Bitten by the whale watching bug
We don’t realise how lucky we are in South Africa, and in particular the Western Cape, to have the mightiest of the marine mammals visit our coastline between August and October every year. Countless visitors to South Africa come to our shores to catch sight of these gentle, but huge beasts, and many of them manage to do so virtually face-to-face.
You can imagine the experience of getting close to a whale – longer and definitely wider than the boat on which you find yourself, with a tail that spans roughly 5 metres, and a body weight of a mere 40 tonnes! Have that mass fling itself into the air alongside you and life is quickly placed into perspective!
Watching whales responsibly rests on your decision to make sure that whichever whale watching tour company you decide to use be one that follows local guidelines provided for operators. In our case in South Africa, despite their being no global guidelines for responsible whale watching, one is not allowed closer than 300 metres unless one holds a permit, when one can approach to a distance of 50 metres, and then with certain restrictions.
Inquisitive whales are known to come even closer, given the chance, or if they feel unthreatened. And whilst seeing whales from a boat is incredibly exciting, it’s not for everyone, and there is some fantastic land-based whale watching as well, particularly in Hermanus.
Hermanus, known as ‘the whale capital of South Africa’ draws countless visitors every year to its famous Whale Festival, the largest environmental sustainable expo held late in September of every year and, as a consquence, rather busy. But if you’re prepared to brave the crowds, like we were last year, then you can spend hours literally on the cliff tops of Hermanus watching these beasts right in the bay. And they come fairly close to the shore. Certainly a lot closer than trying to sight them from Boyes Drive above Muizenberg, where they are little more than a speck out of the corner of your eye, if the waters are particularly choppy.
But somehow that doesn’t seem to matter much. The point is to see them somewhere, so we’ve come up with a list of the best places along the Cape to sight whales whilst they’re still visiting us:
In Cape Town
Muizenberg from Boyes Drive: Whales are definitely more prevalent in the warmer False Bay waters and, armed with binoculars, you won’t be disppointed if you set off along Boyes Drive, making a stop up above the sea between Muizenberg and Kalk Bay. On a calm day, one can spot the whales in the waters below.
Kalk Bay: After this, head down into Kalk Bay (stop off for a much needed Danish from the Olympia Café bakery). In Kalk Bay you can hire a boat to take you out to see the whales in the bay, although you’re not allowed closer than 300 metres.
Fish Hoek: Fish Hoek is a great spot to see whales, if they choose this as their destination. Jager’s Walk is a path that hugs the beach and extends slightly along the coastline towards Glencairn and can offer a bird’s eye view.
Walk between Clovelly and Kalk Bay: This is sometimes a rewarding experience. Park at Clovelly and head up along the road towards Kalk Bay.
From Fish Hoek to Simon’s Town: there are a few really good spots along the route between Fish Hoek and Simon’s Town.
Boulders to Smitswinkelbaai: Here you’re blessed with some incredible mountain scenery to accompany your quest for the whales.
Along the Cape Whale Coast
The area between Rooiels / Pringle Bay and Pearly Beach has become known amongst some as the Cape Whale Coast. Not strictly true, as the Cape Whale Route stretches for over 900 kilometres, from Doringbaai on the West Coast, all the way to Storms River Mouth on the Garden Route. But this portion of the coastline, which includes the towns of Kleinmond, Hermanus, Stanford and Gansbaai, is definitely considered the best portion of the coast on which to spot whales.
This part of the coast, known as the Overstrand, is a whale sanctuary of note. Gansbaai in particular has marketed the Danger Point Peninsula as the space of the ‘Big 2′ where you can see both whales and great white sharks, and it is the thrill of this possibility, despite my reservations about cage diving with sharks, that draws people here.
Pearly Beach in particular has shallow, protective waters in which whales choose to mate and calve.
Witsand and Cape Agulhas
Further along the Cape coastline, Witsand is regarded as the whale nursery of the African coast because it boasts one of the greatest concentrations of Southern Right whales who come each year to calve here. And Cape Agulhas can be equally rewarding.
Grootbos Nature Reserve: Grootbos Private Nature Reserve probably offers you the only ‘private’ view of whales on the cliffs of Walkers Bay, without the crowds.
Whale behaviour to look out for
Blowing – expelling air through the blowhole, including a spout of water vapour
Breaching – leaping out of the water and falling back on their sides
Lobtailing – slapping their flukes and tail on the water
Spy hopping – lifting the head and body as far as the flippers above the surface
Interesting to note
South Africa is the world’s fifth fastest growing whale watching destination. I was more than a little thankful to hear that only 16 permits have been issued allowing operators close to the whales, which means we intrude on these beautiful beasts as little as possible. May it remain so.
Operators like Dyer Island Cruises (Tel: +27 (0)28 384-0406), who have won a First Choice Responsible Tourism award, are actively involved in coastal conservation such as creating artificial penguin homes for nesting on Dyer island. They are also involved in the upliftment of local community and are involved in training local guides etc. This is the kind of operator to look out for, when setting out to see the whales.