Many people come to South Africa specifically to watch the migration of the Southern Right Whale as they leave the frigid coast of Antarctica to head to their breeding grounds here off the coast of South Africa. Hermanus is one of the best places to go to see them, but they can be spotted along the coastal waters from the Cape. Tour companies like Cape Tours offer package deals where a visitor can get the best possible chance at seeing a once in a lifetime sighting like the white albino Right Whales that come along rarely.
The Southern Right Whale’s numbers have steadily declined over the years, and its very name comes from a tragic past, named as the “right” whale to hunt. They’re slow moving in the water, have a great deal of oil and baleen, they float when they’re killed and the amount of meat they give has made them a prime target for hunters and poachers. They were nearly extinct in the early parts of the 20th century, but grassroots efforts and laws passed in South Africa beginning in 1935 have helped their numbers climb once again to about 4,000 today.
They weight about 60 tons and can live to about 100 years of age. These Southern Right Whales spend about 5 months every year in South Africa for the breeding season, where they play majestically in the water, performing beautiful acrobatics, courting one another, and nursing their newly born calves so close to the shore that it appears you could reach out and touch them. They’re the best whales to watch from land because they come so close. Right Whales are smaller only than the Blue Whale, and have no dorsal fin unlike many of their brethren. They have callosities on their heads, appearing as white lumpy growths.
Breeding season begins in spring from July to October, and the females are known to calve every three years. It takes a year of gestation, a year to raise the calf, and another to rest. She needs the rest to recover from the enormous amount of physical strain it takes to gestate her calf, and to suckle it for 6 months. The calf can drink 200 litres of milk and grows 3 cm every day. Though Right Whales are mostly dark blue/black, some of the calves are born white, and almost all white calves are male, which darken as they age. The ones which aren’t male and happen to be born white tend to stay white from albinism, a rare occurrence which has been recently spotted.
Southern Right Whales are intelligent, curious, and sensitive creatures which form social groups of around 6 related whales. They seem all too happy to perform when they’re being watched, as though they know a show is expected, and to the delight of onlookers they never fail to deliver. Something Right Whales are known for are the alternating breaches in succession causing a blast like from a cannon sound to reverberate across the water. This characteristic behavior is also matched by another, where they rest head-down and float with their flukes held up, known as “sailing” but they also slap their flippers regularly.
June through November is the ideal time to see these majestic beasts, with peak calving season in July and August. Though the whales can be seen as far North as KwaZulu-Natal, the best place in the world to see them is Hermanus in Walker Bay, the whale watching capital of the world. The town even holds a whale-watching festival every September. They aren’t the only massive visitors that can be spotted however, as humpback whales also can be seen from May and June, and November through January on their migratory path.
Bryde’s whales can be found year round and even Orcas have been seen here occasionally. Cape St. Francis to Algoa Bay are perfect areas to find Bryde’s, Minke and Orcas, along with Sperm whales and beaked whales by Port St.Johns. If you love marine life, and want the opportunity for spotting whales in a once in a lifetime adventure, be sure to book with Cape Tours so they can craft you the perfect customised itinerary to bring you the best whale-watching South Africa has to offer.
*photo credit – Nestor Gallna