Whale watching in Hermanus, South Africa
24 October 2017 - 2:17pm
Whaling used to be the main source of income in Hermanus. Today, the locals still profit from whales – but without harming them! The small city of Hermanus is located on the Western Cape of South Africa and is one of the best places on earth for land-based whale watching. More than 30 species have so far been documented in the area, but the species most commonly seen is the southern right whale as they congregate in Walker Bay between July and December to mate and give birth to their calves.
The species derives its name from whaling activities, as they were considered the 'right whale' to catch, being easy to approach, swimming slowly and living close to shore. Between 1805 and 1844, at least 45.000 northern and southern right whales were brutally killed. Close to extinction, they were finally considered a protected species in 1937. Some southern right whale populations have recovered to an extent since then, but whilst whaling no longer presents a threat in South Africa, southern right whales continue to face threats including ship strikes or entanglement in fishing gear.
Hermanus has its own whale museum and a whale festival in September. I spent three days in the city and made full use of the variety of whale watching on offer: whale watching flights, boat trips and of course, land-based whale watching!
Seeing whales by boat
Watching whales from a boat is definitely the most common method. Despite some rain and big waves, I was hoping to get a closer look at these majestic animals. Some people get seasick when there is a lot of swell but I was lucky – no seasickness, and even better, lots of whales! The chances of spotting southern right whales off Hermanus are quite high during the season as their V-shaped blows – which can reach 5 metres - are visible from distance. These whales also sport large and very distinctive patches of rough skin on their heads, known as 'callosities', which are unique to this species.
My boat trip took about 2 ½ hours and I was lucky enough to see seals and penguins too. Whale watching is tightly licensed in the area and permits stipulate that boat operators must follow specific routes to ensure that the whales are not disturbed by too many boats. There are also restrictions on how long operators are allowed to stay near an individual whale, especially mothers and calves.
Watching whales from the air
Light planes with up to five seats are used for whale watching flights in Hermanus and offer a completely different perspective! Looking through the windows of a plane, you can see the whales’ silhouettes moving through turquoise waters. Southern right whales can reach 17 metres, making these get giants easy to spot from above.
Scientific aerial studies in the region are also done via plane, as counting from a ‘bird’s eye view’ is the easiest way to get a feel for the number of whales in the bay. Small planes reduce disturbance to the whales, as they are not as loud as multi-engine planes. The captain is also required to take care that the plane remains a specified distance above the water surface, again, in order not to disturb the whales.
These whale watching flights are more expensive compared to a boat trip and only take about 30 to 60 minutes. You might feel queasy when the airplane is circling above the whales, so taking some travel sickness pills before the flight definitely helps. Watching the whales and the coastline from above is a unique experience: I would definitely recommend giving it a try if you want some variety in your whale watching routine!
Cliff Path: land-based whale watching
Hermanus has a one-of-a-kind hiking trail called “Cliff Path” with lots of benches offering panoramic views on the ocean. Take your binoculars with you - although even without them, you can easily spot whales in the water! The old harbour is another popular spot for watching southern right whales -sometimes they are only a few metres away from the shore.
If you are really lucky, you might see the whales breaching. Once started, they often go on to do this quite a few times in a row, so keep your eyes on the last spot as they might do it again! There are some big advantages to land-based whale watching: it is free, there are no time pressures, no risk of ship strike or seasickness and as long as you do not make a great deal of noise, you will not disturb the whales!
All three types of whale watching offer unique possibilities to see southern right whales in their natural habitat. But whichever type you opt for, remember that given the history of whaling and other modern-day threats to whales, we should all try our best to keep disturbance as low as possible.