It began with a yelp of delight from my 13-year-old daughter. “Look, dad, there’s one!” Caitlin yelled. I peered out to sea, saw nothing, grew despondent, until, once more, up it rose, a monster, leaping into the air and crashing down again with the splash reverberating on shore and I started bouncing, shouting and gesticulating.
In retrospect, this particular display ranked no more than three out ten — a few leaps, a tale wag and that was it – but I was transfixed. I wanted more.
I have to admit, I’d been a dubious when my wife suggested a whale-watching holiday — too much exposure to those dippy whale song CDs, perhaps. Still, as always, I gave in, so off we went, 11 hours from London to Cape Town and two more to drive to the village of Hermanus about 100 miles east.
Tired and jaded, we arrived late on a warm October afternoon, and gazed at a still sea. Then, from around the corner, a classical chant resonated, and I muttered that this must be our first whale song wacko, overdosing on the euphoria of the previous week’s annual Whale Festival – only to discover our singer was a 12-year-old from what is still called ‘the black township’ and he was singing in Italian (his granny had given him a Pavarotti cassette): my first lesson about the world’s ‘whale capital’: even its buskers have style.
Pavarotti was interrupted by three blasts from the horn of the town’s official whale crier, who informed us the whales could be found further down the coast so off we bundled back into the car and headed east for that maiden leap and tail wag.
Southern Rights travel in growing numbers between the Antarctic and southern Africa each year doing their eating (krill) in the cold waters, returning to the warm Cape waters to have their calves, and breed again. Their favourite spot on the African leg is the eastern seaboard of the Western Cape (over 200 come each year). High season is August to November. Other whales — humpbacks and Orcas – make occasional appearances but mainly it’s the Southern Right, which grows to 50 feet and is distinguished by the barnacles and white scab-like features on its neck, its round nose and the absence of a dorsal fin.
Our daily routine started with the whale crier to get the latest on where these beasts were heading. Some of these spots are rocky outcrops that allowed viewing from 15 meters away and we soon became accustomed with their range of tricks: breaching (leaping out of the water and diving back in), sky hopping (head-up), lob tailing and sailing (tale up variations). No-one seems sure why they leap around like this — for a laugh, to test the wind or cool down, perhaps.
When we’d had our fill of passive oohing and aahing, I suggested a cliff top walk and we set off, soon to be confronted by our first day of bad weather, so we were the only ones to brave the two-mile stretch between the Old Harbour and the New Harbour. Or so we assumed until a head popped out of a bush and we were met by a rough “hello” as a shaggy man blocked our path. “From England, hey!” I nodded nervously and he continued: “Me too. Barry Barnard, born in Clapham but had to leave 30 years ago. Murdered my brother — on my birthday. Caught him sleeping with my wife. Stabbed them both to death. It’s my birthday today. Beautiful with the sea and whales, hey.” He fished in his pocket and I wondered whether he was looking for another knife, but instead he produced an identity document, proving he is indeed Barry Barnard and it was his birthday. We said our nervy goodbyes but it took a while to focus on anything else.
A trio of scurrying dassies, a pack of babooons and a pair of mating meerkats passed without comment but eventually the charm of the whales worked its way back. The wind stilled and the beasts came closer, so that we could see the barnacles and hear their moans and splashes. Even our blase older daughter Tessa, 17, managed enthusiasm and I found myself joining in. “Ah, there’s Simone again,” I said. To which Tessa responded: “Don’t be daft. You can see from the markings. It’s definitely Wayne” – the sort of madness that comes from a week of watching these creatures.
Hermanus was once a fishing village but the whales have changed that. It has quadrupled in size over the past decade and taken on a Mediterranean feel. Of course it is still a South African town and if you divert your gaze you notice the clientele at the restaurants and boutiques are foreigners or well-to-do local whites, while the buskers and council workers are black. But the picture of prosperity is not all illusion. The tourist dividend — raked in through high council rates and vigilant parking attendants — helps pay for security guards who keep crime rates low and for the army of bushwhackers who attack alien vegetation. The whales also do their bit in creating thousands of private jobs from curio sellers to shop assistants. So you get the feeling that just by being there you’re doing your bit.
Our second leg took us to another hundred miles down the east coast to a nature reserve called De Hoop, where you can spot the whales from the vantage point of a beachside cabin, and again, the giant beasts were there to meet us, doing their range of tricks — heads-up, tales-up and those huge leaps whose splash can be heard from hundreds of meters away. The rest of the wildlife there did their best to keep up — on one morning run I was overtaken by an ostrich, crossed paths with a herd of zebra, kept my distance from a pair of giant Eland and got road-blocked by a large troop of baboons.
Finally we headed back in the direction of Cape Town, to Boulders — a still-water hamlet outside Simonstown – part of False Bay on the warm seaside of the Cape Peninsula. Its prime attraction is its colony of African (Jackass) penguins, who waddle around, occasionally leaving deposits of green poo as they progress. Boulders has a series of beaches, with no waves, making it the perfect spot for snorkling – to watch the diving penguins catching small fish.
The locals also boasted their whales could out-do those of Hermanus any day but there was scant evidence of this and anyway, I thought I’d done my share of whale watching for one holiday. At least that was until our final morning, when I spotted three huge whales coming close to shore, prompting a despite-myself dash to a huge boulder outcrop, where the mating group (one female and two males) rolled around, making a lot of squeaky noise and splashing me — about seven meters away. And there was no mistaking what they’re about — the Southern Right, said to be the best-endowed of all the mammals — has a 12-foot penis.
It is only close-up that you get a full sense of just how enormous these strange creatures are, and I wanted to get even closer. Eventually, ignoring warnings that a single flip from a tail or fin can break a man in half, I dived in and swam around them, only to be scared back to the rock by a solitary blue bottle jellyfish. And there I remained for three hours, just watching the group as they moaned and squeaked and rolled around, with me laughing aloud with the kind of ecstasy that comes from seeing something momentous, strange and wonderful. Eventually my wife nudged me – cases to be packed, planes to be caught — but it was with great reluctance that I said goodbye, drained of snide remarks and full of throat-choking admiration.
Editors note: The Hermanus whale watching festival was mentioned in the events section of the first edition of the Indie Travel Podcast free travel magazine.