June to October is the primary whale season in South Africa.
WATCHING THESE MAGNIFICENT MARINE MAMMALS IN THEIR NATURAL ENVIRONMENT IS BOUND TO BE A HIGHLIGHT OF YOUR EXPAT EXPERIENCE.
Renata Harper asks those who love and know the sea to share their favourite spots for whale-watching in Cape Town and its surroundings…
It’s whale season for us, though the whales might well refer to it as “tourist season” among themselves… Each year, southern right whales migrate northwards from the Southern Ocean to mate, give birth and raise their young in the seas of South Africa – and to be greeted from the shores by “oohs” and “aahs” over both their aquatic antics and calves.
This story from Nan Rice, founder and CEO of the Dolphin Action Protection Group (DAPG) and now in her eighties (“and still working!”), reminds us how lucky we are to be able to spot these awe-inspiring creatures from our doorsteps: “In the 1930s and 1940s, one used to hear about whales but never see any. It was only in the 1960s, after they had been internationally protected for two decades, that we started to see them, though this was still quite rare. In that time I lived in Hout Bay and would spot dolphins from the roadside going towards Chapman’s Peak. Early one morning, I was standing on the hillside and, just below me, two southern right whales rose out of the water and blew – it was like hearing the breath of life! Now that both southern right and humpback whales are increasing their populations healthily, we are seeing more of these species in-shore than we ever did before.”
A must-do for both locals and expats
Hermanus is the traditional destination of choice. Repeatedly voted one of the best whale-watching destinations in the world, this coastal town about 90 minutes from Cape Town is perfectly geared towards whale fans and fanatics: wander and watch from the glorious cliff path, listen out for the whale crier’s alerts, or enjoy the family-friendly festivities of the Hermanus Whale Festival.
But if you’re seeking a more intimate experience or don’t have time for a day trip, you’ll enjoy these recommendations from our local whale experts…
THE MARINE MAMMAL CONSERVATIONIST
“DAPG is not (and never has been) a fan of boat-based whale watching,” says Rice. “Instead we advocate seeing the whales from the shore. When the whales peak (i.e. around August and September, and in False Bay mainly from September to about mid-October), one can see them virtually daily – depending on the weather, of course – from elevated areas such as Boyes Drive. A good spotting place is Clovelly Corner, and also Glencairn.”
THE NATURE & TOUR GUIDE
Jeremy Schreiner regularly leads guests of AWOL Tours along Table Mountain National Park’s Hoerikwaggo Trail – and it’s here that he’s had some of his best whale sightings. “While sitting on the deck at Slangkop Tented Camp, Kommetjie, enjoying stunning sunsets and the sound of crashing waves, I've often seen whales passing by. At Rooikrans, just before Cape Point, is a platform that looks out over False Bay. It’s on the Hoerikwaggo, but you can access it by car too. The smaller bay that you look out on offers a quiet sanctuary for the whales, with very deep water and protection from the pumping South-Easter. In whale season I've encountered whales almost every time!”
The shark watchers hut on Boyes Drive, Muizenberg is a favourite of his too: “When you have clear views of False Bay, you’ll often see a variety of marine wildlife, like schools of yellowtail, whales, and if you’re lucky, dolphins.”
THE MARINE BIOLOGIST
“De Kelders [a coastal village between Gansbaai and Hermanus] is sheltered from the strong southerly winds and has some fairly high cliffs,” says Dr Simon Elwen, Research Fellow at the University of Pretoria and Director of Sea Search Africa, “which means it offers great conditions for spotting marine life. I’ve seen up to 15 groups of whales from the shore! More recently I've had a PhD student based there for several months doing some shore-based observations trying to link the number and behaviour of whales to the call types and call rates recorded.”
But this spot holds sentimental value for Simon too. “It was 2005 and I was in the middle of assisting with an annual photographic survey of right whales along the southern Cape coast. This survey has been run since 1969 by Professor Peter Best of the Mammal Research Institute at the University of Pretoria (since passed).”
“There were about 800 whales in the catalogue at that time, mostly identified from the callosities on their heads (and a few from more interesting colour patterns on their backs). I’d never worked with the catalogue myself, so didn't really know any of the animals on sight and very few of them had more than an ID number. However, there was one whale I'd used as an example in a talk, called "Butterfly" because of the butterfly-shaped marking on her back [see photo]. I knew she’d been born in 1981 and that she’d had several calves by then.”
“My colleague, Dr Desray Reeb, photographed her off De Hoop with a baby and I recognised her from the air and was really chuffed about it. Two days later, we saw her and her calf again off Arniston and this time I got to photograph her. After finishing the fairly gruelling survey (it's about five long days of flying), I swung past that spot in De Kelders to sit on the beach and watch whales in the peace and quiet of nature, with no clattering helicopter above my head or boat engines behind me, and there I saw about 12 groups of whales – one of which was Butterfly!”
THE MARINE CONSERVATIONIST
“If I had to choose a place near Cape Town, I would say False Bay, looking out from Simon’s Town,” says Bridget Corrigan, Manager of the Source to Sea Programme at the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT). “You could get lucky and see a Bryde’s Whale, which is distinguishable by the falcate dorsal fin, which rises abruptly out of the back. Humpback whales could be identified by their long fins, which they often slap against the ocean surface. But most likely, you would see a southern right whale, identifiable by the callosities on the skin surface. It is thrilling to see the isolated splash out at sea and one of these whales breach playfully when you scan the waters. Sitting on a rocky outcrop just south of Simon’s Town, where it’s not so busy and you can get a good vantage point, is definitely one of the quieter pleasures of Cape Town.”
THE AQUATIC SPECIALIST
“My favourite spot is the stretch of road between Fishhoek and Glencairn,” says Dr Cecile Reed, lecturer at UCT’s Department of Biological Sciences. “The whales come very close to the shore at this spot. I’ve seen about six to eight of them there at a time. I know of this spot because I run that route fairly frequently. There isn’t much parking next to the road at that point, so walking either from Fishhoek beach or Glencairn beach is best.”
Enjoy the sight of these majestic animals – and don’t forget to bring your binoculars!
EXPERIENCE THESE WONDERFUL MARINE CREATURES UP CLOSE
Would you like to make a really special experience?
Ivanhoe Sea Safaris is regarded as one of the leading boat-based whale watching companies in South Africa. They were awarded with one of the limited whale watching permits allocated in the country.
Watching whales from a boat offers a huge advantage: You can get close to these graceful animals.
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Feel free to share this article with any whale-lovers you know. And do let us in on your favourite whale-watching spots.
"Butterfly" the whale
© Simon Elwen – Mammal Research Institute