By Heather Haines – Sea Search Intern 2016
The occurrence of “super-pods” with humpback whales is astonishing enough to attract researchers and film crews alike. On both October 30, 2016 and November 3, 2016 I had the pleasure of seeing these worlds collide to witness and record the spectacular event of hundreds of humpback whales aggregating to feed in one place for the summer months before returning to Antarctica in the winter. Working alongside the Table Mountain Film crew, I was given the opportunity to construct a field research by way of photo ID photography and acoustics recording with a sound trap. While looking for these whales we were able to encounter dusky dolphins, heaviside dolphins, and seals that were feeding on the bountiful variety of fishes in the area.
My first encounter with a “super-pod” occurred on October 30, 2016. The sky was bright and the whales aggregating in the water exasperated the already large swells that kept both myself and the film crew tripping over our own feet all day! Our first day, we witnessed an aggregation of roughly 40-60 whales just north of Langebaan. As the whales began to notice our boat, we were able to have up close encounters with some of the largest animals on Earth. Four whales, in particular, enjoyed playing alongside our boat, giving us some chance encounters for the film crew to take advantage of and for me to collect as much data as possible without getting a genetic sample. Throughout the day, these whales displayed the behavior of “sky hopping” in which the whale comes up to the surface and looks above at what is happening above. These curious whales sprayed us numerous times with their fishy breaths of air and we could not help but think about how cool, yet smelly it was to be close enough to feel the bursts of water escaping from the blowholes.
The film crew, about mid day in, sent in divers into the water to film below the surface and get an amazing shot of how lunge feeding and social interactions look from beneath the surface. However, as the swells increased and the disturbance of sediment from so many whales increased, the divers quickly had to re-board the vessel and watch the view from above. Noticing my interest, the divers let me have a sneak peak of the footage they captured and I was truly amazed. The animals looked beautiful from above the surface, but watching them below the surface left me speechless. By six o’clock in the afternoon, we finally started heading in, reluctantly, and the crew told me that each person captured over 2 terabytes of film. Watching the whales and how the crew had to try and capture the whales on film gave me a greater perspective for the artistry it takes to shoot a nature documentary.
My second encounter with an even larger “super-pod” occurred on November 3, 2016. The seas were calm but the sky was cloudy, leaving it impossible for the underwater footage to be able to be taken. On this day, we set out expecting to see around 50 whales in one area and found over 100 whales feeding in one area. That day I witnessed countless whales breaching, a behavior that I had never before had the pleasure of experiencing. I managed to get one breaching whale picture and numerous pictures of tail slaps which could be heard for miles, even above the water!
However, the behavior I was most surprised by was the whales that were circling and interacting with the boat were also playing in the kelp beds that were floating past our vessel. One of the skippers on the vessel explained to me that because the whales like to play in kelp beds so much, increases their risk of entanglement exponentially.
Seeing this had both researchers and film crew alike gain a better perspective in the responsibilities of these beautiful creatures being trapped by man-made material. Watching these animals play together, eat together, and travel together filled me with so much joy and hope for the conservation of these whales. On the other hand, this left researchers with many question on why they are all coming together now and what it means for the future of humpback whales on the West Coast of South Africa. After the super group traveled further south, away from the vessel, I was able to get about 10 minutes of recording done before my kelp-loving friend returned and it was no longer safe for the animal for the sound trap rig to be in the water. After another half hour or so, we made our way back to the harbor and witnessed several blows alongside each other, tempting us to stay just a little longer, and giving us hope to see them again.
If anyone is able to ever get the chance to witness these groups first-hand, I would encourage them to do so! Seeing this many animals in one place was better than anything I could have possibly dreamed. Special thanks to Table Mountain Film Crew for sharing their experience with us and for extending us time and energy to do research on these amazing creatures for a total of 6 six days, with either myself or Dr. Tess Gridley. So glad I was able to be a part of this once-in-a-lifetime experience before returning the United States.