Whale lands on yacht
By Bethany Firnhaber
A breaching whale has crash-landed on a sailboat in Table Bay, narrowly missing the vessel's occupants and leaving in its wake bits of blubber and thick skin.
This picture shows the southern right whale seconds before its massive body landed on the coach roof of the boat, flattening the steel mast and bringing down the rigging before sliding back into the water and disappearing into the distance.
"It was quite scary," said Paloma Werner, who had been out sailing with her boyfriend and business partner, Ralph Mothes, of the Cape Town Sailing Academy.
"We thought the whale was going to go under the boat and come up on the other side. We thought it would see us."
But the boat had its engine turned off.
Meredith Thornton, scientist and manager of the Cape Town Mammal Research Institute at the University of Pretoria, said: "Whales don't see much by way of their eyes but by sound in the water."
Between the whale's poor eyesight and low visibility in the water, Thornton said the whale, which she believed to be young, probably did not know the boat was in its way.
The couple first saw the whale when it was about 100m away. It breached once and, before they knew it, the whale was a mere 10m from their yacht.
"There was hardly any wind, so we couldn't get out of the way," said Werner.
"We didn't have time to take any evasive action."
The yacht, a 10m training boat called Intrepid, is made of steel and did not suffer any structural damage.
"If it had been a fibreglass boat it would have been sunk, so we were lucky," said Werner.
The whale was seen pounding its tail on the surface of the water just moments before breaching.
"It looked like it was angry or something," said Joseph Mbaya, a sailor and tour guide for Yacoob Tourism.
He had stopped his boat, Ameera, just 300m short of the whale to take photographs.
Thornton said the whale had not been angry, but was probably "lob-tailing" in order to communicate with other whales.
"If a whale wanted to be aggressive it would side-swipe the boat with its tail," she said.
Two people from Botswana were on Ameera with Mbaya.
One of the tourists, who Mbaya knew only as James, captured the moment on his camera just before the whale hit the boat.
James gave a copy of the picture to Mbaya as a keepsake and the tour guide brought it to the Cape Argus.
After the incident, Mothes and Werner surveyed the damage to their yacht.
"The first thing we did was make sure there was no water downstairs. We didn't know if the whale was coming back," said Werner.
The couple were contacted by other concerned sailors who had seen the accident, but they were fine.
Werner and Mothes then reported the accident to Port Control.
The couple managed to turn the engine on and made it back to the marina without assistance.
They docked the boat and folded the crumpled sails, asking for help only to move the damaged mast.
Thornton said the whale was probably not badly injured.
"It's definitely very badly bruised, but probably did not break anything," she said. "It's definitely feeling it today."
Thornton said southern right whales could reach up to 15m and could weigh up to 60 tons. They can be seen year-round near the Cape, but are more prevalent at this time of year.
"They come here to breed," said Thornton. "It's a regular occurrence in winter months."
According to Thornton, the population of the southern right whale was healthy and growing steadily.
"I think this is something that is going to happen more and more, because the number of whales in South African waters is increasing at the biological maximum, which is 7.5 percent each year."
"There are also more and more people using the whales' environment (for) swimming and boating."
Werner said the shock of the accident had not hit her until she finally sat down at the end of the day.
But she remained upbeat.
"It gives a whole new meaning to having a whale of a time," she joked.