Whale watching has become an increasingly popular pastime on the shores and waters of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans that skirt the Cape. This is entirely understandable: these magnificent creatures come straight from the pages of a fantasy novel – their sheer bulk is beyond anything that roams the land, and yet they are as graceful as birds in flight and as playful as any land based creature. ‘Gentle giant’ is a well-worn cliché, but is absolutely apposite when it comes to these denizens of the oceans.
The whales that skirt our shores are the Southern right whales, and immediately we must clear up a misconception. They were not, as is commonly stated, called ‘right’ whales because they were easy to hunt; the simple fact is that nobody actually recalls why they were saddled with this moniker. Experts think that the qualifying ‘right’ crept in during identifying different species. There are in fact three different large baleen whales of the genus Eubalaena – the North Atlantic, North Pacific and Southern right whales. The most distinctive feature of these rotund bodied dark grey creatures are the white patches of rough skin on their heads – callosities – caused by nasty-sounding whale lice. Hence the whimsical if mysterious epigraph above…
Big creatures, they certainly are: with bodies of up to eighteen metres in length, they can weigh 80 tonnes. That’s a lot of blubber. Whilst the right whales aren’t the biggest creatures on earth (that honour belongs to the blue whale), they do have the largest testes of any known creature: up to 525 kg – each. Fortunately, these appendages appear to be doing their job, and it is estimated that there are now about 10 000 southern right whales on the planet currently – a good recovery after the ruinous whaling activities of previous centuries. From 1900 to 1937 (when whaling southern right whales was banned) a known number of 78 300 had been harpooned – and that doesn’t include the sizeable number slaughtered through illegal whaling activity, particularly off Brazil. The USSR didn’t take the slightest notice of the ban either: they killed an estimated 3 300 during the 1950s and 60’s – and reported exactly 4 for the record.
The size and curiosity of southern right whales towards boats and humans made them ideal targets, and they produced an abundance of whale oil and other products (like bone stays for corsets, of all things.) Fortunately, in these more enlightened times the harpooning of these beautiful behemoths has been replaced by observing them, and at Waterfront Charters we celebrate this fact. There is just so much to observe! The southern right is unique in its ability to ‘tail sail’, when it does precisely that: with tail protruding above the water and bowed like a Viking ship’s sail of old, the whale cruises gently backwards through the ocean. There is no known reason for this behaviour; we like to think that they are simply having fun.
Of course, the most spectacular events are the breaching of the whales, when they hurl themselves up and out of the water, returning with a thunderous splash. This behaviour is startling, and many have been the occupants of yachts and kayaks who have seen their lives flashing before their eyes as 80 tonnes of whale suddenly erupts from the depths next to them. But whether it’s tail sailing, breaching, lobtailing, body-rolling or blowing vapour from their blowholes as they cruise the ocean, they are incredible to observe.
Here’s the big BUT: there are caveats to this activity which are extremely important for whale watchers to know and follow. The Marine Living Resources Act 18 of 1998 is very specific: no boat or aircraft can approach closer than 300 metres. If a whale breaches next to you, when you have recovered your breath and your composure, you must move at least 300 metres away: it’s not up to the whale – it’s up to the boat and its occupants. There are sizeable fines imposed for transgressors, but more important is the well-being of these creatures: if you see whales whilst on a cruise, no matter how much you beg, threaten, exhort or bribe, we will not disturb them by sneaking up. 300 metres will still give you wonderful views, and we will all be happy: whale and human alike.
At Waterfront Charters we have been blessed with exceptional sightings, so for the best opportunity to see the southern right whales in their backyard, join us on one of our cruises. From eco-adventures to sunset and coastal cruises, we are in whale territory, and who knows – 80 tonnes of descending whale might just add some water to your champagne…
(*Polonius, musing with Hamlet in Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’. Act 3 Scene ii if you are really interested and want to check.)