With two different oceans lapping against its shores, South Africa has incredibly diverse marine wildlife, including the southern right whales that come visiting along the Western Cape coastline every winter. Shore-based whale watching from De Hoop perfectly complements heading out to sea from Gansbaai for closer encounters with these denizens of the deep – they’re among South Africa’s best safari experiences.
After spending time on safari in South Africa, we needed no convincing of the natural wonders of the Rainbow Nation. While we’d naturally been impressed by encounters with big cats and elephants, perhaps the most majestic species of all was almost the last one we saw.
Each winter, dozens of southern right whales migrate to the warm Indian Ocean waters off the coast of the Western Cape. So reliable is their presence from September and October to that this area has become one of the best spots in the world for whale watching.
Once we learned that it was possible to observe these cetaceans both from the shore and by boat, we resolved on doing both. The two experiences were quite different, but equally enjoyable.
During the transfer from our hotel, our guide told us more about the southern right whales, so-called because in the bad old days, these slow swimmers were considered the ‘right’ whales to hunt, as they would float when dead rather than sinking.
The pictures in the field guide showed a whale that was many times larger than an elephant, with a somewhat lugubrious expression due to its downturned mouth. Happily, now that they are predominantly protected, these whales have much more to smile about.
Even before we saw our first whale, we were enchanted by the De Hoop Nature Reserve and the chance to see the distinctive Cape fynbos (unique plants found nowhere else) at close quarters.
The scenery was eminently suitable for the drama being played out just offshore. Whales are drawn here along ancient migratory ocean lanes to breed and calve – another reason why the Western Cape is so good for whale watching.
As the tang of the salt air reached us on the breeze, we gazed out over a landscape of rugged rocks and tall white sand dunes. The ocean waves rolled in endlessly, but at first there was no sign of marine life.
While our guide set up a picnic brunch on a flat, sun-warmed stone, we sipped hot chocolate and took turns keeping watch for the tell-tale V-shaped jets of spray from their blowholes, or tail flukes breaking the surface. We felt like characters from a Melville novel, only with much better rations!
Our daughter (who had been reading Moby Dick) suddenly called ‘There she blows!’. We passed the binoculars around, although our first whale was close enough to shore that we didn’t really need them.
Moments later, a giant tail slapped the surface, then two heads broke it: one large, one much smaller. We’d spotted a mother and her calf, and they treated us to a display of almost every possible kind of whale behaviour. The breaches (when they leapt out of the water) were spectacular, but our favourite moment was the mother whale ‘spy-hopping’ – vertical in the water, with her relatively tiny eyes above the surface. We all enjoyed the idea that she was as interested in us, as we were in her.
Eventually they swam out of sight, and we left this wild shore for the two-hour sightseeing drive to the little fishing village of Gansbaai, near Hermanus. Our guide explained that this area was really the epicenter of whale watching in South Africa.
We’d booked a sunset whale-watching cruise and it really was the perfect end to our day. As our small boat nosed out of Gansbaai harbour into Walker Bay, gulls wheeled and screamed above us. They were disappointed that all we threw in their direction was admiring glances, not sardines!
The first marine mammals we saw were a small pod of dolphins. They seemed to be having a whale of a time, porpoising in and out of the water just ahead of our prow.
It seemed that our vessel held some sort of attraction for cetaceans, for no sooner had they finished their games, we once again saw the distinctive spray of a southern right whale. This time, there were several adults together, and they slowly approached us.
Despite their immense size, there was nothing menacing about them. Rather, they seemed to be motivated by curiosity or even a desire for human company. Clearly a forgiving species.
As they swam alongside us, we were able to look down on them and see that no two were the same. Each had differently shaped splotches of white, as though they had been decorating Neptune’s palace and tipped over a bucket of paint.
We learned that these were rough patches of skin that were often covered with barnacles. The guide on the boat explained that they were unique to each whale, and could be used to tell them apart. In this way, researchers knew that the same whales returned to this area each year.
As the last rays of the sun lit up the cottages of Gansbaai behind us, we could quite understand why they did.