Annual Whale Festival
Last weekend was the 26th Hermanus Whale Festival highlighting efforts to protect whales from extinction. The festival’s “ocean-themed activities emphasized education and environmentally responsible adventures”.
The people of Hermanus “look after their destination, from an environmental and conservation perspective”. The festival focused on creating awareness and celebrating the annual return of the beloved Southern Right Whale.
Festival features included cultural activities, food, crafts, and sports events:
- Music Stage
- Vintage Car Show
- Marine-Themed Eco Exhibits
- Adventure Activities
- Whale Watching – Land, Sea Air
An Eco Marine Tent featured local ecotourism operators sharing information and interacting with visitors. The operators have “embarked on a major campaign to change the way people view ocean wildlife on the Cape Whale Coast”.
Hermanus is recognized by the World Wildlife Fund as “one of the 12 best whale watching destinations in the world”. In honor of the Whale Festival, I booked a boat-based whale watching tour in Walker Bay! Most tour companies I contacted were fully booked for the weekend, but I didn’t give up. Luckily, Hermanus Whale Watchers squeezed me into a Sunday tour!
Their boat, Unathi (“God is with us” in Xhosa), is designed for whale watching with engines that “minimize underwater noise”. Unathi seats 36 people and is smaller than most boats run by other operators. The tour was well worth $60 for 2 hours on the Bay – FANTASTIC experience all about the whales!!! A few people got seasick, but we stayed on the upper deck!
Getting so close to the whales was an unforgettable experience! The sight of their massive bodies and hearing their beautiful sounds will stay with me!
Our knowledgeable South African guide, Phillip, wasn’t a marine biologist but has led whale watching tours for over 7 years. As a marine sports enthusiast, Philip enjoys surfing, kiteboarding, kayaking, and sailing.
The whales were aware of our presence. We approached slowly to avoid disturbing them. Philip said he wasn’t sure if whale watching boats irritate the whales – no one knows. It’s possible that they become accustomed to the boats. He thought returning whales recognized certain boats and didn’t seem to mind sharing the sea. Philip knows the whales by their unique markings.
Facts about South Right Whales show they have an average lifespan of 50 to 100 years. Many of the same whales visit Walker Bay every year.
The best whale watching is in shallow areas close to the coast where warmer water facilitates mating and is gentler for vulnerable newborn calves. Whales further out to sea dive deeper and stay down longer.
Three species of baleen whale visit South Africa:
- Southern Right – V-shaped blow, callosities on their heads, no dorsal fin
- Humpback – raises and bends its back when diving, accentuating a hump in front of the dorsal fin
- Bryde’s – named after Norwegian John Bryde, who financed studies of whales in South African waters
Whale Hunting and Exploitation
I was unaware that a major reason for whale hunting and exploitation by Russians and South Africans was for making munitions. It’s unbelievable that “between 1914 and 1917 over 175,000 whales were killed to make explosives” used during World War I! Thankfully, whales are now protected. This season, officials have spotted almost 250 calves in Walker Bay!
I thought the white patches around their eyes were barnacles, but our guide explained that they’re “eyebrows” unique to each whale. Southern Right Whales also have identifying white patches on their underside.
Hermanus is recognized by the World Wildlife Fund as “one of the world’s 12 best whale watching destinations”.
Wind and Choppy Sea
Photography is difficult in a moving boat. The wind and sun glare didn’t help. I need to study the video and action photography features of my digital camera… For me, it was difficult taking photographs and holding on at the same time. Like others, I learned to stabilize myself by sitting down along the side of the boat, where I could lean against the guard to watch the whales and take photos at the same time. It was fun!
The sea was choppy but we missed the strong wind that came up later that afternoon. Recently the wind has been ferocious! A tree outside the house I’m renting touches the siding and when strong wind comes up in the middle of the night, the pounding branches roust me. Wind is my least favorite part of this spectacularly beautiful place!
There are two types of whale groups – mating and calving. It’s rare to see both hanging out together. The best viewing was along the coast close to Walker Bay Nature Reserve in nearby Stanford. The first sighting was a male and female, who were clearly soul mates. Later, we observed groups of 4 to 8 or more whales mating. None of them breached, but we saw typical whale behavior – fluking, spyhopping, logging, spouting, and lobtailing.
“The most spectacular whale activity is when they launch themselves up out of the water and then twist and fall back down. This is called breaching, and it’s believed whales do it for several reasons – to communicate, attract females, dislodge parasites, get a higher view, drive off predators, or just play. Southern Rights usually only breach about three-quarters of their bodies out of the water. Other species, like Humpbacks, jump clear.”