Swimming with a humpback whale and her baby in Bora Bora was the highlight of possibly the best day of my life. Well, so far.
It was my 40th birthday and we were staying in an over-water bungalow for eight nights while in French Polynesia. We split our time between Mo’orea and Bora Bora mostly, with one night afterward in Tahiti before we flew back to Los Angeles.
Days in Paradise.
Mimi is a big fan of birthdays and she set out to make my 40th a memorable occasion. To call her amazing at planning incredible experiences would be the understatement of the year. She knew that snorkeling is one of my absolute favorite activities and after spending four incredible days in Mo’orea, I didn’t think it could get any better. Until we got to Bora Bora.
I don’t sleep much so I’d start each day around
We had gone on an ATV tour of Mo’orea, but most days in French Polynesia involved relaxing.
With reggae music playing, most days would center around drinks and swimming. We had stocked the bungalow with the essentials, a few snacks, and copious amounts of alcohol. With cartons of Tahiti Drink procured from the local market and a bottle of rum to give it a little extra (and very unnecessary) kick we were ready to relax.
Many places in the world could be called paradise.
Just the idea could mean something different to everyone. For us, Bora Bora set the bar. We’ve been fortunate enough to see a lot of incredibly beautiful places, but nowhere has ever been more beautiful. I could never describe all the different blues of the waters with any of the poetic accolades that it deserves. It’s a place that’s gorgeous in every picture and yet is still so much more overwhelming in person.
It was here that I woke up on my 40th birthday.
I stuck to my usual schedule of stargazing because, in a place with as little light pollution as Bora Bora, the view is stunning! Mix that with the sound of the ocean as it laps against the side of your over-water bungalow and you have the perfect recipe for peaceful tranquility. Mimi joined me that morning, and we watched the sunrise before going on our morning snorkel. She swam back to the bungalow a bit early, and I knew that she was up to something. I also knew it would probably be something that I would really like, so I just kept snorkeling. I’m no dummy.
Celebratory breakfast feast.
When I got back to the deck of the bungalow and started to climb up the ladder, I could see that Mimi had recruited room service for a birthday feast. Everything that I like to eat for breakfast was there and it was more than I could eat. There was even a little cupcake with a candle in it. It was the perfect start to the day and I was ready to go snorkeling again, but Mimi had other plans. She had arranged for a boat to pick us up to go snorkeling around the island for the day.
When the boat arrived, we were one of two couples being picked up. There was also an older couple already on the boat who were only along for the ride. The other couple, apparently also staying at our hotel, was an Italian couple. They seemed nice and we had some good sign language-like conversations with them. Our driver and tour guide rounded out the group and we hit it off right away. He was a Frenchman named Christoph who owned the boat company leading the excursion. By pure coincidence, it was also his birthday too!
The first stop was a spot where eagle rays were known to live. We were not to be disappointed.
There were dozens of eagle rays swimming together in large groups. They were lazily drifting through the crystal clear blue waters around us. I could have stayed there all day but there was more to see, and Mimi was letting it be a surprise. So, while I was reluctant to leave, I was very curious what else she had planned. She knew what highlights the tour offered and she was very excited for me to see our next stop.
Mimi had to point it out to me because I wasn’t seeing it. I have no idea how I didn’t see something so large gliding through the water, but It was very well camouflaged considering how big it was. It was more impressive than I ever could have imagined.
I was stunned, so I sank. Frozen in the water, I forgot to swim before the need to breathe reminded me to swim again.
Manta Rays are fascinating to me and I have always dreamed of swimming with them. Seeing them in person was a dream come true. We floated above it trying to keep pace for a while, but it swam surprisingly fast considering how slowly it appeared to move.
The next appearance was by a group of baby manta rays. “Baby,” meaning that they were still as big as me.
The rays followed each other as they glided over the reef. They swam in graceful loops as they collected food from the water. It was just like I had seen in so many documentaries and it was exactly what I had hoped to see. I swam back to the boat
We’ve got Whales!
I was beyond happy, but Christoph wasn’t done. He got on the radio with the other boats in his company to find out what everyone was seeing in the water. The conversation was mostly in French, but I understood the words “humpback whale” well enough. Christoph put the boat in gear and we sped toward the darker blue water outside the reef as the rules and safety precautions were explained. Arriving at the spot, Christoph started tapping everyone on the shoulder saying,
“Go! Go! Leave your husband! Leave your wife! Get in the water! Go!”–Christoph
I jumped into the water immediately and started swimming toward the whale.
I’m normally more considerate than this but I left Mimi behind to hang out with the Italian couple. I was so far beyond excited, that I lost all focus on anything but that whale. When we were told we were going to see a whale, I thought he meant from the boat. So, when he started to shout for us to get into the water to swim with the whale, I didn’t hesitate.
The whale came into view and I got excited. I swam as close as I dared, having been warned to keep a respectful distance.
Mimi quickly caught up to me and we
The mama humpback woke up and angled her massive body gracefully toward the surface for air.
Leveling off she began to keep a wary eye on the swimmers around her, but she didn’t seem alarmed. The baby swam big circles around the mama as if trying to play. It was adorable. I felt as lucky as a National Geographic cameraman. We floated there for quite a while marveling at the whales but eventually, it was time to give them some privacy.
I don’t think you can have an experience like that without it changing you.
As we swam back to the boat, I rotated between apologizing for leaving her behind in my excitement and thanking her for the most incredible experience of my life. It was beyond anything I had ever dreamed of doing and I felt like the luckiest person alive at that moment. With my expectations of the day surpassed beyond my wildest dreams, it was time to go back to the hotel to get ready for dinner.
Mimi had made reservations at La Villa Mahana a month before we arrived and she was lucky to have gotten it.
It only has seven tables and reservations are booked up for several months. But there had been a cancellation, and she had happened to call at the perfect time.
What Heaven tastes like.
La Villa Mahana is still the gold standard by which all meals are compared. Chef Damien is an artist and he created a masterpiece that was the only dinner that could have lived up to such a perfect day. The atmosphere was cozy and romantic as we sipped on champagne. We sat in the glow of candlelight sharing our thoughts about the exciting moments from our day. Music by Edith Piaf, Andre Bocelli, and Ray Charles eased through the restaurant speakers. Course after delicious course emerged from the tiny kitchen and was paired perfectly with the appropriate wine. It was nothing short of spectacular.
When the meal was done, we stood up from the table at the exact moment it began to rain.
It was a warm refreshing rain and we didn’t try to hide from it. It was a perfect romantic moment that Hollywood can only dream of recreating. We strolled hand in hand through the rain making our way back to the dock. Happy and content after such a memorable day, our boat arrived and we climbed aboard. A short boat ride later we were back to our underwater bungalow, the rain stopped, the clouds cleared, and the day ended with us holding each other under the stars. Just the way it started.