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Author:Graeme S. Grant
Oceans Africa Diving Adventures cc
Quite simply, South Africa offers some of the best and most accessible whale and dolphin watching opportunities in the world. If this sounds to you like a bold and sweeping statement, allow me to try and justify these claims.
Copyright © Oceans Africa Diving Adventures cc

Copyright © Oceans Africa Diving Adventures cc


Cape Town
First lets look at Cape Town - arrival and departure point for thousands of visitors each year with direct flights from most European capitals.
Cape Town’s geographical position is hard to beat. In the shadow of the Table Mountain range - a national monument and park - the city and its suburbs cling to the coastline around the Cape Peninsula, with frontage on both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.
Cape Town offers a rare blend of city hustle and wild, unspoilt tranquillity.
Southern Right Whales
Whilst on tour last year in October, late in the whale season, we took the three-hour drive (with stops) around the Cape peninsula in search of whales.
En-route is the recently re-opened Chapmans Peak pass that rises to over 100m as it carves and winds its way around the coastal cliffs from Hout Bay to Noordhoek. From this elevated, almost aerial perspective we spot nine southern right whales in pairs and in threes, logging and rolling in the azure Atlantic waters of Hout Bay.

Driving towards Noordhoek we find another two pairs and crossing over to the False Bay side near Simonstown (we are now at the Indian Ocean) we stop traffic on the busy coastal road as we pull over to watch a group of five whales not more than fifty metres offshore.
As more cars pull over we are treated to a fantastic display of mating behaviour - lots of rolling around with pectoral fins, bellies and tails on display - and then something unusual, spy-hopping with mouth open and baleen plates clearly visible.
As all this is happening we are obliged to dodge the city train to Simonstown as by now over fifty people have crossed onto the rail-tracks to get a closer view of the action.
This juxtaposition of a city landscape with such an intimate display from the world’s largest mammals takes some getting used to, as the concept of urban whales is a strange one for most of us.
Scuba Diving
Another great thing about Cape Town is the abundance of excellent dive sites, of which many are easily accessed shore-entries.
This can make diving very uncomplicated. Simply hire some tanks and off you go exploring with your dive buddy and some local advice. Now lets be very clear on the law as regards diving and approaching whales in South Africa!
Copyright © Oceans Africa Diving Adventures cc

Copyright © Oceans Africa Diving Adventures cc


Whale Watching Regulations
"Except under authority of a permit issued by the director-general..." (Sea Fishery Act 1988) "...no person shall... approach closer than 300m to any whale by means of vessel, aircraft or any other device."
Only one boat-based whale watching operator in each coastal area is issued with a license to approach whales to within 50m and cow-calf pairs may not be approached by anyone.

These animals are here in our waters specifically to calve and mate. It is essential we do not interfere in any way with their behaviour.
So if the whales are rolling around on your favourite dive site you may not enter the water.
That said, whales do move and whales can be inquisitive, they may well approach you during a dive and if you dive regularly, your chances of an encounter during season is actually pretty high.
A good friend of mine took his students on their first open water dive and had a southern right whale hovering above them for a full 20 min while the students did their mask clear and other skills.

Should you be so blessed the rules are unwritten yet simple. Southern right whales are easily spooked so move slowly, do not chase them or try to touch them and if you have a camera, please do not use the FLASH!
Simply sit back, relax and enjoy the experience, because at that moment you are the most privileged person on this planet.
Bottlenose and Indo-pacific Humpback Dolphins
Moving along the coast we come to Hermanus - South Africa’s whale capital. Stand on the low cliffs around the old harbour and the whales are often just below you. Further east is the wild and remote De Hoop Nature Reserve with it’s whale trail (a 5 day coastal hike) and amongst the highest concentrations of cow-calf pairs in the country.
Entering the Garden Route we also enter dolphin country.
Copyright © Oceans Africa Diving Adventures cc

Copyright © Oceans Africa Diving Adventures cc


From our home-base in Plettenberg Bay we have a 95% success rate for dolphin sightings with a more-or-less resident population of 1200 bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus) and the healthiest population of Indo-Pacific humpbacked dolphins (Sousa chinensis) in southern Africa.
Copyright © Oceans Africa Diving Adventures cc

Copyright © Oceans Africa Diving Adventures cc


At just about the same time as the southern right whales are settling into the bays of the Southern Cape, there are three other, major migrations, happening along our coastline.
The Sardine Run
Early each year large shoals and isolated pockets of sardines start to accumulate over the Agulhas bank in the Western Cape.
Gradually they move east with the prevailing coastal currents until eventually vast concentrations are forced inshore along the Wild Coast and against the southern shores of KwaZulu Natal - the phenomenon known as the sardine run has begun.
Copyright © Oceans Africa Diving Adventures cc

Copyright © Oceans Africa Diving Adventures cc


Following the sardines we find increasing numbers of associated predators.
Common dolphins can be found in their thousands as they orchestrate the hunt and round-up the shoals.
Copyright © Oceans Africa Diving Adventures cc

Copyright © Oceans Africa Diving Adventures cc


Bryde’s whales may also be seen, lunge feeding opportunistically, while copper sharks (Carcharhinus brachyurus) follow in the depths and the Cape gannets swirl and dive in an aerial attack reminiscent of a scene from Pearl Harbour.
Timing the sardine run can be difficult but if you're amongst the lucky ones, the show can be spectacular.
Copyright © Oceans Africa Diving Adventures cc

Copyright © Oceans Africa Diving Adventures cc


Shark Diving
Meanwhile the ragged-tooth sharks (Charcharius taurus) are gathering to mate on the offshore reefs of KwaZuluNatal. If you dive these sites you’ll regularly find large numbers (sometimes hundreds) of large ragged-tooth sharks sheltering from the currents in caves and overhangs, whilst on your way to and from the divesite humpback whales are an almost daily sighting.
Copyright © Oceans Africa Diving Adventures cc

Copyright © Oceans Africa Diving Adventures cc


Moving in groups of up to ten animals, it seems the humpback whales use the same inshore currents as the sardines on their own, unrelated migration to the tropical waters of Mozambique and Madagascar.
Whale populations recovering
Southern ocean stocks of humpack and southern right whales are recovering at the astonishing rate of 10% and 7% per annum, respectively. At this continued rate we can expect the population of southern right whales to double over the next ten years and that of humpck whales to double within seven.
Come meet the Whales!
Here in South Africa we have certainly noticed the increase in numbers over recent years and it’s reassuring to know that in a world of environmental uncertainties, the future for these whales at least, is a very encouraging one.
So although anyone who works in marine tourism will tell you never to guarantee anything, I promise you this. There will be whales in August!

Author: Graeme S. Grant (Oceans Africa Diving Adventures cc)
Contact Oceans Africa
Oceans Africa specialise in custom tours, packages and charters in southern Africa.
As well as our standard whale watching tours and charters we are planning to follow the humpback whale migrations into Mozambique next August.

Anyone interested in joining us on this exploratory expedition should contact us at info@oceansafrica.com or visit our website www.oceansafrica.com for tour updates and itineraries.
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