Saturday, August 21, 2010
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.