In a time filled with so much bad news, the good news is whale season has officially started.

Not only has there been an increase in whale sightings reported on social media, but our very own whale crier, Bravo Sobazile is also back on his post to raise the alarm on his kelp horn when whales have been spotted from the shore.

This exuberant photograph of a breaching southern right whale was taken off Gearing’s Point last week. PHOTO: Paul Michael Wronsley

“Our town has been a lot busier over the past three weekends,” says Frieda Lloyd, manager of Cape Whale Coast Tourism. “We are definitely seeing an increase in domestic travel and out-of-towners with holiday homes are escaping to Hermanus for weekends. There has been an uptick in retail trade and restaurant deliveries, and many visitors are going hiking or looking for whales. Bravo has reported some good sightings.”

With our local whale-boat and shark-cage diving operators still unable to leave the harbour under the current Level 3 lockdown regulations, however, it is impossible to know how many southern right whales have made the annual migration to Walker Bay this year.

Dr Els Vermeulen, Research Manager of the Whale Unit of the University of Pretoria’s Mammal Research Institute, based at the Hermanus Whale Museum, says she is hoping that the aerial survey conducted annually in October will shed more light on recent findings.

After a bumper year in 2018, the whale count for last year’s season again revealed a decline in the numbers of especially single males. According to Els, this is a trend that has become more pronounced since 2009.

By analysing the data of whale tissue, the latest research results have shown that the isotopic composition of the southern right whales’ diet has changed over the past two decades. “What we can confirm now is that the whales have shifted location in order to source food. The reason for this change in their feeding grounds could be due to various factors such as climate change and over-fishing.”

Els says that because of the whales’ deteriorating physical condition due to a lack of food, they may not all be strong enough to complete the full migratory journey. It also affects reproduction and whereas cows were calving every three years prior to 2009, they are now only giving birth every four to five years. Females migrate from the freezing waters of the Antarctic in order to give birth in the warmer waters around our southern coastline because that gives their calves a better chance of survival. During the years when they are not reproducing, however, the need to conserve energy might also lead to a lack of motivation to undertake the long journey.

Boat-based field work, including satellite tagging, has had to be put on hold due to the Coronavirus pandemic. This makes it difficult to determine how many southern right whales are out there at the moment, says Els. “If they are not coming close to shore, we may not be able to see them from land. So it’s hard to predict what kind of whale season we’ll have, but we are not expecting another ‘baby boom’ like in 2018, when we saw a record number of cow-calf pairs.”

Wilfred Chivell, founder of the Dyer Island Conservation Trust (DICT) and CEO of Marine Dynamics and Dyer Island Cruises, which offer shark-cage diving and whale-watching tours respectively in the Gansbaai area, says the Coronavirus pandemic has had a double impact on them.

“The income from our commercial enterprises is what funds the trust’s research and conservation efforts,” he says. “But with 85% of our clients being international tourists, everything has come to a standstill. Not being able to go out to sea every day means that for the first time in 15 years we have not been able to keep up our daily monitoring. That is a lot of lost data.”

With fewer sightings of southern right whales and great white sharks over the past few years, Wilfred says that fortunately the humpback whales seem to be doing well. “We are very blessed in this region as whale watchers could be lucky enough to see three different whales in one day, including humpbacks, southern rights and Bryde’s whales.”

Although they have been able to keep up their conservation work with the African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary (APSS), another of DICT’s projects, Wilfred says there is much more that needs to be done to protect our marine life. “But, for that, we need the tourists,” he says.

Eco-tourism plays a vital role in both the conservation and economy of our region and local operators are living in hope that the government will be putting measures in place to open up tourism as soon as possible.

It has been reported that plans are afoot to allow for domestic tourism very soon and international tourism by September. These plans include a host of Covid-related rules and regulations to ensure the safety of tourists and locals.

What is for sure, is that seeing a whale breach on a clear and balmy winter’s day is just what one needs to lift the spirits and forget about the Coronavirus for a while.

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