If you had to ask any South African when is the best time to see the whales, most would reply, “Between June and December”. This answer was for many years the right one, as whales would move from their sub-Antarctic feeding grounds to their breeding grounds during this time.
In the past few years, however, we have started to see a phenomenon off the West Coast of South Africa, with Humpback Whales forming super groups, sometimes numbering over 100 animals! These majestic giants are attracted by dense swarms of zooplankton, which occur during our summer months when the warm water is blown offshore by prevailing winds and the cold waters below rise up, in a process known as upwelling.
These super groups are not always present, but will form under the right conditions. When we’re really lucky, they form only a few hours’ drive away from us off the town of Hout Bay. After reports of super group action at the start of last week, I made my way to Cape Town to check it out for myself. The trip was truly one for the ages, with four different cetacean species and a super group of over 20 feeding Humpback Whales.
We set out at around 10:30 from the picturesque port of Hout Bay to see what the Atlantic had in store for us. Cruising through turquoise waters, we spotted an Ocean Sunfish on our way out the harbour and almost immediately set eyes on South Africa’s smallest dolphin species. The Heaviside Dolphin is endemic to the cool western waters of Southern Africa and these little cuties put on a real show for us. We even had them bow riding for a bit at the front and showing off their panda-like appearance with blunt dorsal fins and monochrome coloration. These dolphins are unlike any other species we encounter in the area, looking almost like a porpoise and reaching a size of only around 1.8m in length. They’re often spotted in Hout Bay and on the Atlantic Seaboard in small groups, and are a favourite amongst kayakers in the area.
Our next sighting was what any weird animal person like me would call a ‘life lister’, which refers to the first time one encounters a species that you’re finally able to add to the list of whales, or birds, or whatever animal grouping you might have a particular tick for tracking down. Dusky Dolphins generally occur in cooler waters, though Dave De Beer has spotted them in Walker Bay a time or two. Dusky Dolphins are just about the most acrobatic oceanic creatures I have ever seen in my life, leaping out the water, twisting and exposing their gorgeous white flanks before crashing back into the water column, only to repeat this awe-inspiring action again and again and again.
After the duskies left us breathless, we spotted several blows out in the distance. We had happened upon the main event, with over 10 Humpback Whales feeding along their now famous highway. Thousands of terns and gulls gave away the presence of food below. The Humpbacks where up to some synchronised feeding, erupting in several bouts of blows before taking a deeper dive to take advantage of the swarms of krill below. Each whale has a unique tail fluke which can be used to identify the whale, though some are easily identified even without that, due to scarring on the body or an oddly positioned barnacle. We noticed their individual markings, signs of struggle and hitchhikers giving away part of the secret lives of the world’s most magical creatures.
We watched as the whales surfaced and showed off their flukes. We were treated to the pungent smell of whale breath, which is something I have always heard about but never experienced due to my whale watching taking place in breeding and not feeding grounds. We had whales tail throwing and lobtailing. One giant gave off a mighty breach while others swam just below our boat, giving themselves away with the beautiful white patches on their flippers, which happen to be the longest (and most majestic) of any whale in the world.
We then spotted a spout of a different sort, one that we who live in the Overstrand know all too well. Two Right Whales could not resist joining in on all the action, giving us some views of their bulbous heads decorated in living rock gardens. We got some tail action, too, and then bid them off as they continued on their search for a hearty meal. The Right Whales were not inclined to spend as much time at the surface, so once we had gotten a few great sights, we made our way towards more Humpback Whales to finish off our tour on a high note.
During the tour, we also spotted a variety of other marine life, Including a Sun Fish, thousands of Sandwich Terns, A Cape Gannet and even a flock of Sabine’s Gulls, which are not often seen along the coastline, or certainly not around our parts. Though the Sunfish was probably in search of a jelly or two and the Gannet some schooling fish, the flocks of birds can be attributed to the krill swarms which make this boat trip a once-in-a-lifetime experience not only for whale enthusiasts but all wildlife lovers. These super groups stick around until March or April, so if you would like to experience this for yourself, get in touch with Captain Jacks in Hout Bay or Simon’s Town Boat Company, who are working together to bring South Africans this incredible experience.