Right time to watch whales

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BIG DIPPERS: A southern right whale breaches off the Cape coast. Picture: tim rolston

Cape Town - Winter in the Western Cape isn’t always the best time to be out and about; the cold fronts sweep in dumping tons of water on the mountains, temperatures plummet, rivers flood, the tracks are wet and muddy and low cloud frequently prevents hikes to high ground.

But there are compensations: all that rain keeps us going for the rest of the year, the snow-capped peaks make for a wonderful spectacle when the skies clear enough to bring them into view and, of course, the southern right whales visit our shores on their annual migration.

Searching them out has become a regular winter pilgrimage and I generally engineer a few walks that will put me in view of the coastline and the possibility of spotting these gentle giants as they congregate in the bay to calf or mate and enjoy a little warm-water “R and R”.

The return of the whales is a symbol of hope and a reminder that we can look after our planet and the creatures with which we share it, should we have a mind to do so.

It seems only fair that one should make the effort to say hello to them after they have swum thousands of kilometres from the Southern Ocean for a visit. The only trouble is that the whales have seemed a little late in arriving this season and although they have made an impressive comeback after years of slaughter, they have been scarce in False Bay.

I have been host to landlocked guests from the Eastern Cape who have been desperate to see the whales up close and personal, so we had to do something.

Several times we tried a simple stroll along Boyes Drive, generally a good vantage point for spotting the visitors, but despite the shark watchers assuring us that the whales had been close to shore earlier in the day we kept missing them.

Then we decided that if we couldn’t get the whales to come to us we would venture out after them and elicited the assistance of the Simon’s Town Boat Company (www.boatcompany.co.za), with which I took a wonderful trip last year and saw whales aplenty.

Bad weather in the preceding few days, however, seemed to have driven the whales offshore and we struggled to find any. We were most fortunate to see a mother Bryde’s whale and her calf close to Cape Point, thanks to the tremendous spotting ability of Dave and Kari, but there was not a southern right in sight. The Bryde’s whales are resident in the bay, but are shy and elusive creatures so we were well pleased with the sighting. What we really wanted to see, however, were those massive visitors from the deep south.

We did a few more trips around the coast, burning fuel and wearing out shoe leather, all the time expecting at any moment to spot the classical heart-shaped spume of a blowing whale, but to no avail.

Finally, after days of searching and with my guests’ time running out, we decided the situation called for desperate measures, so with the sun shining and a little breeze we undertook an “all or nothing” trip around the coast. We circumnavigated virtually the whole of False Bay, past Gordon’s Bay and along the beautiful coastal road to Cape Hangklip, stopping frequently to scan the ocean without seeing so much as a distant splash. One might imagine that locating something the size of 12 African elephants would be a piece of cake, but then the ocean is big and the movement of the whales unpredictable.

Finally we continued to the self-professed “Capital of Land-Based Whale-Watching”, Hermanus, which came up trumps: we spotted the first whale as we pulled into the car park. Walker Bay was filled with whales, sporting in the distant sunshine, breaching out to sea in huge white plumes of spray and frolicking just off the coast, close enough to easily hear the massive rumbling breaths as they exhaled, sending salt spray high into the air.

This close whales are truly awe-inspiring, and one cannot but wonder how man so nearly wiped out the entire population of these magnificent creatures. Thankfully they are increasing in numbers at a rate of seven percent a year and hopefully their continued presence on the planet is now assured by conservation efforts.

On almost every walk or drive I undertake around the Cape I realise how blessed we are, but perhaps we are most blessed to have such wonderful fellow mammals choosing to visit us each year. If you have never gone in search of them I heartily encourage you to do so; you may well not have to travel as far or work as hard as we did, as they are sure to come close to the False Bay coast at some point. You just need to keep your eyes open. If that fails you may consider taking a trip on a boat or heading to Hermanus for the Whale Festival, which runs from September 28 to October 1. - Sunday Argus

See www.whalefestival.co.za

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