File picture: Supplied
Durban - Humpback whales are back in KwaZulu-Natal waters, with whale song reverberating under the waves and massive tail flukes heralding the fourth World Whale Conference and Durban’s first Welcoming of the Whales Festival, set to take place in Durban later this month.

Riette Bennett, the owner of Advantage Tours, which holds the permit for whale watching in Durban and St Lucia, confirmed whales have been spotted this week as the annual migration takes place from the southern oceans.

“The first lone whale was spotted on May 18, followed by a lull for two weeks, and then the others started arriving.

“We have such beautiful humpback whales coming up our coastline. They come from the Antarctic up to the warm Mozambique waters to mate and breed. Those that are pregnant will go back to the Antarctic for the 12-month gestation period and come back next year to give birth.

“Those giving birth will travel back slowly, waiting for the calf to put on blubber. A calf will drink up to 400 litres a day and they need to build up their blubber to survive in the icy waters of the Antarctic,” said Bennett. She added that the southern right whale is only occasionally seen in KZN waters, with a 60 ton mother and calf spotted last year.

While whales across the southern ocean move north to warmer waters at this time of year - whether to Africa, Australia or America - for breeding purposes, the annual sardine run also brings a huge pod of whales travelling behind them.

Bennett said they were very excited about the World Whale Conference to be held in the city, and particularly about sharing information with other whale watching operations from around the world.

“We can share what species we see, their migratory habits, the extraordinary markings and perhaps create a platform to share pictures and information,” she said, citing an example of a whale tail they photographed, which appeared to have a bite out of the tail.

“Two years later, the exact same whale appeared in front of our vessel. We were over the moon,” she said.

Dr Ken Findlay, the Research Chair in Oceans Economy at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, and one of the guest speakers invited to the conference, said whale populations on the southern hemisphere were faring well, having recovered from “severe whaling pressure”.

The World Whale Conference (June 24-29) is being hosted by the World Cetacean Alliance (WCA) and the theme is “Towards Responsible Tourism for Cetaceans” which will focus on sharing evidence and discussing strategies to ensure the protection of cetaceans.

Cetaceans are aquatic mammals such as whales, dolphins and porpoises.

Part of the conference will also include a Whale Heritage Sites Summit, which will discuss and explore opportunities for the development of new sites in Africa and worldwide.

The Welcoming of the Whales Festival will be held on June 24 and 25, with WCA supporting Sodurba Community Tourism Organisation (Durban South Tourism) hosting the first whale celebration event at Anstey’s Beach on the Bluff. Activities will include educational, art and cultural events to celebrate the arrival of the whales.