“There, look! Can you see the water spraying into the air?”
I approach the group of people looking out over the bay, following the man’s pointing finger to an area where it looks as if a big rock is sticking out above the water. Something is definitely moving down there as the water is moving in the opposite direction of the current. A chilly south-eastern wind is blowing in from the sea, making little white waves across the surface of the bay. As if time is standing still, we are all staring at the water … waiting … watching. The next moment we all see the spray of water above this rock look-alike and the small group of onlookers simultaneously makes sounds of wonder and awe.
Slowly the big black head appears above the water as we keep staring at the huge whale in front of us, blissfully hanging in the water just behind the back waves of the low tide. For a moment it feels like my brain enters another reality as I take in the spectacular sight of this huge sea creature, now slowly lifting a lazy tail above the teal coloured water. I hear cameras clicking away and a silence resting on the group as we all stare towards the rolling waves, mesmerized by the peaceful presence of this huge deep-sea creature.
We then notice two other rock look-alikes surfacing close by, one smaller than the other two, and one lady exclaims with joy that it’s a baby whale! Another silence filled with awe falls on the group with such sweetness as everyone’s eyes remains on the sea. I thought about how amazing it is that the beauty of nature can so quickly unite a group of complete strangers.
I zoom in with my camera and can clearly see the bumpy white marks on the head of the biggest of the three whales, a clear indication that they are southern right whales.
It is July and the middle of winter in South Africa. Here in the Garden Route this is the time that the locals excitedly share stories of where the whales were spotted as everyone keeps their eye on the sea surface with high expectation of seeing the pleasant sight of the whales’ arrival. Southern right whales migrate yearly from their icy feeding grounds off the Antarctic coast to warmer climates. Reaching the South African coastal waters in June, both locals and visitors to our beautiful country enjoy the spectacular sight of these giant animals. In these warmer waters they mate and return the following year to calve and rear their young.
The sheltered bays of the Western Cape coast are the best places to see these magnificent creatures as this is the southern right’s breeding ground. I cannot help but wonder if that baby whale we are seeing was conceived in this same bay when they were here a year earlier as their gestation period is 12 months. They spend up to five months a year here and pass their time playing, courting, and nursing their new-born calves, providing spectacular land-based viewing as they hang around so close to the shore.
The southern right whale is a baleen whale, one of three species classified as right whales belonging to the genus Eubalaena. There are approximately 10,000 southern right whales spread throughout the southern part of the Southern Hemisphere. An adult female grows up to 14 meters long and can weigh up to 23 000kg. So when you see a whale jumping up out of the water and then keep jumping 6 or 7 times, you can be sure there’s a lot of life in that huge body!
The whale-watching season in the Garden Route runs from June to December, when four species are seen. The southern right is the most commonly sighted, but you can also see humpback and orcas and Bryde’s whales all year round.
Many tourists visit South Africa with the hope of seeing whales during their visit to our shores. There are numerous boat trips offered along the coast to come up real close and personal with the whales. In terms of the Marine Living Resources Act of 1998, it is an offence to approach any whale closer than 300m without a permit, so if you book a whale- watching cruise, please make sure the company has a permit before you get on board.
There are also other ways to see the whales. In many towns along the Garden Route helicopter or small plane flights are offered. It is absolutely amazing to see the whales from the air as you can see the shapes of their huge bodies just hanging in the water as well as their interaction with each other. There are also adventure sport companies offering paragliding … just for that extra boost of adrenaline! In Plettenberg Bay, the dolphin and whale-watching industry is most organised. You can even take a kayak out to sea to get close to the whales. Needless to say, please take care as you can imagine how protective a whale mama will be about her newborn! These excursions are closely watched as viewing, distances and time spent with each animal are strictly monitored so that there is minimal interference
As you drive along the N2 through our beautiful Garden Route, you’ll find informative whale interpretation boards at viewpoints with pictures of the different whales as well as interesting information about their behavior. There are also hiking trails along the coast, like the St Blaize trail in Mossel Bay or the well-known Otter trail where you will easily spot the whales breaking the sea’s surface, spraying water above their heads or a whale tale …
For an added sense of awe, there are also often schools of up to 500 dolphins playing around the whales. Some say that the dolphins actually assist the whales when they give birth to their young, bringing the baby whale to the surface for air. The most common dolphins found all year along our coast are heavisides, common, dusky and bottlenose. What a joy to see them slowly cross the bay, surfing the waves together while they move with the group! They look so playful when they jump up out of the water, two or three at a time, and splash back down to catch the next wave approaching. I often find myself just staring at them and feeling the impact it has on my reality to know that they are alive and being 100% dolphin in this digital 21st century.
The Garden Route generally, from Stilbaai through Mossel Bay and on to George, Wilderness, Knysna and Tsitsikamma, is a magnificent stretch of coastline hosting southern rights from June, humpbacks between May and December, Bryde’s whales all year round – and, occasionally, killer whales.
What a treat to see six southern right whales here in the bay today! The saying is true that we must stop more often in our busy schedules to smell the flowers. How much more rewarding to stop and scan the surface of the constantly moving ocean, our hearts racing with anticipation to see the surface break and to lay our eyes on these magnificent creatures who made the journey all the way from Antarctica.