Southern right whale

Boat-based whale watching

Whale Whisperer, the Marine Dynamics vessel used for whale watching
Whale Whisperer, the Marine Dynamics vessel used for whale watching

On a recent visit to the Walker Bay area, Tony and I took a whale watching trip with Marine Dynamics, the same company we did a cage diving trip with last June. Marine Dynamics is associated with the Dyer Island Conservation Trust, which conducts research on whales, sharks and penguins, as well as running educational initiatives focused on marine conservation. In addition to a cage diving permit for the Dyer Island and Geyser Rock area, they have a boat-based whale watching permit covering the area from Danger Point (near Gansbaai) to Quoin Point.

Southern right whale
Southern right whale

The harbour at Kleinbaai (just beyond Gansbaai) has a treacherous little channel running between rocks and over a seemingly permanent set of rollers out to sea. Launches are thus scheduled according to tides and swell. We met around 9am at the Great White House, Marine Dynamics’ headquarters, in Geelbek Street in Kleinbaai. After a safety briefing we were fitted with waterproof jackets and life vests, and we took a short walk down to the harbour. Whale Whisperer, the Marine Dynamics whale viewing boat, is a Gemini rubber duck with two rows of benches running the length of the vessel. There is an observation deck, too, and up to eight people can stand upstairs to view the action from above.

The sea conditions were marginal, with a brisk wind and large swell, so “sails” on one side of the boat were let down to protect the passengers on that side from the spray. Without a permit, it is an offence to approach a whale closer than 300 metres. Whale watching is tightly regulated and self-regulated and operators in possession of a permit are allowed to approach to within 50 metres of whales provided they are not trapped against the shoreline.

Southern right whale as big as a bus
Southern right whale as big as a bus

The trip was over two hours long, and we saw many mother-calf pairs and one or two lone whales. All the whales about at this time of year are southern right whales. They have distinctive whitish callosities and exaggerated, bow-shaped mouths. When they exhale, their blow is usually in a V-shape. They come to southern African waters to mate, calve and socialise and are found here from June to December, with peak season in September and October.

Calf breaching
Calf breaching

The calves are curious and exuberant, ranging in size from 4.5 to 6 metres at birth (imagine!). Several times a mother whale steered her calf away from our boat with her body, as the calves sometimes made a beeline for our boat when it appeared on the horizon! The calves’ behaviour is characterised by joyful tail and fin slapping, spyhopping, and rolling over and over. We also saw one little chap leap out of the water, eight or ten times in succession. A hopeful flock of birds hovered nearby, waiting to feed on the parasites and bits of dead skin dislodged by this activity.

Southern right whale calf breaching
Southern right whale calf breaching

After looking at whales, we passed by the shark cage diving boats where they were anchored in the shallow water near Pearly Beach, looking for white sharks. We only saw one white shark – an active, very small chap under 2 metres in length – during our brief visit there.

The Marine Dynamics shark cage diving boat at anchor
The Marine Dynamics shark cage diving boat at anchor

The final leg of the trip was to Shark Alley, which separates the seabird haven of Dyer Island from the seal colony of Geyser Rock. The smell of seal was overpowering. There were far more seals in the water than there were when we visited Shark Alley last June (southern hemisphere winter) – they modify their behaviour according to where the sharks are. In winter, the sharks hang out in Shark Alley and feed on seals. In summer (they tell me that’s now!) the sharks go inshore to the highly oxygenated, warm shallow water where they may rest, socialise and possibly engage in breeding activities.

Feisty little white shark at the cage diving boat
Feisty little white shark at the cage diving boat

The trip to Shark Alley and back to Kleinbaai harbour was powerfully bumpy, and by the time the boat was retrieved from the water a powerful stench of vomit – and some visible streaks and smears – marred the deck of the boat. As we left, the staff hosed it down with disinfectant to remove both the smell and the fluids. I felt sorry for the people who were doing the third trip of the day!

Geyser Rock, tasting strongly of seal
Geyser Rock, tasting strongly of seal

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Clare

Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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