It is peak whale season here in the Western Cape of South Africa and we decided to take a break from Friends for Sharks last weekend to travel along the coast in search of Southern Right whales.


Southern Right whales are semi-resident within False Bay where we live and at this time of year they are present in high numbers as they come into the bay to breed and give birth. We have been lucky enough to spend time with this beautiful species of whale on a number of occasions whilst working here as white shark dive guides during the winter months. These whales are absolutely wonderful to watch when they congregate in breeding groups and appear to roll and turn in the ocean whilst waving their thick set pectoral fins in the air. Whilst it all appears very polite and controlled, it is serious business for the whales as the males compete with one another in their attempts to mate with the female whales. It is quite something to observe the whales when they tail slap repeatedly; the noise from the tail hitting the water is incredible and, at close range, you can almost feel the vibration from the sound moving through you. My favourite behaviour is of course when the whales breach. It defies belief when such a large animal, weighing up to 47 tonnes and 15m length, leaps high out of the ocean and then comes crashing back down as the water rises dramatically in white spray around it. They are enormous and yet incredibly graceful as they twist and turn in the sunlight.



Hermanus coastal path


Southern Right whales have a very distinctive appearance thanks to their thick, stubby pectoral fins and gnarled patches on their heads that are called callosities. The callosities are pale in colour due to the presence of whale lice and are as unique as our fingerprints. This species of whale also lacks a dorsal fin. Those traits certainly make them easy to identify when spotting whales from a distance in a bay which also contains Humpback and Bryde’s whales at certain times of the year.


Group wave

Distinctive pectoral fins of a group of Southern Right Whales, False Bay


Despite our time with Southern Right whales in False Bay we were keen to head East and explore along the coast of the Western Cape to see if we could find this species of whale elsewhere. The coastline, which is the well known Garden Route, is frequented by people all over the world and for good reason. The scenery was ever changing as we drove around False Bay, which was dotted with tiny coves, rocky shorelines and the overhanging rock of Cape Hangklip. We passed miles of deserted white sand beaches as we drove beyond the penguin colony at Betty’s Bay and eventually arrived at Hermanus. The seaside town of Hermanus is well known for whale tourism and Southern Right whales are seen there in high number at this time of year. I expected to see one or two whales if we were lucky and if we searched for a long time but I was utterly wrong. We walked along the coastal path into Hermanus town during our first evening and within minutes we had spotted a number of whale blows in the distance. The sea was rough that evening yet the whales were still visible. As we ate our dinner at a local, ocean side cafe we had the pleasure of watching a whale perform a tail slapping display for a long time whilst we leisurely ate our food and sheltered from the strong summer winds. It was a fantastic evening and I expected we would not be able to exceed that when we walked the same coastal path the following morning.


The wind had dropped considerably overnight, the bay was bright blue and almost immediately we saw a Cape Fur seal pottering amongst the kelp forest in the shallows whilst he warmed his pectoral fin in the sunshine.


Cape Fur Seals, Hermanus

Cape Fur Seal, Hermanus


As we continued along the coastal path and admired the spring flowers in bloom we saw a number of Rock Hyrax basking in the sunshine on the rocks next to us and then numerous whale blows in the distance. No sooner had we pointed those out to one another excitedly than I spotted a large area of white water across the bay. A whale had breached high into the air and left its mark on the calm water. As we sat on a nearby bench we watched the whale breach numerous times. It lifted itself out of the water so many times that we lost count.

Southern Right Whale breach Hermanus

A Southern Right Whale breaching in the distance at Hermanus

Flower Tower

Spring flowers in bloom at Hermanus

Rock Hyrax

One of many Rock Hyrax on the rocks along the coastal path of Hermanus

Hermanus 01

Spring flowers in bloom at Hermanus

It was a truly magical experience being able to watch the whales from the shore and I couldn’t help but notice how much everyone around us was smiling. Wildlife encounters have a wonderful way of bringing people together and of lifting peoples’ spirits. I can say with absolute certainty that we were both very reluctant to head home along the coastal road that day and we were smiling all the way home!