The Whale-Haunted Waters of Rurutu
You know they're in the water long before you see them. The water fills with ghostly overtures, haunting arias and ineffable notes that resonate through the ocean and wrap around your body. It's as if you're hearing the life force of the whales.
I put my head half in, half out of the water and hear the familiar squawks of sea birds and the delighted shouts of people as they witness the majesty of a breaching whale. But in the water the phantom sound swells, and the dual effect is almost dizzying as my mind struggles to comprehend the two worlds.
I'm bobbing in the waters off Rurutu, a tiny outpost in the Australs of Tahiti. Every year, from August to November, humpback whales migrate from Antarctica to these warm, shallow, protected waters to give birth, nurse and mate. It's a snorkeler's big-animal nirvana, with life-changing encounters almost guaranteed.
We were told to slip quietly over the side of the boat into the water and let the whales initiate contact. As we slowly drift, a massive form materializes from the blue vapor at the edge of visibility. A smaller form, too, slowly rises to the surface. It's the smaller form--a two-ton baby still nursing from its mother--that notices us first and comes to investigate.
The mother seemingly approves and returns to her nap. The calf stays to play and for the next two hours we're engaged each time it surfaces for air--every five or so minutes--and comes in close to inspect us with its remarkably sentient eyes. But it's not until the mom stirs that we truly feel how small our place is in this world.
With an almost imperceptible movement, she rises to breathe then she pauses to inspect us. She's massive--almost 45 feet long and tipping the scale at 40 tons--and has a white underbelly and barnacles on her skin. Even at such a size, she's so perfectly aware of her surroundings that though she comes within inches of us, she never actually touches us. The grace of her movements is startling. I forget to breathe and never want the encounter to end.
We stay, bobbing on the surface, until the sky begins to darken and the ocean dims. Just before we climb back into the boat I don't just hear, I feel the water come alive with the evocative strains of more whalesong. I think "thank-you" and "good-bye", and for a moment believe the whales will indeed hear my thoughts.
Hanauma Bay, Oahu
If there is one archetype of a world-class snorkeling site, Oahu's Hanauma Bay would be it. This ancient volcanic caldera offers snorkelers protection from Pacific-borne waves, a lively, shallow reef and typically crystal-clear water. It doesn't get much easier than this. If it flits, fins, hides or hunts in Hawaiian coastal waters, you'll probably find it here in great concentrations. And with more than 30 percent of Hawaiian marine life endemic to the island chain, much of the parade before your mask can be seen only in Hawaii. Camouflage has not been a priority, so most species look like they've rolled around in a box of Crayolas. Take a little food with you and you'll be immediately surrounded by millet-seed, raccoon, threadfin, pyramid and ornate butterflyfish. And keep your eye out for the Hawaii state fish, the humuhumunukunukuapua'a, or reef triggerfish.
Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Every inch of Australia's 1,250-mile-long Barrier Reef could be considered a world-class destination for snorkelers. Since most of it lies 30 miles off the coast, what could be better than planting yourself on Heron Island, smack on top of the Barrier Reef and spending your days in the water mere steps from the shore? Heron Island, a short hop off Gladstone on the Queensland coast, has a bit of everything, from spotted eagle rays, green sea turtles and manta rays to legions of wildly colored nudibranchs. Sea turtles come ashore to nest from December to February. If you don't feel like swimming, the resort offers a reef walk that will bring the reef alive--literally--right at your feet.