South Africa West Coast

Whale Watching on the West Coast

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When whales or whale watching in South Africa is mentioned, the place name of Hermanus invariably springs to mind.

However, it is far less widely known that the West Coast of the Western Cape is another rich haven for whales and dolphins. The presence of an old whaling station at Donkergat in Saldanha Bay, still operational in the earlier part of the last century attests to that.

The whale species one can most expect to see in this area are southern right whales, humpbacks and Bryde’s whales.

The most commonly seen dolphins include Heaviside’s, dusky and common dolphins. Unfortunately, the impact of whaling off the West Coast of Africa was particularly severe.

Southern right whale populations were already depleted well before the end of the 19th century, and in between the years 1909 and 1915 some 17 000 humpback whales were killed off the coasts of South Africa, Namibia, Gabon and Angola. Up to now the data from whaling stations represent the only information available on the West Coast whales. (See History of Whaling)

Now, after more than 30 years of protection it seems that the whales of the West Coast are returning.

In order to assess the populations present in the area the Whale Unit from the Mammal Research Institute of the University of Pretoria has launched a research programme that specifically looks at the seasonality of the migrations of both southern right and humpback whales.

The research work is carried out at the military area of SAS Saldanha, and consists of both a land-based watch and boat-based work. In short, the work entails searching for whales from an elevated shore lookout with binoculars. Whales are then identified and tracked by means of a surveyor’s theodolite, which will enable us to calculate actual positions, distance offshore, and speed and direction of movement.

southern right whale
A southern right whale showing the callosities on its head, Saldanha Bay (photo by S. Dillon) humpback whale
A humpback whale investigates Balaena off Saldanha Bay (photo by S. Dillon)

whale dive
Two humpback whales get ready for a dive off Saldanha Bay (photo by S. Dillon)

sunriseRight: Preparing the Balaena for a day at sea, Saldanha Bay harbour (photo by J. Barendse)

On suitable sea days, the Unit’s inflatable Balaena is directed to groups of whales, where they are approached (under a special permit from Marine and Coastal Management) and identification photographs of individual whales taken. In the case of humpbacks, a small skin sample is also collected with a special rifle, which will enable us to determine the gender of an animal, as well as its population identity.

The project started at the end of July of 2001, and is intended to continue till mid-2003. Some of the preliminary results have been very encouraging. For the period 24 July to 30 November, with 87 days on which some observations could take place (a total of about 512 hours!) we saw a total of 175 groups of southern right whales comprising 260 individuals.

In the same period we saw 64 groups of humpback whales, containing about 126 individuals. These numbers are still rough, and may certainly include re-sightings of the same animals, but it is clear that there are many whales off Saldanha. The busiest month was October, when we saw more than 100 southern rights, and more than 50 humpbacks. Some of the most exciting days were when both right whales and humpbacks were seen breaching less than a kilometer offshore near Malgas Island.

One day in November we had two southern rights that first “docked” at the iron ore jetty, and then proceeded to swim amongst the mussel rafts in the harbour! Other interesting events include the stranding of a baby right whale at Dwarskersbos, and adult female at Paternoster, and a live stranding of a young humpback at Elandsbaai.

One amazing thing about the area between Dassen Island and St Helena Bay is that it seems that some individuals of both species may be present here throughout summer, and not join the majority of whales on their summer migration to Antarctic water. This is certainly worth further investigation.

Whale watching hotspots in the area are St. Helena Bay, Cape Columbine, Saldanha Bay breakwater, and Plankies Baai off South Head. We hope to keep you updated with the progress of our project. Until then, happy whale watching! REMEMBER: you are by law not allowed to approach a whale closer than 300m.

We would like to thank the following organisations and people:
  • The Naval Base SAS SALDANHA and the SOUTH AFRICAN MILITARY ACADEMY for accommodating our project on their premises, and for the logistic support they have so kindly and generously provided to us
  • The MAZDA WILDLIFE FUND for the load and maintenance of our research vehicle
  • PADI PROJECT AWARE (UK) for sponsoring the construction of our shore-based lookout, and for covering some of our fuel costs
  • The NATIONAL RESEARCH FOUNDATION, for proving the core funding for the project
For further information regarding the project please contact Jaco Barendse
My thanks and appreciation to J. Barendse and S. Dillon of the Whale Unit from the Mammal Research Institute of the University of Pretoria for contributing their information and photographs - Avril Brand,
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History of Whaling   Whalesong

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