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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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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