As rich in marine life as the waters of Walker Bay are, they unfortunately do not hold the required biomass of the southern right’s whale favourite food source to keep these gentle giants here year-round. November and the early weeks of December sees them departing our bay and heading south to their feeding grounds in the sub-Antarctic Ocean. This season, we had our last few remaining mom’s and their youngsters in our waters until the first week of December, before wishing them well until the following year when they will once again return.
At this point, our focus turns to the other amazing marine life we have in our waters; Bryde’s whales, Common and Bottlenose dolphins, Mola-mola sunfish, African penguins and Cape fur seals to name but a few. Each trip at this point is completely different, and you just never know what to expect, emphasizing the inherent unpredictability of the ocean and its wildlife.
This unpredictability, I believe, is what brings us moments, in each and every season, that are definite highlights, making us second guess what we know, and keep us going back for more. This past season was no different, being filled with such moments worthy of looking back on at this point in time:
The more the merrier
Southern right whales are polygamous, forming large mating groups during courtship. Large groups involving multiple males all vying for their chance to mate with one single female are a regular sight in Walker Bay in the height of the season; and is an absolutely amazing sight to see. There is no aggression shown by the males, and they rely solely on sperm competition to fight their fight on a microscopic level. Midway through the month of August, right at the end of an amazing sunset trip, having already seen multiple southern rights and two humpbacks, we stumbled upon one of the largest mating groups we have seen in memory. Over 11 individuals, all throwing their 14-16m long, 60 odd thousand kilogram bodies around with such control, in some sort of organised chaos, what an amazing sight! Even after heading back into the harbour, the group could be seen from the shore, carrying on until we eventually lost sight of them once the sun had set.
FIFTY SHADES vs. TUX
Every now and then, a particular whale has the ability to peak our interest, steal our hearts. Sometimes this is a result of particular character traits, sometimes through looks, sometimes just through sharing a moment, maybe the locking of eyes. This past season, a southern right I named Fifty Shades stole the hearts of many. Straight out of Natures Art Gallery, one of only 3-4% of southern rights that are born almost snow white, and darken slightly in colour with age, known as a brindle. Fifty Shades dazzled us with its colour scheme, amazing patterns, and inquisitive character, joining multiple mating groups and winning over everyone who laid eyes on him. Our skipper, had a similar interest in “Tux”, a whale with a beautiful white chin, also not at all common! The Fifty Shades vs Tux, guide vs skipper poll on social media was the only way to settle it, with the majority leaning in favour of Fifty Shades! We will be keeping our eyes peeled for both Fifty Shades and Tux in the years to come.
Although southern rights are the focal point from June to December, Bryde’s whales are year-round residents, and humpbacks are also a relatively regular sighting, especially in June and July. This season we had a humpback interaction like no other. We spotted a lone, adolescent humpback right in the middle of the bay, and slowly made our way in its direction. This whale proceeded to do the same, heading toward us and giving us the most impressive performance! Lying on its back, using a textbook backstroke, the whale circled our catamaran, Miroshca. After numerous laps of backstroke and some pectoral flipper slapping, it started to breach, almost waiting for our reaction each time before breaching again, each one more impressive than the last. Breaching can often happen out of nowhere, and if one isn’t quick enough, they can be easily missed. One of our crew counted 52 breaches in total, enough to ensure no one could possibly miss it! Each time we tried to slowly move out of the area, it would encircle us again- a once in a lifetime experience!
Bryde’s whales are generally thought of as being quite an elusive specie, generally not giving as spectacular a performance that southern rights are capable of. There were multiple instances this season however that a Bryde’s was not so elusive, circling our boat for what felt like forever, having a close look at each and every guest onboard, from every angle possible. These whales are so sleek and slender, and when one acts slightly out of character, the interaction can be even more special. We were also luckily enough to see these whales lunge feeding on the surface numerous times. Carden, our drone pilot and videographer managed to capture these moments from the air, allowing us the best possible view of them inhaling an entire bait ball in one mouthful, from right under the feet of the feeding terns. Quite likely some of the best footage ever captured of such a moment!
Where do the southern rights go when they leave Walker Bay?
This season for the first time in many years, four southern rights were tagged by the Marine Mammal Institute here in Hermanus. We know that these whales go south to feed before returning to our waters to mate and calf, but exactly where, for exactly how long, and exactly what routes they take, as well as the impact on reproduction and body condition this may have, was of interest. Four whales, all of which were tagged in Walker Bay, departed us and headed south to higher latitudes, but all in completely different directions. One headed west-southwest in the direction of South America, one east-southeast in the direction Australia, and two in a more or less a southwest direction but on two very different courses. We are still monitoring their progress to see exactly where they may end up, but they look to have found the food! You can track the whales here if you would like to monitor their movements: https://www.mammalresearchinstitute.science/whale-unit
All things considered, with Covid providing its fair share of challenges, we had an action-packed season, and it was great to be able to share our waters and its marine life with so many keen guests. From the young budding marine biologist to the absolute whale lover, to the “bucket-lister”, we thank you all for your support, and we hope to see you again in the not too distant future. In just a few months, the gentle giants will be back in our waters, and we can’t wait!