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.
Original story posted on www.knysnaplettherald.com
The ocean off our Garden Route coastline boasts prolific marine species of many shapes and forms throughout the year, but during winter and into early summer, our waters literally heave with life - of the leviathan kind. Every year during this time thousands of whales meander past our shores on their migration north. The sheer numbers that pass by here has made Knysna one South Africa’s premier whale watching destinations, luring many to marvel their magnificence.
There are two migratory species which frequent these waters, namely the southern right (Eubalaena australis) and the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae). The humpback is a baleen whale and one of the larger of the rorqual species. It has a very distinctive body shape, with a knobbly head and a dorsal fin. They sport extremely long pectoral fins with white undersides, which is why they are often referred to as “the angels of the sea”. They are a very popular whale to ‘watch’ as they are the most active and mesmerising above the surface.
The southern right whale is a true baleen whale. It is easily recognised by the callosities on its head, a broad back without a dorsal fin, and a long arching mouth that begins above the eye. The right whale’s callosities appear white due to large colonies of whale lice. They favour the various protected bays along our coastline for mating, giving birth and nursing.
When these whales arrive in Knysna they have already undertaken an epic journey from their feeding grounds off Antarctica. They come here to mate and also to calve in our warmer waters so one can just imagine all the activity going on beneath those salty blue depths. Very often these passing whales treat observers with antics above the surface such as lobtailing, spyhopping, and the most show stopping behaviour of all that gets everyone rather excited - breaching!
There are several, ideal land- based vantage points from which to view and enjoy the various whale doing what they do!
• Take a drive up to the Knysna Heads - with its height and sweeping views of the ocean, this is a perfect place to spot whales.
• Brenton on Sea, this quaint little seaside town has all-encompassing views of the ocean and is popular land based whale watching spot.
• Buffalo Bay – often southern right mothers spend time within this sheltered bay, nursing their calves and getting them fit and strong enough for the open ocean.
• The Goukamma Beach – often whales can be seen very close to shore, as they hug the coastline with their calves. There is also a whale viewing platform at the Platbank parking lot.
• Swartvlei Beach – take a walk during low tide to the famous Sedgefield landmark called Gericke’s Point. Climb to the top and enjoy incredible sea vistas and passing whales!
Of course, if you have the chance and would like to experience a once in a lifetime Close Encounter Whale Watching Encounter, book a 2 hr trip with Ocean Odyssey, Knysna’s only permitted whale watching operator. Their permit allows them to approach whales to within 50m.
For more info visit their website: www.oceanodyssey.co.za
The winter season is very special along our extensive Garden Route coastline, during which time we become privileged spectators to the annual migration of two of the world' most extraordinary species of baleen whales; the southern right (Eubalaena australis) and the humpback (Megaptera novaeangliae). These intrepid travellers cover vast distances. In fact, it is one of the longest migratory journeys of any mammal on earth, averaging about 5000km in total. That is one seriously epic swim!
We do boast one resident whale in our waters - the beautiful Bryde’s whale (Balaenoptera brydei) - but it is highly elusive, displaying erratic behaviour and tending not to surface very often. Our visiting cetaceans on the other hand, really know how to put on a show, often mesmerising us with their above-the-surface acrobatic displays.
You may be wondering why it is that they venture to our Southern African waters? These whales leave their plankton-rich Antarctic feeding grounds to both mate and calve. The icy waters there are not conducive to giving birth, as newborn calves are born without a protective blubber layer under their skin and would quickly freeze to death if born in this environment. So, essentially, whales meet their need for both food and suitable calving areas by travelling long distances from cold feeding areas, to warm, shallower waters conducive for calving and mating.
So every year these whales embark on this marathon journey, skirting the length of the Southern African coastline. If you exit the Knysna Heads during winter and head out to sea, you will literally find yourself in the midst of a whale highway. Thousands of whales from both species travel past our coastline and during this time, complex mating courtships take place, and the ocean welcomes an abundance of new whale life.
This incredible seasonal spectacle brings many visitors to our region each year, specifically all those drawn to this ocean realm and the leviathans which it holds within its deep depths. Knysna is one of the best places in South Africa to view whales. Ocean Odyssey, situated on Thesen Island, holds the only permit for Close Encounter Whale Watching in the Greater Knysna area, and this allows them to approach whales for up to 50 metres.
There are few things in life as poetic and life changing as watching these sentient giants in their natural habitat and to be witness to the awesome grandeur they impart.
We are passionate about showcasing Knysna’s natural assets. The breath-taking Garden Route setting provides us with the ideal platform from which to introduce visitors to our rich aquatic heritage, our iconic estuary and adjacent coastline.