Whales are amazingly sensible animals, so the rules imposed on the companies that take people out for whalewatching are very strict. The one boat in the Knysna lagoon that holds the official permit belongs to Ocean Odyssey, and I joined them on a tour to see the gentle giants up close.
We were lucky with the whales, they came to the boat and we saw one jumping a few times, but what I liked the best is the enthusiasm of the skipper. It makes a huge difference if your guide enjoys what they are doing. There wasn’t this “I’ve done this a hundred times” feeling that tourist guides sometimes have, it was rather a “I’ve done this a hundred times and I freaking love it every day” kind of feeling. He told us about how wonderful it is to be close to these creatures every day and that he loves it, he fell in love with the whales. Seeing a huge whale jump out of the water was amazing, but it is this phrase that made me enjoy the experience the most – “I fell in love with the whales.”
I’ve been reading around a little in an old book about the maritime history of Knysna, and although passing through the Heads is always a beautiful view, it is much cooler if you know the history of the place. When the South African coast was being explored by Portuguese (and later British) colonialists, the Knysna area was shielded by mountains and impenetrable vegetation, so the only way to access it was through the Heads. This was deemed impossible for many years, as it required skill or luck to not let the wind or tides push the boat against the rocks. When the lagoon finally started being used as a harbour the other towns along the coast already had a long history of seafare. The Heads saw many shipwrecks. When I pass through that small gap between the cliffs, I imagine being a sailor back in the day when large vessels sailed around the Cape to bring exotic goods back to Europe. It must have been scary, waiting on the ocean for the wind to be favourable, not knowing if the ship will sink or pass safely. So we went through the heads in our little motorboat as I sat there thinking of the old huge vessels that had nothing but the wind to power their movement.
The skipper had placed a spotter up on the Heads to contact him via walkie-talkie at the sight of a whale, so we didn’t search for long. We found a mother humpback with her calf swimming close by the shore. As we were approaching the whale mother leapt out of the water but I was looking in another direction at that moment, I just heard the people’s shrieks of delight. The whales were not fearful of us and came close to the boat, passing right under it a few times (we couldn’t see them in the water, but the skipper had a radio device that signalled the whale’s location).
We then slowly went along with the whales as they swam, diving for a few minutes and then coming up for air, making the typical puffs of water as they came to the surface. We could not come up close to the whales, the law dictates that boats must maintain a certain distance, and if the whale is interested it can come close. This is because more often than not people would harass the whales, driving right over them and scaring them. Whales are so sensible that after having a bad encounter with people some never come close to a boat again and avoid the area where it happened for the rest of their lives.
They migrate between the cold southern waters where they feed and the warm tropical waters where the calves are born; at this time of year they are returning to the south so there are many mother-calf pairs. I didn’t know that whales only feed during one certain period of the year when they are in the plankton-rich cold waters, and when they migrate they eat nothing at all and live off their fat reserves. The guide had a piece of the comb-like whale teeth on board, which he showed us as he explained how the whales feed. Apart from all the interesting facts about the whale’s life and behaviour, the skipper also had a device through which we could hear the whalesong under the water. We sat in silence listening to whale’s sinister voice with only the sound of the waves against the boat as this huge mysterious creature moved in the depths somewhere below us. I personally find whales scary and fascinating, which always draws me towards them because they are among the animals that I just can’t figure out.
We drifted along for quite a while, chatting about the whales and always looking out to spot them breeching. The mother jumped once more and this time I saw it too, the huge dark shape rising out from the waves and crashing down, sending white water shooting out in all directions. On our way back the skipper showed us some caves under the cliffs, telling us he always used to come here as a kid. It’s nice to see that sometimes people grow up in tune with their environment.