Meet the Whales of South Africa

South Africa is one of the world’s best destinations for watching whales and other marine wildlife either  from land or boats. The whale-watching territory runs from Doringbaai at the Cape West Coast, around the Cape Peninsula and up the East Coast as far as St Lucia. Hermanus in Walker Bay boasts the reputation of the best land-based whale-watching spot worldwide, with animals clearly visible from cliff-top walk and the Whale Crier informing residents and visitors of whale sightings.

Blue Whale – The Largest Animal on Earth

Did you know that, being able to grow more than 30m long and over 130,000 kg in weight, blue whale is the largest animal to have lived on our magnificent planet? This powerful blue-grey giant has a heart as big as a car, blood vessels wide enough to swim through and a tongue which weighs as much as an elephant. Even its babies are enormous; an 8m long and 4,000 kg heavy whale calve is an impressive miniature feeding on its mum’s fatty milk.

Though one can imagine them swallowing houses, adult whales eat tiny shrimp-like crustaceans – as many as 40 million every single day, and this healthy diet allows them to live as long as 80 to 90 years.  The species was nearly exterminated during the 20th century due to commercial whaling, and though it has since recovered, blue whale remains endangered.

Humpback Whale – A Singing Showman

Humpback whales seem to have been born for the stage – you’ll see them use their huge tail fins to leap from the water and then land back with a terrific splash. Male whales produce varied sounds, singing long, complex songs to attract females and communicate to each other. Mums swim close to their young and the two frequently touch each other with flippers to show affection.

Like its massive cousin, humpback whale feeds on shrimp-like krill and will happily snack on small fish and plankton. You’ll find them near the poles during the summer and closer to Equator in winters. Humpback whales can be seen migrating along South African coast between May and November as they travel towards feeding grounds off Angola and Mozambique.

Bryde’s Whale – Shy and Unpredictable

Bryde’s whales may not be the biggest ones around but they’ll still grow 14m long and 20 tons in weight. Their sleek, elongated bodies carry an upright dorsal fin up to 46 cm in height, and like with other rorquals, their mouths hide two rows of baleen plates instead of teeth. For reasons unknown, Bryde’s whales surface irregularly and unexpectedly change direction. Experts have identified two distinct populations off the Eastern and Western Cape – one which remains mostly offshore and migrates seasonally, and the other which consistently hangs out in shallower waters.

Being an elusive animal, Bryde’s whale is not easy to observe; it keeps its distance to boats and a good sighting is usually possible only when it’s feeding. From late summer until winter you may see flocks closer to the shore as they follow the sardine run – seasonal fish movement along the Eastern Cape coastline to the South Coast of KwaZulu Natal.

Minke Whale – An Underwater Houdini

Only up to 10 meters long, Minke whale is the smallest of all baleen whales, distinguishable also by a white band visible on each of its flippers. This is a solitary animal which often swims alone though it may be seen accompanied by one or two of its buddies. Minke whales frequently enter bays and estuaries and tend to exhibit unpredictable underwater movements, pulling a vanishing act worthy of the most skilled magicians.

Killer whale is its number one enemy which, apparently, has a particular liking for Minke tongues and lower jaws. When they see the predator approaching, Minke whales will try to escape rather than engage in a fight. They’ve been seen trying to hide below a ship's hull but still didn’t manage to win in these fatal hide-and-seek games. 

Sperm Whale – The Elusive Moby Dick

Sperm Whale is the hero of Moby Dick, a popular 1851 novel which describes Ahab’s obsessive quest of the whale which has bit off his leg on the captain's previous voyage. Sperm whale has a distinct shape with a large square head accounting for nearly one third of its total body length. It’s brain, five times as heavy as that of a human, is the largest brain on Earth.

Long and narrow lower jaw stores up to 25 large conical teeth used for feasting on giant squid, fish and octopuses. The species is named after Spermaceti (sperm oil), a substance targeted by the whaling industry for use in oil lamps, candles and lubricants. Sperm whales are famous free-divers capable of visiting depths of over 3,000 meters and remaining underwater for more than two hours before surfacing. Members of the species produce clicking sounds which seem to be specific to particular clans.

Orca – A Fearsome Predator

Orca or Killer whale is no chooser – it will hunt for fish as eagerly as for penguins, sea lions, squid, sharks and other kinds of whales. A seal lying on ice will be knocked off into the sea and become an instant meal. After all, there’s more than 200 kg of food to be found every single day, because that’s how much an average-sized Orca can eat.

These animals hunt in groups (pods), same as wolves, which is why they’re also referred to as “wolves of the sea”. Sometimes a pod will go after a large animal like blue whale and, consistently chasing and biting it, wear the beast down until it’s weak enough to be devoured. Orcas use teeth shaped for tearing pray to rip bigger victims into chunks but small seals and sea lions will be swallowed whole, without chewing. Colour pattern of their bodies – black backs and white stomachs – provides a perfect camouflage which makes whales hard to spot before it’s too late.

Southern Right Whale – A Social Giant

Southern Right Whales have large rotund bodies and are easily recognised by their V-shaped spouts. They are social animals willing to interact with humans, humpback whales and dolphins. Tail sailing is a unique behaviour consisting of catching the wind with their elevated flukes which enables these whales to remain in the same position for a longer period of time.

Southern Right Whales are most commonly sighted when calving in the Mossel Bay. They migrate from Antarctica to sheltered South African bays, and during the months of July to November one can see them in Walker Bay breaching, lobtailing and courting potential mates as close as 50 meters from the shore. You’ll also be able to observe their playful behaviour from the shore in False Bay as well as from land or a boat in both Plettenberg Bay and Algoa Bay.