Whale Watching & Dolphins
The warm Indian Ocean caresses the beaches of the South Coast, creating a familiar paradise for swimmers, surfers, and rock anglers. But just beyond the waves lies a whole new world of adventure for nature-loving visitors. A growing interest in eco-tourism world-wide has prompted local entrepreneurs to set up dolphin and whale watching trips up and down the coastal waters, launching from Shelly Beach and Umkomaas.
Humpbacked and Southern Right Wales can frequently be seen off the coast from July to November as they move north on their way to the breeding grounds off the Mozambique coast, and the return, heading for the nutrient-rich waters of Antartica. The thrill of seeing these magnificent creatures close up in their natural habitat is something special. Whales can also be seen from the shore – just keep an eye out for the telltale water spouts which indicate a pod of whales on the move.
Bottlenose Dolphins are common residents off the South Coast, with pods of 30-50 dolphins patrolling up and down just beyond the breakers. They can be seen clearly from the beach on most days, sometimes surfing the waves and jumping clear from the water.
WHALE AND DOLPHIN LANGUAGE
Humpback whales sing and their songs are varied enough for individuals to be recognized. Whale sounds travel for hundreds of kilometers beneath the sea and are like long distance cells to each other. Dolphins emit a number of clicks and squeaks, which serve as communication. The scientists are investigating the level of communication of these animals to see if it amounts up to a language.
Throughout the year we have about 900 bottlenose dolphins resident along the KwaZulu Natal coast. With the onset of the winter months and the annual sardine run, we have about 3000 bottlenose dolphins extending their migratory range into southern KwaZulu Natal, this making the lower South Coast the Mecca for viewing dolphins with some pods exceeding 1000 animals at one given time passing close in shore. Your may also be fortunate enough to view the common dolphins that come inshore to feed on the sardines. These animals are viewed early in the mornings as they prefer the deeper waters, their numbers maybe In excess of 15000 – 30000.
The sighting of whales is becoming more and more frequent with the Humpback whale population having increased to in excess of 2500 and growing at a rate of 10% per annum. One of the fastest growing marine populations in the world after being reduced by whaling to less than 7% of their original population.
The Humpback whale is commonly seen bypassing us, heading to southern Mozambique to mate (gestation period one year) and calf (the next year).
WHALE WATCHING SEASON
The season starts towards the end of May, peaking in late June with mammals still heading north to Mozambique in July/August. These months the weather is good with frequent sightings of whales breaching, spy hopping and tail slapping. August/September/October are the months that the whales are most commonly found heading back south to the Antarctic, especially mother and calf pairs. They are a lot slower moving because the mother is nursing the calf on about 250L of milk per day.
The best time of the day for viewing whales is early in the morning when there is normally less wind but the whales become more active later on during the day when the wind starts to pick up. This makes for more spectacular viewing as the whales became boisterous, frequently leaping out of the water. Humpback whales are easily identified by their blow, which rises about 3 meters above water level, and is pear shaped. Southern Right Whales have a V shaped blow which rises about 1 meter above water level.
WHALE WATCHING TIPS
Only commercially licensed boat based whale watching enterprises are allowed to approach within 300 meters of whales and advertise whale-watching tours. When going on a whale watching tour you need to take a good camera or video camera, hat and a good sun block. Clear wind free conditions are best for passengers but the whales seem to perform better in windy conditions. Watch out for the whales spout or breaching, this is the first sign of their presence. Whales are sensitive to disturbances so try not to make any noise. Make sure the skipper has the required permit (for your safety and welfare of the animals).
WHAT TO WATCH FOR IN A WHALE’S WORLD
Although whales spend their entire lives in the water, they are not fish.
They are mammals – warm blooded air-breathers that feed milk to their young.
Look for the “Blow”
Whales must come to the surface regularly to breathe, and it is because off this need to breath that we can follow them during their migration. Whales breathe through their nostrils, which are located on top of their heads. Their nostrils ore called blowholes. To breathe, a whale just comes near the surface, thrusts the blowhole clear off the water, exhales, then takes a breath. When the whale exhales, a mist or spray may been seen. This spray is called a spout or blow. Look along the horizon for a white spray a few meters above the surface.
A flip of the flukes means a deep dive
Normally a whale makes three to five shallow dives before making a deep dive. Deep dives last about 10-20 minutes. A Humpback whale making a deep dive will show you its tail flukes. Lifting the tail flukes out of the water helps the whale dive deep.
After a whale takes a breath, it usually makes a shallow dive, swimming just under the surface of the water for about one minute or more. You probably wont be able to see the whale under water, but you will be able to tell where the whale is. Each time the whale moves its tail, it creates a “footprint” on the surface of the water. This footprint looks like an oil slick. You can follow a whale that is swimming just under the surface by following its “footprints”.
Watch for whales watching you
Whales don’t spend all their time swimming and breathing. While you are watching the whales, a whale may stop to watch you. Whales probably have fairly good eyesight. Sometimes they poke their heads out of the water exposing their eyes. This is called “spyhopping”.
Whales take great leaps
The head is not the only part of a whale that you may see out of the water. The whales can also bring their entire bodies out of the water. This incredible leap is called a breach. When the whale lands back in the water it creates a huge splash. No one knows for sure why whales breach. Humpback whales are amongst the most energetic of the large whales and are well known for there breaching, lobtailing and flipper slapping behavior.