The whales are here!
The whales are here!
By Monique Laubscher
The season for spectacular whale sightings is upon us!
Every year the southern right whales migrate from Antarctica – their icy cold feeding grounds – to the warmer waters off South Africa.
The warmer climates off our coastline provide the perfect habitat for breeding, calving and rearing of their young.
Southern right whales are seasonal feeders, which means they indulge in an ‘all you can eat’ buffet (consuming up to 1.5 tons of krill a day!) during winter months and only living off their blubber (i.e. energy reserves in the form of stored fat) during breeding months in the north.
Southern right whales have a cruising speed of approximately 6 kilometres per hour and spend most of their time at the surface, which makes them delightful targets for whale watching.
However, these gentle giants can hold their breaths for several minutes, so practice patience during encounters and be sure to scan a large area as the whales may pop up at any distance and direction from their last surfacing.
Learn to recognize a southern right whale here
Humpback whales are arguably the most widely spread cetacean in the southern African subregion, and come right past False Bay on their journey up north in winter.
They make for spectacular whale watching as they are often seen breaching (launching their entire bodies out of the water); spy hopping (poking their heads above water and having a look around); and lobtailing (slapping the water surface with their tails).
These whales can hold their breath for up to 15 min and are capable of diving down to great depths (up to 210 m deep) – so be extra patient with these ones. Coupled with swimming speeds of ~15kmph, it is surprisingly easy to lose sight of these giants (I bet you never thought you could lose a whale!).
Humpback whales have very interesting feeding strategies during which they form hunting groups and produce something we call bubble-nets.
This is when a pod of whales cooperates by gathering in circles under water and blowing bubbles as they spiral upwards to the surface. This creates a circular wall of bubbles which traps the fish in the middle, making them easy targets for the whales to feed on.
Learn more about humpback whale here
Another species you might spot is the Brydes whale. These whales can often be seen in feeding aggregations alongside gannets and dolphins when they feed on small fish species (mainly pilchards and sardines).
Brydes whales heave been observed displaying two types of feeding behaviours in our inshore waters; 1) horizontal lunges, where the whales lay on their sides at the surface to consume prey; 2) vertical lunges, which is when the whales come up from below and engulf shoals of prey trapped at the surface.
Brydes whales aren’t known to show such distinct seasonal breeding patterns, with conception occurring in any month of the year in inshore populations. They are considered to be a non-migratory species as a result of year-round availability of food.
Orcas (killer whales) can also be seen in False Bay, and all along our coastline. They are known to take a large variety of prey, varying from fish to other marine mammals.
Orcas in south African waters have been observed preying on penguins, fur seals and dolphins. Their movement patterns are very unpredictable, so consider yourself lucky if you happen to encounter them!
August falls into peak whale calving time, and most individuals only hang around until November, so be sure to take a stroll down the beach or drive the coastal route to make sure you don’t miss out on experiencing these magnificent creatures in their natural environment.
Don’t forget to keep a lookout for dolphins! They are frequently encountered along our coast playing in the breaks and always makes for a lovely encounter.