Whale Watching Walker Bay South Africa

Humpback Whale – Rhino Africa Christopher Michael

Humpback Whales, Bryde’s Whales, and Southern Right Whales – we saw them all during a three-hour whale watching adventure yesterday! It’s early for whale season (June to December) on the Cape Whale Coast, so I was hopeful but not overly optimistic. Previously cancelled due to sea swells, The Southern Right Charters trip resulted in a surprise jackpot – multiple, breathtaking whale sightings!!

After an on-land briefing, about seventy-five passengers boarded catamaran Miroshca. We departed Hermanus New Harbor at 3 pm for a sunset tour. Miroshca had been out on Walker Bay several times that day, and returning passengers were ecstatic after seeing three whale species that frequent Walker Bay!

Fishing Boat New Harbor Hermanus

Safety and Conservation

Environmentally sensitive Southern Right Charters promotes the conservation and safety of whales and marine life. They operate under the ethos of “Observing NOT Disturbing”. Whale watching boats aren’t permitted to approach whales closer than 160 feet, but the “naturally curious creatures” often come near the boat. When they do, it’s absolute magic!

Whale Watching Boat Miroshca – Southern Right Charters

Guides, Videographer, Drone

Well-trained guides and whale specialists helped via a PA system. They spotted and identified whales and provided commentary interpreting the behavior of marine life encountered. There was considerable swell in the Bay, but nothing that Miroshca couldn’t handle – not so sure about the passengers. It’s difficult holding on, watching whales, and taking photos all at the same time.

Hermanus Whale Watching – Southern Right Charters

A videographer captured the best footage from our trip. I tried watching and taking photos from several vantage points and preferred the upper deck. My photos are disappointing, but I got a distant shot of a Southern Right breaching and one or two other photos were moderately decent.

Southern Right Whale – Ivanhoe Sea Safaris

The guides used a drone to spot nearby whales from above. Videographer footage combined with drone photos were converted to a souvenir USB. The USB also has excerpts from two documentaries – Hermanus and Surrounds and The Whale Season.

Seabirds and Seals

We saw nimble Cormorants, deep-diving Gannets, graceful, acrobatic Sooty Shearwaters, and playful Cape Fur Seals. Fur Seals are endemic to Southern Africa. Hundreds were in the colony that followed our boat. Expressive creatures, their loud racket left no doubt they were present!

Cape Gannet Courtship – Bruce Robinson

Cormorants are avid fishers. They live along the coast and spend much of their time at sea. They breed in large numbers on nearby Dyer Island. Dyer Island Conservation Trust provides “unique conservation and research programmes in the local marine ecosystem”. I hope to visit the island while in the area.

Cape Fur Seals

We approached a mass of Cormorants huddled together floating on the seawater. From a distance, they looked like a bunch of seaweed. As the boat got closer, they suddenly took off in mass flight!

Humpback, Bryde’s, Southern Right

Humpback Mother and Calf

The first whale we saw was a Humpback with her young calf – the guide estimated it at three to five days old. It was tiny and seemed to be playing with its mother. The baby flipped over and the mother breached, but I wasn’t quick enough to get photos. Our guide said it’s unusual to see a Humpback calf in Walker Bay this early in winter. The calf’s color was white – this can occur at birth but changes to black within months.

Southern Right Breach

Cape Cormorant – BirdGuides

Humpbacks pass through Walker Bay on their way north. They migrate to warmer water near the equator to mate and have their calves. Male Humpbacks are known for their “complex songs, sometimes lasting 10 to 20 minutes and repeated for hours”.

Sooty Shearwater – HBW Alive

Bryde’s Whale – hermanusonline.mobi

Bryde’s

Next, we encountered several playful Bryde’s whales – pronounced “brutus”. Intelligent creatures, they knew the boat wasn’t “of the sea” but were curious and played cat and mouse with Miroshca. They came close to the sides and front of the boat, disappeared, and returned again later. Sometimes viewing is better from the lower deck. It was hard to see them from my perch on top.

Cape Fur Seal – Indigo Scuba

Bryde’s whales live in Walker Bay year-round. They’re smaller than Humpbacks and Southern Rights and named after John Bryde, a Norwegian whaler who was consul to South Africa. During the whaling era, Byrde set up whaling ports “to capture whales and sell their baleen, oilblubber, and other parts for money”. In 1912, he financed the first scientific investigation of whales in South African waters.

Southern Rights with Calf

We encountered Southern Rights near the end of the trip. They were playing in the surf close to shore. There were several of them and a calf. One suddenly breached, and it was absolutely stunning!!!

Cape Cormorants – Dyer Island Cruises

Of all the whales, Southern Rights were the friendliest. They’re distinguished by the callosities (calluses) on their head. They came close to the boat as if they wanted to play. One rolled over on its back.

Southern Right Callosities – Southern Right Charters

One explanation for their name is “whalers identifying them as the ‘right’ whale to kill on a hunt due to their plentiful oil and baleen”. During summer, Right Whales feed offshore near Antarctica. In winter, they return to nearshore waters like Walker Bay.

Marine Safaris – WTM Africa

Beloved Southern Rights choose Walker Bay as a favorite spot for mating and calving. They don’t feed during winter. Females produce a “single offspring every three to four years”. The average gestation period from conception to birth is about twelve months. After mating, females return in a year to give birth to their calves.

Southern Right Charters – Tripadvisor

The mother nurses her baby, and is the calf’s sole source of food, training, play, and protection. When born, calves are about 16 feet long and weigh around 2000 lbs. They can grow an inch in length and 130 lbs. in weight per day – “making them double in length and increase five times in weight in a year”! Whale milk is extremely high in fat content, and calves can suckle 160 gallons of milk per day.

Southern Right Whale and Calf – newshub.co.nz

Southern Right calves need from three to six months to get strong enough for the swim back to Antarctica. They stay with their mother for about twelve months, sometimes longer. They’re considered “mature” after 10 years. The average lifespan of Southern Right whales is 100 years!

Hermanus New Harbor

Guide / Whale Specialist

Sea Swell and Seasickness

At sunset we headed back to New Harbor in a heavy swell. During the ride, about half the passengers on board got seasick. Fortunately, I didn’t. It was amazing to see the whales and other marine life so close – beautiful and hard to describe… The swell was way too heavy for kayaks, but I’m scheduled for a kayak trip next week and hoping it’s a go then! Today the wind is ferocious!

On Board Miroshca

Whale Festival – Celebrating Marine Life

Whale Fluke Walker Bay

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”.

Kayaking with Whales and Dolphins

The people of Hermanus “look after their destination, both from an environmental and conservation perspective”. The festival focused on creating awareness and celebrating the annual return of the beloved Southern Right Whale.

Spouting Southern Right Whale

Festival features included cultural activities, food, quality crafters, and sports events:

  • Music Stage
  • Vintage Car Show
  • Marine-Themed Eco Exhibits
  • Adventure Activities
  • WHALE WATCHING – LAND, SEA, AIR

Whale Twins?

Whale Watchers

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”.

Breaching Whale with Cormorant Audience

Whale Watching

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. Hermanus Whale Watchers managed to squeeze me into a Sunday morning 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!

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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!
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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.

New Harbour

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.

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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.
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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.

Breach – Barnacles and All

Three species of baleen whale visit South Africa:

Before I Learned to Get Down for Photos

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!

Guide Philip – In the Middle

New Harbour

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.

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Hermanus is recognized by the World Wildlife Fund as “one of the world’s 12 best whale watching destinations”. 
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Windy, 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!

Nimble Whale

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!

Cormorant

Whale Behavior

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.

New Harbour

“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.”

Cormorants in Walker Bay

Southern Right Whale and Calf

Onrus Beach South Africa’s Whale Coast

Rooi Els Whale Coast

There’s nothing better than a South African beach – except maybe the surrounding mountains! I spent some time at Onrus Beach yesterday and fell in love with the sky, surf, dogs, shorebirds, surfers, and children playing in the sand – a gorgeous place! This time of year you need a pair of binoculars to help with whale watching.

Milkwood Bistrro

Milkwood Bistro

The area is known as the Cape Whale Coast. It’s pristine white sand beaches and easy-going atmosphere are popular with an eclectic crowd of beach bums, locals, retirees, and tourists from all corners of the earth.

I had lunch at Milkwood Bistro – a cozy neighborhood restaurant on the water. The service was great and food delicious. “This pristine stretch of the South African coastline surrounded by mesmerizing mountains and the Atlantic Ocean runs from the coastal hamlet of Rooi Els in the west to Quoin Point in the East.”

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“Close to the very tip of Africa, just outside Cape Town, you will find the Cape Whale Coast –  a place that can easily be called ‘Heaven on Earth’.”

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The main towns of the area are Kleinmond, Hermanus, Stanford, and Gansbaai. The Cape Whale Coast is made up of a collection of villages, farms, rivers, bays, coves, and valleys – each filled with its own special magic. Explore the whales, sharks, wine routes, fynbos, birding, golf courses, penguins, mountain biking, kayaking, hiking trails, and adventure activities in a beautiful region of South Africa, the Cape Whale Coast.”

Sea Birds Quoin Point