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September 04, 2012

A whale of a tail in Cape Town

Cape Town, a favourite destination among whale watchers, has long been a meeting place not only for our annual migratory visitors, the southern right whale (Eubalaena australis), but also for some others, such as humpback whales and, more recently, orcas, which tend to hunt the common dolphins found in False Bay. Many of our guests from far and wide use our city’s peninsula coastline as a base to view these magnificent creatures, by boat, land or even air.

Whales of the Southern Oceans - Photo courtesy of Alan Lindner, A Whale of a Heritage Route

The town of Fish Hoek was home to a whaling outpost back in the 1800s, which was one of the reasons why numbers dwindled. More information about this history can be found at the Fish Hoek Valley Museum.

Since the early 1900s, after protection was given to whales, the number of people who have enjoyed watching these beautiful giants of the deep has increased. The coast of False Bay, stretching through to Hermanus, has become popular among both locals and visitors alike for this experience.

Our peninsula has also been a place where many a whale stranding has taken place, and such close encounters with these (and other) sea mammals are not happy ones. The most recent a few months ago when such an incident involved a baby pygmy sperm whale washing up on Muizenberg’s Surfers' Corner; while in 2010, 55 false killer whales were stranded on Long Beach in Kommetjie.

The history of human and whale interaction is a big part of our lives and a big part of our heritage, which can be seen via a detailed log on A Whale of a Heritage Route website.

Whalermans Prefab Cottage, the history of whales in Cape Town - Photo courtesy of Alan Lindner, A Whale of a Heritage Route

Though we have resident Bryde’s whales (most often only seen on boat trips), the most popular time for great whale-watching encounters is during breeding and mating season annually, from as early as May right through to the last few stragglers in November, though the most popular period is from mid-June to late September.

Identifying whales' actions

When whale watching you should look out for the following activities:

Fluking
Fluking is when a whale raises its tail out of the water as it begins a dive.

Fluking or Lobtailing - Photo courtesy of Chad Chapman 

Lobtailing
This is an activity in which the animal sticks its tail out of the water, swings it around and then slaps it onto the water's surface. This produces a loud sound that is believed to be a means of communication between whales.

Logging
This is when the whale merely lies in the water, with its tail hanging down. Part of the head and back are exposed.

Lazy logging whale - Photo courtesy of Lorraine Lemmon-Warde

Spouting/blowing
When whales blow water out of the blowholes located near the top of their head, it is known as spouting. Southern right whales have two blowholes that act as nostrils. When they blow water out of their blowholes, a distinctive V-shaped cloud of vapour is produced, largely by condensation when warm breath comes into contact with cooler air.

Spyhopping
This is an activity in which the whale pokes its head out of the water, and is believed to possibly be taking a look around.

Some facts

Whale & Elephant comparison in size - Photo courtesy of Alan Lindner, A Whale of a Heritage Route

The head of the southern right whale is large and is covered with wart-like bumps called callosities. These differ in size and position and are often used to identify individuals.

Human activities still count among the leading causes of deaths of southern rights, though their numbers slowly increased in the 1980s after having received protection from the mid-1930s.

Females live an for average of 52 years and have six chances to bear calves during their lives – though in 1995 whale lifespans plummeted and females born after this year live to an average age of 15 years, with research projections affording them only two chances to breed. The two major causes of death are collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing gear, and every death is a severe blow to the survival of these beautiful creatures.

We should support responsible business practices that have licences to view these sea mammals, and ensure that conservation efforts are also supported. For more information about our operators offering land, boat or air trips to view our “other” visitors, please contact us on 086 132 2223, email capetown@capetown.travel, or pop into one of our visitor information centres

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