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Pilot Whale Encounter

written by Monique Fallows

Pilot whales swimming off Cape Point, Cape Town

Posted on Friday, 17 April 2015

10 April


Finally the weather forecast that we had been watching and waiting for came true and with zero wind and virtually non-existent swell we rounded Cape Point for a day of adventure.

There have been few days as flat as this one and the sea appeared molten and mercury like. Our intention was to look for a variety of marine life and most specifically cetacean species.

After many years of exploring the waters off Cape Point we have a fair idea of which areas have the greatest yield and at which time of the year we can somewhat expect various species.


A surprise sighting on the ride out was of three different Leather Back turtles, two of which were huge and we estimated their weight at around 400kgs. Their large heads and extremely thick necks were especially impressive as we caught a quick look at them before they submerged. I can only remember seeing maybe two other Leather Backs in the last decade so I guess there must have been something unique about this piece of water that was perfect for them.


Once we reached our area of interest we sat in purple coloured water surrounded by various pelagic sea birds including four different species of albatross. We had a bait out, hoping for a Mako or Blue shark whilst we scanned the seas around us. The bait became a great item of interest for the birds who came closer and closer for an easy meal. At very close quarters we got to admire the “air brushed” black eyebrows of the Black Browed albatross and the sleek yellow nose of the Yellow-Nosed albatross. An immature Shy albatross tested what sounded like his yet unbroken voice as he squabbled amongst the others for the bait. It was highly entertaining!


It was so flat and calm with barely a ripple it started to feel like a blue dessert. But after an hours wait we were surprised by the arrival of a 1.5 meter female Blue shark. In the beautiful conditions we all felt completely relaxed in the water as we admired her silky movements as she gently moved around us time after time. Diving shearwaters were also thrown into the mix as they dived deep below for the small pieces of sardines we were hoping to attract the Yellowfin tuna with.

After a great dive we decided to cover more distance and slowly head back to Cape Point in the hopes of coming across a whale or two.


10 miles into the journey home I spotted two small spouts in the distance. As we approached the two spouts had increased to at least ten… it was a pod of long fin Pilot whales!



Chris, of course, immediately decided to try get in the water with them. I declined… after all the experience of being rushed by a large bull several years back didn’t exactly put me at ease and the thought of diving with them had me edgy.

We positioned the boat ahead of the approaching pod and Chris gently slipped into the water. He soon had the whole pod gently cruise by him. After his exhilarating experience I quickly forgot my anxiety and along with two other friends who were on board we readied ourselves for an incredible experience.

Many of them were curious and as they approached us would swim upside down exposing the white vertical flash that runs from their chin to tail on the under belly, all the while closely looking at us.

As you first slip into the water it is a strange and daunting experience being out in the open ocean and swimming over 1500 meters of blue water. Coupled with an approaching pod of Pilot whales, one’s heart is racing in anticipation. We were not to be disappointed as our small group of snorkelers all stopped motionless in the water and watched as the pod passed us by.

The water visibility was about 20 meters so we could see way down below as the shyer animals dived to deeper water and of course to be just a couple of meters from the bolder ones on the surface was amazing.



The pod was moving at a fair pace and after surfacing from this swim-by we looked into the distance… more spouts! This time round there seemed to be many more animals and the pod we were currently with must have been a splinter pod heading for the main group. We decided to head for the larger pod ourselves.

The numbers seemed to swell in the two hours that we spent with them and we estimate the pod numbered between 50 and 70 individuals. It was difficult to tell as with each dive many more could be seen swimming below compared to what we were seeing on the surface.

It is not possible to keep speed with the pilot whales so our “dives” consisted of the boat dropping us in front of a tightly knit group and having the whales pass by.


Each time we saw interesting behaviour. They were definitely aware of our presence almost as soon as we got in the water (they would have picked us up using their sonar) and most would dive to about 5 meters below.

The calves would stay very close to their mothers and I also observed on a number of occasions three Pilot whales swimming three abreast tightly alongside each other.

Many of them were curious and as they approached us would swim upside down exposing the white vertical flash that runs from their chin to tail on the under belly, all the while closely looking at us. Others would turn on their sides slightly and we could clearly see the white outer-rims of their eyes as they reticulated their eye balls to try observe us better. I think this was the highlight for me… being able to clearly see how interested they were in looking at us, and seeing the intelligence behind those questioning eyes.


I also didn’t realise how wide their tails were, I guess this is what allows them to cover great distances at a fair pace and at the same time conserve energy.



On the surface we also noted different behaviour. At regular intervals they appeared to be feeding on the surface. We couldn’t tell exactly what their prey was but it would have been fish or squid based. The abrupt turns on the surface and immediate water displacement would be followed by the White Chin petrels and Sooty shearwaters touching down for the left over snacks.

They definitely seemed far more comfortable with the boat compared to the divers in the water and many times as the boat waited for the divers the pilot whales would approach and almost mill around on the surface right next to the boat. This gave a great opportunity to scrutinise the bizarre concave like dorsal fins of the big bulls, and of course enjoy the slow exhale of breath as they swam past.




The calves were also very interesting… many times they would kind of lift their chests out of the water and give a little jiggle, almost like they were trying to tell us “Here I am, and what are you going to do about it?!”

They certainly had loads of character!


Once we were all dived out there was one more highlight in store for us. We decided to listen to their sounds on our hydrophone. What we would hear was so unexpected and enthralling and we spent a good while glued to the speaker. The hydrophone amplifies the clicks and squeaks so we were able to listen more closely than being underwater with them. It was continuous rumblings down there between pod members and the sounds we heard where full of punctuated and excited chattering’s. It was extremely endearing to think of the whole pod constantly communicating with one another, just like we do in our daily lives and interactions with one another. One can only imagine what they were discussing and I loved that the social interactions were so intense.

Wow, what a mind blowing interaction with some incredible animals.



For now we are back to watching the weather and can’t wait to get back out there and have the opportunity of another special and memorable nature adventure.


To read about another cetacean encounter off Cape Point click here.


Cape Point - Cape Town, Marine Life, Whales


Cherry Clark

An out of this world experience, Monique, and a real privilege just to read about it. Funny that you talk about their whale-speak, as I heard a fascinating talk on NPR the other day by an expert on whale behavior (did not catch his name, unfortunately). We heard a great tape of the sounds you wrote about, and this guy believes that some of their vocalizations can be picked up by whales as much as a thousand miles away. Mind blowing!

Posted on: 18 April 2015

Monique Fallows

Thanks Cherry, the constant and seemingly eloquent communication was fascinating and definitely one of the highlights of this incredible experience. While we were drifting waiting for sharks (and before we came across the pilot whales) we heard a single dolphin or whale talking via the hydrophone. We could not see the animal even though we had at least 2 miles visibility. It was wonderful to sit there and imagine which species it could have been was and to know that there was life around us in the huge open ocean..

Posted on: 20 April 2015


Wish I was there too. An incredible experience.

Posted on: 20 April 2015

Grant Atkinson

Most informative and enjoyable post, Monique. Thanks for sharing the experience, and the wonderful images too. Cheers Grant

Posted on: 20 April 2015


Fabulous blog! Felt I was there all over again - wonderful & unforgettable experience!!

Posted on: 20 April 2015

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