Posted on Thursday, 1 December 2016
Cape Town Western Seaboard
Something special has been taking place off our Cape Town Western Seaboard for the last few years, and that is a massive aggregation of migrating Humpback whales. These Humpbacks have been aggregating in a small stretch of inshore coastline along the Sea Point, Hout Bay and Kommetjie areas usually only for a short two week or so period of time. It’s most likely that these Humpbacks are migrating from their breeding grounds in the tropics and coming down our way to feed before heading further down south to Antarctica for their primary summer feeding grounds.
This event has been well on our radar but we have always missed it having been away at the time. We’ve come home the last few Novembers to breath-taking reports of sometimes up to a hundred plus whales seen together in a small area… it was a phenomenon we absolutely had to see.
Since returning home from our annual bush trip the summer wind has been howling, making it impossible to get to sea from False Bay. This past Sunday the wind finally dropped and with this first opportunity Chris & I were planning a trip just off Cape Point to have a bit of a look around and see if we could find anything interesting. We had been away for too long and the sea was now calling!
We were only five minutes from Simon’s Town, on our way to launching, when a friend called to let us know the masses of Humpback whales were off Llandudno.
It’s a long boat ride…
From Simon’s Town its 12 miles up to Cape Point and then another 20 miles from there to Hout Bay, with Llandudno a short distance from there. But the conditions were perfect and this was the opportunity we had been waiting for.
With very little debate we were off and two hours later we started to see the first tell-tale spouts in the distance.
As we approached the Humpbacks were streaming down in a southerly direction and pod after pod of between 3 and 8 whales could be seen making their way down. The whale traffic was continuous and most pods seemed to be made up of mostly male & female adults and some sub adults. We were very careful to be passive and not directly approach the whales but on a couple of occasions some pods made a detour and came for a good look at our boat. They almost seemed curious and would do many circuits before moving on.
There were many different tones ranging from the general whale exhale and extending to a deep rumbling sound which sounded very close to elephant-like.
There was a huge amount of non-vocal communication taking place and all around us we could see tail slapping, fluke slapping and spectacular breaches. A breaching Humpback must be one of the most graceful of all whales as it majestically and in ballerina-like fashion soars through the air. If one turned in a full circle it was possible to see these non-verbal communications in almost every degree of the compass!
As impressive as this behaviour was we were curious to see if we could find the huge concentrations that people had previously spoken about. In the late afternoon we came across a most spectacular sight of what we estimate to be between 60 to 80 whales in very close confines and all feeding together. I cannot adequately describe this sight, all I can say is that it is right up with one of the most spectacular sights I have ever seen in nature. Everything was going on…incredible lunge feeding, spectacular breaching, huge tail slapping and all 80 whales were involved in a tight concentration!
When zooming in on Chris’s photographs it looks like minute little orange shrimps that the humpbacks were gorging themselves on. There must have been billions of them present to sustain the amount of feeding that was taking place.
Not only was everything visually spectacular but it was also a complete sensory overload. One of the highlights and most memorable experiences was closing my eyes and just listening to the ever present and constant noise of this huge mass of whales breathing and exhaling together. There were many different tones ranging from the general whale exhale and extending to a deep rumbling sound which sounded very close to elephant-like. This was particularly interesting to me as I had never heard any whales make a sound like this.
The smell was equally as memorable but not exactly in a good way, they absolutely stank! The smell must have been attributed to what they were feeding on and I can tell you it was pretty horrific!
It was difficult from the water to take an image showing the incredible concentration of this aggregation was but it has been best captured by Kieran Donnelly filming from his drone. Watch here.
Sitting off from the whales gave us a great opportunity to capture scenic images and observe the scene. The experience has definitely been one of our more memorable wildlife encounters and I am so thankful for the opportunity.
The wind is howling yet again and conditions are set to continue for the next little while so although we can’t get back out there it’ll be interesting to monitor and see how much longer the Humpbacks grace our coastline.
What an incredible experience!
To read about other whale encounters click below:
The White Whale
Buckle Up; The Pilots are Coming
Pilot Whale Encounter
Sperm Whale Encounter