The southern Cape coast, from Hermanus to Plettenberg Bay forms one of the longest migrations of any living creature in the world when the southern right and humpback whales arrive every year from June onwards.
These gentle giants brave freezing seas and strong currents as they leave their feeding grounds in Antarctica and migrate north to our warmer waters in June to spend the next five months here as they court, mate, breed, nurse and rear their young. At the same time, provide us with spectacular viewing from the land and sea – and now it’s that time of year again.
From now until December they will be visible swimming or dancing to the beat of the waves in what is generally considered to be one of the best whale watching spots in the world.
Massive as they are, all types of whales regularly perform a series of spectacular gymnastic feats easily visible to whale watchers.
They “lobtail” by moving their tail up and down as they swim or they swing it from side to side then slap it down hard onto the surface of the water, which is thought to be a form of communication.
They “breach” as they leap above the waves for play or to loosen parasites from their skin, they “fluke” by raising their mammoth tail high upwards as they begin to dive and they can be seen mating and playing with their young. They are also very vocal and their “whale talk”, consisting of grunting and whistling sounds, can be heard above and below the water.
Because of their size they can be seen when they are far away from shore as they propel themselves above the water and create gigantic splashes as they elevate their fluke or massive tail fins to catch the wind in a unique behaviour known as “sailing”.
They also provide spectacular viewing, and plenty of it, even when they are “logging” or just lying in the water with their tail hanging down and only part of their head and massive back exposed and as they “skyhop” by poking their head above the surface, looking around and spouting water from their “blowholes” which act as nostrils.
Whales are larger than any other mammal. They have thick layers of insulating blubber and, unbelievably, one male testicle can weigh as much as 500kg.
Humpback baby whales, who can swim half an hour after they are born, are between five and six metres in length, weigh as much as two and a half tons at birth and live off their mothers’ milk till one year later when they swim away to begin their own life.
Each type of whale has unique markings and so scientists track their migration by photographic identification. Their other distinguishing features are a broad back without a dorsal fin, an enormously long mouth that begins and ends above their eyes and hardened lumps of white lice living off the skin debris on their head.
Surprisingly, massive as these whales are, they are still the victims of numerous attacks particularly from kelp gulls who peck deep down under their skin with their powerful beaks to release the blubber beneath for food and then leave open sores, some as large as half a metre in diameter.
Southern right whales are a distinct species because they haven’t bred with any of their counterparts in northern waters for between 3 and 12 million years and, though their total population is thought to be approximately 10 000, they are still listed as endangered even though they are increasing at seven percent a year since hunting became illegal. In fact they are now proven worth much more alive than dead.
Whale watching is a growing industry and world wide is estimated to have generated nearly three billion dollars in one year, deriving profits in excess of those for hunting.
Hermanus claims to be the whale capital of the world and holds a whale watching festival every September.
It is the only town in the world that employs a “whale crier” who blows a kelp horn to alert people they are in the vicinity.
It also claims to be the whale capital of the world, though Plettenberg Bay is either equal or runs a close second.
Where to watch the whales:
Whale watching is well organised with trips in boats, kayaks and even aircraft.
The best viewing runs from Doringbaai south of Cape Town around the Cape Peninsula. In Cape Town they can be seen from the road along the False Bay coast and on the Cape west coast from Strandfontein to Lamberts Bay. Walker Bay in Hermanus is thought to offer the best land based whale watching in the world because they can be seen clearly from the cliff tops. - Sunday Tribune