False Bay, South Africa is an awesome place for whale-watching. Our waters are rich in resident cetaceans as well as large numbers of visitors during the whale migrations.
The most well known of the cetacean species seen off the South African coast is the southern right whale, which swims up from Antarctica, usually arriving some time in June. They spend the winter in quiet bays (like Fish Hoek) between the West Coast and Port Elizabeth , mating, calving and generally having some quality time with their families.
They usually hang around until October, with the stragglers leaving towards the end of November. It’s not a definite, but out of season sightings suggest that some individuals have worked out that there is enough krill off the West Coast to support a very small population so they seem to be staying almost all year.
Whale-watching, False Bay, South AfricaWhales are large, magnificent, intelligent, aquatic mammals. They have sleek, streamlined bodies that move easily through the water. They are the only mammals, other than manatees (seacows), that live their entire lives in the water, and the only mammals that have adapted to life in the open oceans.
From Namibia on the West Coast, right around the Cape of Good Hope to Mocambique on the Eastern coast , there is the posssibility of viewing any number of a huge selection of these magnificent creatures.
There are two groups of cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises), the baleen whales and the toothed whales. Baleen whales include the blue, sei, fin, Bryde's, humpback, bowhead, minke, grey, right, and pygmy right whales. All but the bowhead and grey whales can be found in South African waters. Baleen whales have a filter (baleen or whalebone) in their mouths which filters tiny shrimp-like animals called zooplankton from the seawater. These small animals (and occasionally fish) are the whales' food.
Toothed whales include the sperm, beaked, killer (or orca), beluga, narwhale, and pilot whales, as well as all dolphins and porpoises. These whales eat fish and squid.
Humpback whales mate and calve in the warm waters off both Mozambique and West Africa, and can be seen in False Bay as they move past South Africa on their northward migration in winter, usually May and June, and then on their return trip to the Southern Ocean in October and November, with a few stragglers in December.
The third most important whale seen off South African shores and in Fish Hoek, is the rather enigmatic Brydes whale, which is rare elsewhere but quite commonly seen between the West Coast and Port Elizabeth, including Fish Hoek. Other whales that are occasionally seen in False Bay include orcas and sperm whales.
Bottlenose dolphins are very common and play in the shallows just behind the breakers, so they are regularly seen all along the coast. Humpback whales are seen between KZN and the Garden Route, and common dolphins are seen off the whole coast, but usually quite far offshore.
Although Hermanus is often touted as the heart of the whale-watching route, this is a debatable point. False Bay is an awesome destination for dolphin and whale watching, and is often reffered to as the discerning whale watchers holiday destination.
This vast sweep of ocean is flanked on its Eastern side by Cape Town's southerly suburbs, extending along the western side of the Cape Peninsula to the naval town of Simonstown.
The metropolitan train line runs from the city through all the little seaside villages and terminates in Simonstown. A train trip offers a marvellous scenic trip through Muizenberg, Kalk Bay and Clovelly, Fish Hoek and Glencairn all characterised by their colourful fishing communities, before ending its run in Simonstown.
The north side is encompassed by a 35km long stretch of sandy beach reaching from Muizenberg right around to the Strand and Gordon's Bay on the western end of the Bay. Baden-Powell Drive follows this shoreline.
Although it is illegal to swim with dolphins in South Africa, Dusky dolphins are seen in the bay and the endemic heavisides dolphin of the West Coast is a particular attraction for serious cetacean watchers. In 1980 and again in 1984 legislation was introduced in South Africa to protect whales. It is now illegal to shoot at whales, or harass them by coming closer than 300 metres in any craft.
When you spot a whale or if you need to know if the whales are around, call the local Whale Hotline number on 021 782 4531
(Fish Hoek Valley Tourism Visitor Information Centre)
Please report whale harrassment or disturbance, call 021 788 8313 or 021 782 0333
Organisations Concerned With The Preservation & Protection Of Whales:
DOLPHIN ACTION & PROTECTION GROUP
This organisation was a pioneer in South Africa in working for the protection of the marine mammals off our coasts. They can be contacted at:
P.O. Box 22227
Tel: +27 21 782-5845
Southern Right Whales
Scientific Name: Eubalaena Australis
[eu = Greek, right; balaena = Latin, whale; australis = Latin, south]
Statistics: Adult females, larger than the males, are on average 15 metres long and weigh about 40-45 tons, while the males are a little smaller at 14 metres.
Southern Right whales can remain under water for about 6 minutes and swim fairly slowly at an average speed of 6 kilometres and hour when cruising, although than can reach 11 kilometres an hour in short bursts.
The lifespan of the Southern Right whale is not established, but it is believed that they can live for over 50 years.
As baleen whales, right whales swim with their mouths open so that the baleen plates can filter out the water and retain the krill forms a large part of their diet. They eat up to 1½ tons a day of these tiny creatures. They are seasonal feeders, eating in winter and living off their blubber in the breeding months in the north.
Scientific Name: Balaenoptera Edeni
Statistics: Like other baleen whales, mature females are larger than the males, reaching about 14 metres in length, as opposed to the males of 13,5 metres.
Bryde's whales feed on large shoals of small fish like pilchards and sardines, in the company of gannets, penguins and dolphins. They zig-zag through the water on their sides, gulping food as they go.
Scientific Name: Megaptera Novaeangliae
[megaptera = huge wings, i.e. the fins]
Statistics: Adult females are larger than the males. Southern hemisphere Humpback whales are slightly smaller than those of the northern hemisphere, with females reaching 13,7 metres and males 13,1 metres. They weigh 30 to 50 tons.
Humpback whales are the acrobats of the ocean, "breaching" (jumping clear of the water) and "lobtailing" (slapping the water with their tails). They also "spyhop" (poke their heads out of the water). They usually occur singly or in small groups (pods). They remain submerged for about 15 minutes, diving to depths of 150 to 210 metres (500 to 700 feet). Their swimming speed is about 12 kilometres an hour (3 to 9 miles an hour), although speeds of up to 25 kilometres (15 to 16 miles) an hour have been recorded.
Humpback whales, like other baleen whales, seem to be seasonal feeders but they do eat copepods and fish off the Angolan coast. On average a Humpback whale eats 2000-2500 kilograms of food a day during the feeding season. They co-operate in hunting, rounding up their prey in "bubble-nets". A hunting pod forms a circle under water, then blows a wall of bubbles as it swims to the surface in a spiral path. This cylindrical wall of bubbles traps the prey which the humpbacks devour as they all (whales and prey) move to the surface.
Orcas or Killer Whales
Scientific Name: Orcinus Orca
Type: Toothed Whale - Dolphin
Statistics: Unlike the other whales described here, Orca males are larger than the females, reaching a maximum length of 10 metres, while the females average about 7,5 metres.
Orcas may be found the whole length of the South African coast, including False Bay, but their movements are unpredictable. Little is known of their migratory patterns.
Orcas sometimes form groups of up to 200 animals but in the South African waters they are usually in small groups of 3 or 4. They can attain speeds of up to 30 kilometres and hour and dive for up to 6 or 7 minutes.
Orcas have a varied diet, ranging from fish, squid, and sea birds to seals, dolphins and small whales. They have a fearsome reputation as killers and seals appear to have an inborn fear of them. Orca packs appear to disable their mammalian prey by biting the flippers or flukes and then attempt to get to the tongue, which they like particularly. One report claims that the remains of 14 seals and 13 porpoises were found in the stomach of one orca!
Despite their fearsome reputations, there are no records of orcas attacking man. In captivity they are docile and respond well to training.
For more information on whales of South Africa, visit whale-watching.co.za