8-18-2008: Indian Ocean, Hermanus & Ivanhoe Sea Safaris, South Africa
One of the big attractions of South Africa during the months of June-November is witnessing the southern right whales come to rest in the waters off the coast of Hermanus, and neighboring cities such as de Kelders and Gansbaai. The whales’ primary destination is Walker Bay, the natural land mass that creates calm waters in which these whales can visit on an annual basis.
Southern Right Whales measure up to 45 feet and weigh up to 45 tons or the equivalent of 10 elephants. They migrate north from the cold waters of the Antarctic Ocean to calve, mate and rest before heading back south in summer to feed in the krill rich oceans. There are 3 well known viewing areas for Southern Right Whales and we were in the heart of one of them. Another prime spot is De Hoop Nature Reserve is protected waters and while plenty of whale watching can be done from shore, boats are not allowed in the bay as it is known as the primary calving area.
While whale watching from the cliffs of Hermanus is prime, I wanted to get Mama on board the whale watching boat, Ivanhoe. Captained by Rudy Hughes, this 40 foot boat leaves from Gansbaai harbor taking guests close to the whales while only sitting offshore a few hundred yards. Mama is not so happy on the seas and suffers from even more seasickness than me but she had come prepared with sea sickness medications and pressure point bracelets. Her aversion to the sea is high based on voyages of weeks at a time from Holland to Indonesia and back when her father worked for the Dutch East Ides Company in the 1930’s and late 1940’s.
We boarded the Ivanhoe but not before Rudy’s nephew and boat captain himself, Jason, recognized my accent and reacquainted himself with me. I introduced him to my mother and told him that I had been on his boat a number of times and had sent clients to him, as well. Before I could tell him more, he asked whether I had brought my father before and after answering yes, he told me that remembered him. That recall is a tall order considering the boat probably takes 5,000 people a year out to see the whales and my father had not been with me in a few years. Nonetheless, Jason said he remembers a few characters and individuals and Daddy was one of them.
I took the opportunity to have us depart the first day in Hermanus as the seas looked calm when we woke up. As we drove to Gansbaai to board the boat, the lagoon looked a bit choppy but we pushed os Paul told us the winds were right for calm seas but the lagoon hard rough water with different winds.
The beauty of this trip is that passengers never lose sight of land and, in most cases, you are never more than a few hundred yards from shore so even on not the best of days, the trip is never too bad (and that comes from a man prone to seasickness).
We left the harbor with Mama gripping the hand rail in a white knuckle affair. Once we reached the calm water, she released her grip and began to enjoy the calm. Attentions were quickly diverted when we saw our first whale off the port bow only 50 yards from the boat. Mama let out a very nice, “Oh, my God”, and the cameras came out in full force. These whales are used to whale watching boats now and while some choose not to stay in the area and dive for cover gracefully, most lazily go about the same activities as prior to our arrival. This first whale gave us a fine show by staying on the surface for a few minutes and exhaling its large double pattern mist (as opposed to a single pattern blowhole from a Humpback) before diving a few meters below the water’s edge. The water in these places is about 25 feet deep, so on clear water days, you can see the whale under the water, especially if he chooses to dive under your boat.
What we saw next was made to order. Just off the starboard bow at about 75 yards we saw another figure come to the surface. We pulled back our motors (as there is no pursuit of whales closer than 100 yards unless they choose to visit the boat). Boats choose not to cut off the motors as whales can keep track of us though the constant hum of the engine. On this occasion, our newest friend chose to come and investigate us. Mama was well positioned on the starboard side at mid ship. Over the next 15 minutes we enjoyed this whale coming closer and closer towards out boat until we could have touched him with a ten foot pole. He remained at rest with his head above the surface and his body rising with the calm seas. On multiple occasions, he exhaled from his blowhole in enough proximity for us to receive the mist directly in our faces. I’ve been on some wonderful whale watching trips but none in which a whale chose to come so close. Mama and I were right there to see it from the front row seats.
We continued to be examined and spied upon by our new friend for a quarter of an hour until eventually he dropped below the boat, waved his tail goodbye and swam away to find another friend.
Sightings continued over the next hour until we saw a large disturbance in the distance with flippers flying above the surface. Jason edged us a bit closer and we saw three large whales rolling over one another in what appeared to be playful interaction. Jason told us it could be fun or it could be mating efforts taking place. The females come to these waters to give birth one season, rest the next with their babies and then mate again the following season. All feeding takes place in the Antarctic Ocean. We watched these three, ambivalent to our existence (but why would they be worried as they weigh 4 times the tonnage of our boat). Two remained at play, bobbing their heads above water to take a look at us. This was called spy hopping. Whales can focus their eyes both in and out of water and often this tactic allows them to take in their surroundings more easily.
After the pair left us, we motored back to shore, having enjoyed a most eventful day on the sea with our new friends. Southern Right Whales were almost hunted to extinction in the late 1800’s but have rebounded since; their numbers doubling every 10 years with a birth rate that adds 7% to the population each year.
Back to the harbor, we ate a meal at the harbor restaurant overlooking the Gansbaai fishermen coming in from their day’s work. The bar/restaurant was filled with phots from the locals and we enjoyed another succulent meal at a modest place. The fries were fresh cut and crispy—just the way I like them. Mama took in yet another salad topped with chicken but continued to report that they all were very good.
Back to the Jansens, we sat up with them for a while, discussing everything from children to history to geography with a few laughs in between. They proved to be fine hosts again.