the calves are learning about life, their classroom for now the waters of the lagoon. As they grow, the pods can be observed further out from land.
Most likely the first glimpse of a whale from your charter boat will be the mother’s spout as she clears her airways on surfacing. Observation will usually require a change of course and some patience, because mum with calf will surface more frequently than she would without a calf in tow. At this stage the calves themselves can only stay submerged for 3 – 5 minutes. On surfacing, both mother and calf can be clearly observed as their backs and dorsal fins break the water.
As the calves develop confidence they can be seen engaging in playful behaviour, breaching and tail slapping. They have not yet developed spacial awareness and a respective distance must be maintained.The males when present, especially in numbers showing off, will most likely be the centre of the action with behaviour that’s the most thrilling to whale watchers.
By late September sightings are rare, as the whales are making final preparations for the long trip south to Antarctic waters. As they travel home they resume feeding on their diet of small fish and krill, the adults making up for the tonnes of weight they have lost in the north, the calves starting to grow prodigiously. And then the seasonal cycle begins all over again as the southern hemisphere summer passes.
There are strict rules for approaching whales in New Caledonia. Vessels must approach slowly and from the sides, not directly from in front of or behind the animals. Do not come closer than 100 metres to the pod, and don’t stay for more than 30 minutes when a calf is present.
Three Species of Turtle and Dugongs too
With its expansive coastline, marine reserves almost devoid of coastal development, the southern lagoon of New Caledonia is definitely a charter destination for nature lovers. Cruising the mainland coast, the beautiful Isle of Pines and the exotic southern isles, wildlife is abundant.
On passage you may spot a friendly loggerhead turtle swimming sedately by. Look out for a pod of dolphins or a school of lagoon fish churning up the water while being harassed by a larger pelagic variety of some description. In the turquoise water of the lagoons and bays, watch for a glimpse of the rare and endangered dugong, or observe a sleek reef shark gliding among the tiny coral fish of all colours and shapes.
The Charterer’s Role in Looking after the Environment
When anchoring overnight in the Isle of Pines and southern lagoon, you are just about guaranteed to spot remora circling your boat. These are the sucker fish that most commonly accompany larger sharks, feeding off discarded parts of their kills and parasites. In Kuto Bay the remora seem to have learned to hang onto boat hulls expecting a handout. Please resist the temptation to feed the wildlife with food scraps. Over time it affects behaviour as well as the health of the ecosystem.
New Caledonia as a charter sailing destination has three distinct environments. There’s the mainland with its palm-ringed bays backed by mountains richly forested except where mining has exposed the rich red soil; the Isle of Pines, one of the most beautiful tropical islands you can expect to visit on a sailing holiday; and the outer isles – coral-encrusted outcrops in differing stages of formation, from reefs lingering below the surface to islets with lush vegetation ringed by coral sand bleached the brightest white.
Add an abundance of wildlife, and surely New Caledonia is the place for a sailing holiday of adventure, relaxation and the pure pleasure of being close with nature. The environment is fragile. Please take care to anchor only in sand, leave the beach as you found it, and observe all signage regarding habitats. As charterers, let’s do our bit to help keep this unique destination the way we want it to be.