Earth is the third planet from the sun in our solar system and it orbits the sun in an elliptical path at an average distance of 150 million kilometers. Earth is referred to as the Blue Planet as it appears as a blue sphere when viewed from outer space due to the abundant water on its surface. In this vast expanse of blue, Hermanus in the southern tip of South Africa is one of the best locations to spot the Southern Right Whale (SRW). Hermanus is about 90 minutes drive from Cape Town. The coast at Hermanus offers one of the best whale viewing sites from land, while Gansbaai close to Hermanus towards the east, is famous for the world’s largest known predatory fish, the Great White Shark (GWS).
The SRW migrates from Antarctica to calve in the sheltered bays around Hermanus from July to November. It is estimated that about 4,500 Southern Right Whales live in the southern hemisphere, of which 270 of these have been found on the ocean between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. There used to be ten times more! But whale hunting has dramatically reduced the numbers.
We arrived in Cape Town on the 18th September 2010 from Botswana, with the main objective of seeing the SRW and the GWS. On arrival, we rented a car to get around during our four nights stay at the Pepper Club in downtown Cape Town. The following morning we drove to Hermanus. The scenery is great en route and it is a very pleasant drive. The Hermanus town center was crowded with tourists and most of them were on the edge of the cliff overlooking the ocean, scanning the water with their binoculars to see the SRW. Whales can often be sighted as close as 50 meters from the shore. The SRW moves to the surface to breathe through its two blowholes, which are located on the top of its head. Although we were there for almost three hours, the sightings were not good for photography. Hence, we decided to take a three hour guided whale watching tour by boat the following day.
By noon on the 20th September we arrived at Hermanas for the whale watching tour. Before boarding the boat the tour guide gave us a brief description of the Whale. Whales are mammals unlike most other species that live in water. The SRW is 11 to 18 meters long and an adult can weigh between 25 and 65 tons. It swims at an average speed of 5 kmph. Instead of teeth they have baleen plates, which hang like vertical Venetian blinds from the upper jaw. There are 160 to 360 on each side. The baleen plates are like finger nails. According to our tour guide, SRW can consume up to 400 kgs of food a day. The Right Whales eat krill and plankton. The reason why they eat such small types of food is due to the fact that because of their baleen plates and their rather small throats, they can’t even swallow an apple! It took almost one hour to sight a Whale. The sea was rough which made it difficult to take good pictures. Although we spotted a number of Whales and fairly close range, the images were not good enough to upload to my website. On our way back to shore, we saw a large number of dolphins moving towards us demonstrating their typical jump out of water as they swam. There must have been at least 30 of them, but they were quick and I was not able to get any good shots of them. On our drive back to Cape Town, we were able get some nice images of the sunset.
We made reservations for myself and Ishanga for a Great White Shark Tour, for the 21st September, starting at 8 am from Gansbaai. We were on our way by 5.30 am and stopped at Hermanus to check on the Whales. It was around 6.30 am and much to our delight there were some Whales close to shore and with the lighting of the early sun on the Whale, I was able to take some good shots especially when it surfaced to breath. Although, we would have loved to stay there for longer, watching this magnificent animal, we had to leave by 7.30 am to be at the office of the “Great White Shark Tours” in Gansbaai on time. By 8 am we were at their office, overlooking the pier. The tour guide briefed us about the tour as well the habits of the GWS. They are carnivorous creatures that hunt during the day, staying in the cool temperate waters of the oceans. Sharks are capable of detecting scent in concentrations as low as one part per million and this fact is used to attract Sharks towards boats where divers would go in to the water protected by a cage for a close encounter with the animal. The Shark is also a scavenger in the marine world, which helps to balance the marine ecosystem, as scavengers like the Vultures and Jackals do on land.
There were at least 15 tourists for the boat trip and by 9 am we were on the top deck of the speedboat as it motored towards the area where Sharks are seen. The tour guide said that we were fortunate the sea was not rough that day. The boat carried on one side, a rectangular cage made of galvanized steel with a safety covering. A few people can get into the cage in diving gear for a close up with the Sharks under water, an experience of a lifetime. After, a thirty minute ride, the boat was anchored and the cage was lowered in to the water. We noticed two other boats in the same locality that was on a similar excursion.
To attract the Sharks, a bucket containing fish with blood was dropped in to water. Sharks at least a mile away can pick up this scent. As a Shark approaches, a bait attached to a rope length of about 15 meters is thrown on to the water together with a decoy in the shape of a fish made from black color foam, a few meters away from the bait to prevent it from sinking. As the Sharks approach the line with the bait, attracted by the scent, the rope is pulled abruptly which stimulates the shark to surface. Some of the tourists who were on the boat tour with us, got in to the cage with their snorkeling equipment. Ishanga and I remained on the top deck of the boat as we were keener on photography and watching the drama of the people in the cage as the shark swam towards them.
Within a few minutes, we sighted the dorsal fin of a shark, moving towards us. When the shark got close, the rope was jerked up and the shark surfaced. It was an amazing sight! It was a great experience to watch and photograph the Shark moving towards the boat, and then come out of the water to catch the decoy, thinking it’s a fish.
We had visits from more than ten sharks during our two hour stay there. Later we cruised for about 30 minutes to get to Seal Island, where hundreds of Seals could be seen around. These Seals are known as Cape Fur Seals for their thick pelt and their beautiful olive-grey coat. Their main predator is the Great White Shark. By noon we were back at the pier and on our way back we stopped at Hermanas for further sighting of Whales. Before sunset we were back in Cape Town.
Following morning, we took a flight to Colombo via Dubai from Cape Town to concluding our three weeks long African Safari 2010.