A whale of a time

The surrounding waters off Cape Town offer a close encounter with nature's gentle giants.

The surrounding waters off Cape Town offer a close encounter with nature’s gentle giants.

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“But, mommy,” wails my 6-year-old, “I wanna see whales again!”. We had just been on a whale sighting boat trip the week prior, and my daughter was hooked. Whale shaped stuffed animals, a children’s book with a whale on the cover, and skipping around sporadically, shouting “Splash! Splash!” to the sight of imaginary breaching whales, before stepping backwards to avoid the hallucinatory sea spray. Not to mention the incessant bugging to do another trip whenever it dawned on her that we were in Cape Town. Note to self: I mustn’t single out any particular animal-related activities in the hopes of hyping up the children for future trips.

The whale sighting trip earlier took about 2.5 hours and was chockfull of exhilarating whale spotting moments, with a school of dolphins providing an unexpected icing on the trip. The Southern Right giants of the deep were swimming practically under the boat at times, my heart instinctively holding a beat at the sight of a large dark shadow slicing gracefully through the water beneath. They’re lively creatures, thumping their heart shaped tails on the surface of the water at times – lobtailing -, and others fully lifting themselves out of the water, a sight which delighted 6 and 8 year olds as much as 40-something year olds. That trip cost around USD 350 for the family, so after a family huddle we settled on a compromise to follow the thrill – we’d rent a car to drive out to Hermanus the next day, a seaside town with a cliff-hugging shoreline that prides itself as the best land-based whale sighting spot in the world.

Whale crier

The drive from Cape Town southeastwardly to Hermanus takes 2 hours at a leisurely pace. There is a buzz around the supposedly sleepy fishing village, which we would later learn is because the town was gearing up for the Whale Festival in a week’s time, an annual event that happens at the end of every September, attracting hundreds of thousands of Capetonian day trippers and travelers from far. We make our way up to the cliff walks and are greeted with sweeping views of the jagged coastline and dark blue waters. Sheer rock faces embrace the deep ocean waters below to form bays which allow whales to frolic close to the shores. We stop to enjoy the views, only to be interrupted by a fog horn sounding a combination of short and long sounds. Noticing our looks of bewilderment, a couple standing close to us points their fingers up the cliff path with a cryptic “Whale crier”.

We follow their directions, wondering what we will find. We see a man, dressed head to toe in black in sun-protective long sleeves and a matching trilby hat, holding what looks to be a convoluted piece of piping. We see him walking slowly, turning periodically towards the sea, scanning the waters. When he gets a bit closer, we can read the sandwich sign hanging by leather straps on his shoulders. “Whale Crier of Hermanus”, the sign reads, with images of whales and a decoder of his horn, which he later explains is his kelp horn. Hermanus claims to have the only whaler crier in the world. During whale season (June to December), Zolile performs his public duty, patrolling from about 10 in the morning to around 4pm, tooting his horn whenever a whale is sighted. A long-short-long sound means a sighting at Old Harbour, a long-short sound signifies whales at New Harbour, and so forth. There were 7 locations on his board, and 4 of us, so we allocated 2 each to commit to the communal memory, with the little one having to just remember the sequence for Roman Rock (3 short blasts). He soots through the locations, pointing as he speaks: “Fick’s Pool is over there, Roman Rock over there …”. We thank him, and take a quick snapshot with him for the photo album before parting ways.

Out to see

Later, we found a good place to park ourselves, the children practically twitching with giddiness. “Which bay is Preekstoel again?” I wondered aloud, racking my brain. Before anyone could admit that they couldn’t recall either, we heard it being sounded again. Luckily, we just had to follow the fingers of all the fellow spotters around to spot what we had come to see. A majestic beauty rambling its way through the waves.

It was a beautiful day to be out, and with the sun on it’s best behavior, it was not hard to see why Hermanus is also known as ‘The Riviera of the South’. We spent a good hour out on the cliffs before making our way towards the intriguing Harbour and Whale Museum which told us more about the whaling history of the town.The more we saw, the more we  found out about this intriguing town, which is also home to the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, several wineries, a gold course, and a charming heritage center. We decided to return the next day to explore the town some more.

The reason the population of Northern and Southern Right Whales is in alarming decline is hinted at by their very name. The slow creatures, highly prized for their oil and baleen, float on the surface of the ocean when they’re killed, making them the ‘right’ whales to target by hunters. Change can only follow education, and here are some of their actions explained:

  • Breaching: Usually done in sets of 4 or 6, whales are believed to leap out of the water for play, as means of communication, or to remove skin parasites.
  • Fluking: Much like a snorkeler’s fins popping out of the water when they descend, a whale’s tail can be seen above water when it be begins a dive.
  • Lobtailing: When they stick their tails out of the water, slapping it on the surface of the ocean. The loud sound is believed to be communicatory in nature.
  • Logging: A whale’s version of the human plank, when it lays horizontally close to the surface the water, exposing the upper parts of its body and head.
  • Spouting: Southern Right Whales have 2 blowholes from which they blow out water in the form of a V-shaped vapor spray.
  • Spyhopping: When whales do their periscopic look-around, poking their heads out of the water.
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