the life aquatic
It’s whale-spotting season in the Cape
The Cape’s whale-spotting season is in full swing. And as Luke Alfred discovered, it’s an activity to have in your sights
One of the pleasures of the False Bay coast this time of year is whale-watching. Along the fish hook running from Muizenberg to Simon’s Town — often called the "Deep South" here — you can spot whales lolling off the rocks and beaches daily. Be warned, though, these are quixotic, even frustrating, beasts, capable of vanishing as quickly as they appear.
Once the whales have been spotted, recreational walkers stop to admire the views and cars pull into lay-byes on the Clovelly sweep into Fish Hoek to film the giants, smartphones raised. If you’re lucky you can see whales cruising beyond the breakers off Glencairn beach as you dodder over the sand on the train to Simon’s Town. There should be an all-stops "Whale Cruiser" train for day-trippers. Never have so few provided so much free fun for so many.
The whales spotted are usually Southern rights and humpbacks, creatures both majestic and sublimely unhurried. Often mistaken by novices for kelp beds or stray kelp clusters out to sea, whales are distinguished by their "blows", the expulsion of water from their blowholes.
A blow is similar to a puff of gunpowder from a muzzleloader in an epic film about the American Civil War. There is something touching about these blows, perhaps because they are so delicate, possibly because they evaporate so quickly, as the wind carries the vapour softly away.
Once you see a blow, what swims beneath is inferred. Southern rights can reach up to 18m in length and can weigh up to 60t. Once they’ve been spotted you might catch a later glimpse of a head or the casual flick of a tail. If you are lucky you might witness fluking, where the tail is exposed, or even breaching, where the whale leaps out of the water. Every sighting is different, depending on the swell, the play of light and general visibility.
Southern rights are amiable creatures, with a high blubber and oil content, which means they float when dead. In the 1880s they used to be harpooned just off Danger Beach (between St James and Kalk Bay) and dragged ashore to be stripped. Legend has it that there are still steel rings fixed to the Danger Beach rocks through which ropes were guided to help bring the animals ashore to be butchered.
The stench of boiling blubber was not popular with locals, and operations were transferred to Sunrise and Strandfontein beaches beyond Muizenberg, where it was emptier and ponged less. The right whales’ natural curiosity and generally trusting nature, combined with their precious rendered blubber, meant they were once hunted without mercy, but this has changed. "Because they’re slow-moving and found inshore and their oil and blubber content is high, they were hunted to virtual extinction," says Dave Hurwitz of the Simon’s Town Boat Co, the only accredited whale-watching charter in the bay. "But that’s the case no more — whale numbers have grown exponentially over the years."
A former graphic artist, Hurwitz used to lead guided tours of the Simon’s Town naval dockyard in his boat The Spirit of Just Nuisance, Just Nuisance being the loveably forward Great Dane who used to befriend sailors in the dockyard before and during World War 2.
About 12 years ago, according to Hurwitz, a tanned 60-something with the wry manner of the born seafarer, his original boat was replaced by Southern Right, historical tours making way for trips to Seal Island, Cape Point, and whale-watching jaunts across the bay.
Hurwitz stresses that he is neither a scientist nor a marine biologist, but he has worked with many of the academics and researchers who come False Bay’s way. If local knowledge is what you’re after, a more passionate individual would be difficult to find. "That’s my church," he says, gesturing seawards from a seaside café one Monday morning during his third cup of coffee. "Even after 20 years of being on the water, watching the whales for hours on end is something you never tire of."
What a trip
While global warming and environmental degradation (nine rivers drain into False Bay and some of them are heavily polluted) are the media’s current topics of choice, not a trip goes by without Hurwitz seeing something unusual and interesting. A case in point is the Southern right’s breeding ritual, described by Hurwitz "as almost a sperm war".
With testicles weighing 500kg each and a penis — often called "the pink panther" in whale-watching circles — 3m long, the males linger patiently around a female waiting their turn.
"Mating isn’t a violent affair," says Hurwitz. "It’s a gentle ceremony which can take a whole day."
Unlike the Southern rights, humpback whales don’t breed in local waters, breeding off the coasts of Mozambique and Angola instead. Smaller than the Southern rights, they have extremely long pectoral fins and are so called because of their distinctive habit of arching or bending their back prior to breaching — for which they are famous — in False Bay as elsewhere.
They are also famous for their song, thought to be part of the male courtship ritual. The song is elaborate, not fully understood by scientists, and often takes place as a prelude to dancing. Humpbacks’ ballet is breathtaking, with their languid movements and limb-like sweep of their elegant pectoral fins. The naturalist David Attenborough captured it perfectly when he described the whales’ mating ritual in a 2016 BBC documentary as follows: "They start to get to know one another — it’s an old-fashioned, slow-motion waltz."
Hurwitz’s real love of the moment — if love is what it is — are the killer whales, or orcas, of the bay. They form large, matriarchal pods of between 300 and 500, estimates Hurwitz, and live in a band stretching from Durban to Namibia. Strictly speaking, orcas aren’t whales at all, but extremely large, predatory dolphins.
In False Bay they have likely contributed to the declining shark and great white shark numbers in recent years, but environmental factors also play their part. The orcas’ orchestrated and surgically precise attacks on cow sharks, specifically for their liver, have provoked another kind of feeding frenzy — on social media and in the media generally.
Hurwitz has been following a pair — dubbed Port and Starboard because of collapsed dorsal fins in opposite directions — since 2009. He thinks the two are brothers in their 20s but adds that the guess is no more than informed speculation.
Orcas are co-operative hunters. They can come up on their prey from underneath and even attack from above; they can separate stragglers from a school of dolphins and do so while swimming at 35km/h. Their hunting ingenuity and stealth is not always appreciated. "Killer whales can strip deep-sea fishermen’s lines, and unscrupulous boats have been known to shoot them with high-velocity weapons," says Hurwitz.
As a boy Hurwitz was "dragged out" of the house to fish by his dad. Though he didn’t enjoy fishing, some strange cosmic logic was at play because he invariably caught the most fish. Now he watches fish for fun and never a trip goes by where he doesn’t see or learn something new. There’s a boyishness to his abandon. You’ll feel it too. "I’ve had precious few dissatisfied customers but there was this one German family," he says, chuckling. "We had a rare opportunity to see the orcas but they were adamant that they had come to see humpbacks and weren’t interested. All of them kept their arms folded for the entire trip."