Saturday, August 21, 2010

Whale Watching in Hermanus

Every winter, from July to November, Southern Right whales show up along the coastal waters of South Africa’s Western Cape to calve, nurse and begin to rear their young. Walker Bay in Hermanus, a spectacular 90 minute drive across the Overberg Mountains from Cape Town, is the place to be if you want to see these giant mammals as they migrate from their summer feeding grounds in Antarctica. The former fishing village of Hermanus is located on a cove between sea cliffs and the Olifantsberg Mountains. The little town boasts an 8 1/2 mile cliff path, spectacular at any time of the year, but in "whale season" it offers some of the best land-based whale watching in the world.

Here you will find the world's only Whale Crier, sounding his kelp horn to announce whale sightings. Whales breach (leap out of the water), fluke (raise the tail out of the water at the start of a dive), lobtail (slap the tail on the surface of the water), log (lie in the water with head and tail hanging down, exposing a part of the back) and spout (blow water out of the blowholes) as close as 150 feet from the shore. Fortunately we've come a long way from the days when these magnificent creatures were hunted almost to extinction - indeed, they were named "Right Whales" because they were the right whale to kill. They float when slaughtered.

On our recent trip to South Africa, we visited my mother-in-law who retired to Hermanus a few years ago. We were only going to be there for two days and our intention was to spend some quality time with Mom. Little did I know that we had timed our visit perfectly for whale watching. I had only visited Hermanus once before, in summer, and I had never seen a whale in real life. Now that I knew that it was possible, I desperately wanted to see a whale or two. On the first morning we went to the breakfast room and sat at a table in front of big picture windows overlooking the bay, only to be told that the whales had just left. We lingered by the fire in the cozy dining room, watching the rain-lashed turbulence of the whale “nursery”, hoping that the whales might show themselves again, but they didn’t. So we went to the retirement village to have lunch with Mom. That afternoon it rained rather heavily again and we could see nothing, We went to the Marine Hotel, with its prime whale watching location perched on the cliff, for a decadent afternoon tea. While we were there, the weather changed from freezing rain to balmy sunshine and back again. Locals say that you can experience all four seasons in Hermanus in the space of an afternoon. The next day was our last and we went to breakfast early, but the whales were still hiding.

I had arrived not knowing I might see whales and now I was determined not to leave without at least a glimpse. We drove through the rain into the crowded little village and snagged a parking when I saw people looking in one direction – a sure sign, according to Mom, that they had spotted whales.

We stood next to a young woman, ostensibly on the phone to her mother. When I heard her tell her mother that she had already seen 6 whales, I told my husband to leave me there while he went to fetch Mom. I shivered in the icy wind, training my camera in the direction that everybody was looking at. After a while I noticed areas where the water seemed turbulent and saw what looked like a flat smooth black rock. Then the rock moved and I knew I had seen my first whale. Before long, a tail popped up. Unfortunately, though I clicked away, these fleeting glimpses did not make it onto my camera.

The rain got serious and I ran into the nearest shelter. After a few minutes the sun came out again and I went back to the cliffside path, to the same tantalising sight of whale backs and the occasional tail. When my husband and his mother got there we walked awhile before the rain started in earnest again and then we headed to a restaurant for lunch overlooking the bay.
That was my whale watching experience. I will have to plan the next trip carefully. I just have to see a whale breach.


  1. Welcome back, Carol-Ann! So pleased to read your latest report from South Africa. I particularly enjoyed learning the definitions of the whale- behavior terms, as well as the historical tidbit about why "Right Whales" were given that name. So glad to know they're protected now.

  2. Hermanus is a great spot to spot whales and my classic car friends and I look forward to the annual Whales and wheels festival when many classic cars are on view as well as whales. This year it will be held on 25 September. False Bay, Cape Town, also presents great opportunities for viewing whales from the road which follows the shore line through the quaint coastal villages.
    Spring is also the time to view the spectacular displays of wild flowers that may be seen up the west coast from Cape Town.
    This time of the year is known as the "secret season" of Cape Town because acccommodation rates are low and there are fewer tourists.

  3. Dear Raining Acorns,
    thank you for joining my blog!
    I have to sort out who of your team is who - this post written by Carol-Ann is absolutely exciting! What an adventure to be able to see those majestic animals! And your photographs are absolutely lovely: I can melt away (being a visual person) by looking at that tender sorts of blue and turquoise. Britta

  4. Stunning photos - even without the whales!

  5. We need a whale crier on Maui! The coast line there is beautiful, similar to Hawaii at first glance. Lovely trip and post Carol-Ann. Mahalo!

  6. Whales, it seems like to migrate along scenic routes and the Hermanus coastline is no exception. Grey whales travel along the Pacific Coast down to their Mexico birthing lagoon. Humpbacks travel the Pacific, too, and I've been thrilled to see them in Resurrection Bay in Alaska and along the shores of Maui, Hawaii.

    My most memorable whale experience took place in San Diego Bay where I was kissed by a Beluga Whale which was being trained by the US what purpose was not disclosed.

    Your post is so full of wonderful scenes and information, the kelp horn used by the Whale Crier being one. Thank you for the excellent travelogue.

  7. This is a wonderful blog; whoever it was at Raining Acorns who introduced me, thank you very much.

    These are beautiful photos of a magnificent landscape and I enjoyed the description of a day's attempted whale watching very much.
    Carol-Ann, I suggest you try again and give yourself a little more time.
    How frustrating to have chosen the right time of year only to be beaten by lack of time.


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