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!
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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, oil, blubber, 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!!!
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.
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.
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.
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 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!
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!