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Our annual visitors have arrived - #WhaleTales

Thursday, 25 May 2017 13:56 Written by  Knysna Plett Herald
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Southern right whales have come into Knysna waters, the earliest in five years for this time of the year.

Ocean Odyssey's Evelyn Pepler said she was very excited to report, on May 19, that 12 of these giant mammals had been sighted in local waters in the last week.

"Ocean odyssey whale and dolphin-watching charters are indeed excited that we have kicked off our 2017 whale season with an unbelievable 12 southern right whales. This is very exciting, especially because we don’t usually see this many southern right whales all at once this early in the season.

"The Knysna coastline is always teaming with marine life and we start seeing our first migrating whales around April and May every year. The humpback whales are the whales that we spot most regularly throughout the migration season. And yes, of course we do see southern right whales and are always thrilled to have them in our bay. When they are here they usually spend more time in a location, unlike the humpback whales."

Humpbacks most commonly seen
Pepler said anything from one or two to around 20 humpback whales are seen from June to November, and are constantly moving as they make their way to the tropics where they will have their calves, feed and mate.

"The southern right whales which have been spotted this last week will be here for only a few days and then move west and come back in July," she said. "From our photos we can see that there is at least one very pregnant female."

Special spy hop sighting
"The vessel was out with the whales on May 17 and, using the correct approach when approaching any marine life on our waters, we hung back and were able to watch in awe as one individual approached the vessel and proceeded to swim under our vessel and 'spy hop' right next to the boat. This was indeed an amazing experience and one that does not happen every day," said Pepler.

She explained that spy hopping is when a whale surfaces vertically with its head poking out of the water. Other behaviours were also observed this week, such as breaching, when a whale thrusts its entire body out of the water and pivots, falling onto its side and back and creating an enormous splash.

Lobtailing and tail slapping is when a whale lifts its tail and slaps it down hard, creating a shower or splash, and these whales gave a show of all their special tricks, said Pepler.

Sailing is an expression to describe when a whale lifts its tail clear of the water and just holds it there for a long time, almost like it is doing a handstand underwater.

Easy to identify
"The southern right whales are easy to spot and have the following distinct features: they have no dorsal fin (unlike the humpback whale) and they have a distinct head (rostrum). They also have a distinct patch and pattern of callosities (whitish patch) on its head known as the bonnet, which is usually the first thing you see when a southern right whale surfaces. These patches are shaped differently on every whale and is the way researches are able to identify individuals.

Another distinct feature is the blow of a southern right whale, which has a V-shaped blow, or even a heart-shaped blow if you watch from a distance, unlike the humpback which has a blow that is a taller plume or puff, or only slightly V-shaped or slanted.

The southern right whale is very different from a humpback in body as it has a black, broader paddle-shaped flipper, shorter than the humpback’s very long flipper, which is dark on the upper side and has white splotchy markings on the underside.

The humpback also has irregular notches along the leading edge and each humpback’s markings make it possible to differentiate individuals from these markings and notches on its tail (fluke). When they breach they spread their flippers, which are one third of the body length and it looks like they're trying to take off. Absolutely magnificent!" said Pepler.

The southern right whale tail flukes are black on both sides and much more perfect. They have a distinct notch in the middle and reach around 4.5m across, whereas the humpbacks flukes are much more marked on the underside, with many notches and serrated edges.

Pepler said it is important to point out that all private vessels and commercial operators who are not in possession of a valid whale watching permit may not approach whales closer than 300m. Permitted vessels may approach to a distance of 150m and 100m and, depending on the whale's behaviour, up to 50m. No vessel may approach a cow-calf pair, but should the whale approach, the permitted vessel is able to maintain its location."

Only permitted whale watching in Knysna
She stresses that people must know and understand that their company has the only whale watching permit in Knysna.

There are 17 permitted whale watching operators in South Africa.

There are two permits for Plettenberg Bay (Ocean Safaris and Ocean Blue Adventures), one for Mossel Bay (Romanza) and one for Cape St Francis (St Francis Safaris).

Visitors and the public are encouraged to partake in a whale watching experience and to be sure that the operator is a valid permit holder.

"Our whales are easily spotted from the viewpoint at the Knysna Heads as well as the viewpoint near Villa Castollini above Brenton-on-Sea," said Pepler, who advised that when booking a trip, binoculars are recommended.

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