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WHALE OF A TIME

 

Leaving behind their icy feeding grounds off Antarctica, the southern rights head for warmer climes to mate and calve. With their arrival in winter and early spring, the southern Cape coast is completely awash with whales - literally tons and tons of them. Southern rights are everywhere, providing whale-watchers with spectacular displays of raw power as well as elegant water acrobatics.

So named because these beauties were once considered the 'right' whale to hunt - because they were slow, carcasses floated and yield was great - southern rights have been protected by law since 1935. Now these gentle creatures of the deep draw excited crowds to marvel at their displays. Weighing in at around 60 tons, southern rights often come close to the shoreline, sometimes appearing just a few feet from land.

Hermanus, overlooking Walker Bay on the Cape south coast, is considered to boast the best land-based whale-watching in the world, and then there's still Plettenberg Bay, Algoa Bay and the Wild Coast as additional options.

Although southern right are the pride of the region, there are also humpbacks, Bryde's whales and orcas. The 40-ton humpbacks migrate north between May and December to breed off the coasts of Mozambique and Angola. Bryde's whales are present all year round, but are usually seen a little further offshore, while orcas, or killer whales, also flash their striking black and white colors throughout the year.

The best time to see southern rights is from June to November when they are resident along the Cape south coast, although some have already been seen as far north as KwaZulu-Natal. Peak calving season is July and August, but whales can be seen aplenty through September and October as well. During this period, daily sightings are almost guaranteed and it's not uncommon to see up to 20 whales frolicking simultaneously in Walker Bay.

Enthusiastic watchers are overwhelmed at the sight of southern rights breaching and blowing all over the bay. If you see a huge black tailfin sticking out of the ocean, as if the whale is doing a headstand, you have most definitely spotted a southern right whale.

Heralding the arrival of the whales in Walker Bay is the world's only whale-crier. During whale-watching season, he has a full-time job patrolling the streets of Hermanus and blowing his kelp horn to alert enthusiasts to the presence of whales in the bay. The sound is a type of Morse code that not only tells of the presence of whales, but also their location. Code translations appear on a board carried by the whale-crier, and before long enthusiasts know the language of the crier by heart. Sightings of whales are also recorded by the Hermanus Tourist Bureau.

Although Hermanus is famous as great whale-watching territory, excellent sightings of southern rights and other species are enjoyed all the way from Strandfontein, on the West Coast, to Lambert's Bay, Elands Bay, St Helena, Saldanha and Ysterfontein, just north of Cape Town. This magnificent windswept coastline is dotted with tiny fishing villages, quaint little towns and friendly folk - who have been known to complain that the moans of whales keep them awake at night.

However, great sightings can also be enjoyed all around the Cape peninsula and along the south coast to Cape Agulhas. This southernmost tip of Africa is a particularly rewarding spot for seeing southern right cows and calves at play - up to 50 pairs at a time. The enchanting town of Arniston, and along the coast to Cape Infanta, is also well known for its whale sightings.

The Garden Route from Stilbaai through Mossel Bay and on to George, Wilderness, Knysna and Tsitsikamma is a magnificent stretch of coastline hosting southern rights in their season, humpbacks between May and December and Bryde's whales all year round.

Even killer whales are occasionally spotted. Along the Tsitsikamma coastline from Plettenberg Bay to Storms River, whales can often be seen frolicking just beyond the breakers. From Cape St Francis to the rugged Wild Coast are numerous great vantage points to see humpbacks, Bryde's, minke and killer whales and quite often southern rights, especially in Algoa Bay, while sperm and beaked whales approach close to shore off Port St Johns.

Notably, humpbacks are spotted almost daily during their northward migration from May to July and again on their return journey from November to January, occasionally being spotted as far north as Cape Vidal.

Whichever species you see, it's difficult to describe the adrenaline rush and simultaneous sense of calm experienced at seeing a whale belly-flop on the water or wave its tail above the sea's surface.

Although there's much we don't know about whales, we do know that they communicate over vast distances, tend their calves for extended periods and navigate by echolocation. We also know one more undisputed fact: that whale-watching is a special experience that touches the soul.

 

WHALE KNOWLEDGE

Whale watching tips:

  • Clear, windless conditions are the best for whale-spotting.

  • For shore-based viewing take along a pair of binoculars, a hat, sunscreen and patience.

  • Look out for the whale's blow, as it's usually the first definite sign of its presence.

  • Southern right whales don't have a dorsal fin and have callosities, or patches of thickened skin, on their heads, which make them distinct from other whale types.

  • If you are whale-viewing by boat (as 50 000 people do annually), ensure that the company is Government accredited to watch whales close up, that they have the requisite boat permits and insurances and that the skipper has the required certification and Government whale-watching permit. Keep quiet while aboard and follow instructions at all times.

 

The right lingo
 

Blowing or spouting - when air is blown from the lungs sending a spray of condensation into the water.


Breaching - when the whale appears to leap out of the water and then belly-flop on the sea's surface.


Lobtailing - when the tail is raised to beat the surface of the water.


Sailing - when the tail is raised vertically out of the water.


Spyhopping - when southern rights lift their heads out of the water to see what is going on above the surface. They are able to see both above and below water.

Whale facts:

  • Southern right females are pregnant for 11-12 months and produce a single calf every three years.

  • Calves are about 6m long when born and drink 600 litres of milk a day. They are suckled for six months.

  • Southern rights can dive to 300m, swim at 17km/h and live longer than 50 years.

  • The population of southern rights off the southern Africa coast is estimated at about 6 500.

  • The average southern right weighs 80 times more than the average man.

  • Humpbacks undertake the longest migration of all whales - from their feeding ground in Antarctica to their breeding ground in the tropics.

  • There are about six million active whale-watchers world-wide.

  • See the different types of whales that visits the waters of South Africa.

  • Click here to read more about the Whale Walk

Why do whales beach?
The definite reason is unknown, but it's thought to be a result of a malfunction of their navigational devices or they are old, young or diseased.

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JOURNEYS OF DISTINCTION

   
JOURNEYS OF DISTINCTION