Brydes whale showing his head

A Day on the Bay: A Brydes whale for company

On a beautiful, calm day in early June this year, shortly after dropping my divers in the water, I was visited by a friendly Brydes whale. A Brydes whale – I suspect the same one – had been showing a strong interest in boats in western False Bay over the last couple of weeks.

The whale makes its presence known
The whale makes its presence known

I knew it was a Brydes whale because of the small, sickle-shaped dorsal fin far back on its spine. This one circled the boat a few times, and then headed straight for me like a submarine on the surface. It pushed a small wave of water ahead of it as it came.

The Brydes whale near the boat
The Brydes whale near the boat

It was a slightly intimidating sight as it ploughed through the water. It was an extremely calm day, so the boat’s motors were switched off. I waited with some anxiety to see what the whale would do.

The whale comes to investigate
The whale comes to investigate

After a close pass by the boat, the whale circled Seahorse several times, blowing lustily. It came back to the boat repeatedly over a period of at least half an hour. I kept the engines off, and made sure my life jacket was fastened. I hoped the divers might also be able to see what was happening! The whale was not hostile in the least, but an exuberant animal weighing between 12 and 20 tons, moving at speed, could accidentally tip me into the water in a heartbeat.

Brydes whale circling Seahorse
Brydes whale circling Seahorse

The whale lifted its head out of the water a few times, showing me the three rostral ridges on top of its head and the grooves under its throat, which also help with confirming its identification as a Brydes whale. Our whale book says that these whales often have small, circular cookie cutter shark scars, specially if they’ve been in tropical waters, but I couldn’t see any.

Brydes whale showing his head
Brydes whale showing his head

I find Brydes whales a little mysterious, because they can be seen year round in False Bay and somehow lack the predictability of the Southern right whales and humpbacks whose rowdy presence is apparent close to shore in False Bay between June and November. If you see a whale in the first half of the year in False Bay, it’s almost certainly a Brydes whale.

These whales calve year-round, because they don’t ever go into really cold water (False Bay is at the southern end of their range). This preference for warmer water is probably related to their relatively thin layer of blubber. They eat schooling fish and plankton.

Brydes whale off the bow
Brydes whale off the bow

Their blows are low and bushy, as you can see from my photos. They don’t aggregate in big groups like other whales seen along South Africa’s coastline, and you’ll see at most two animals together at a time, if that. These whales are still caught by the Japanese as part of their “scientific” whaling program.

After a while the whale seemed to lose interest, and left me to my thoughts as I waited for the divers (who were gloriously oblivious, it turns out) to surface. While it’s an incredible experience to have an animal like this approach you so close and with such confidence, I am glad it left. Ship and boat strikes are a very real danger to whales, and a whale that is so curious about boats could get itself into trouble in the busy boating areas close to shore in False Bay.

The whale disappears into the Bay
The whale disappears into the Bay

Regulations state that unless you’re in possession of a whale watching permit (and there’s only one operator in False Bay who has one of those), you are not to approach a whale closer than 300 metres, anywhere in South African waters. If a whale approaches you, move away if you can do so safely. If there are divers in the water, your responsibility is to stay close to the divers, so turn off your engines and enjoy the moment!

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Tony

Scuba diver, teacher, gadget man, racing driver, boat skipper, photographer, and collector of stray animals

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