The little town of Hermanus has been lauded as the best spot in the world from which to do land-based whale watching. So it was with great excitement that I set my suitcase down in my room in the Windsor Hotel, looked out of my window and spotted the tell-tale blast of air right in the bay outside the hotel! I ran downstairs, sprinted across the road and found myself a good spot on the rocks from which to gawk at this amazing sight. There were two southern right whales, leisurely swimming with the tide, blowing air out every now and then, only a few metres away from me! I followed them on the rocks along the coast, from Windsor Bay to Walker Bay, where another whale was frolicking in the water further out. For this one I had to use my binoculars, but I could clearly see the third whale lobtailing and waving one of its fins as if to welcome me to its shores.
Although we hadn’t planned to go on a boat trip, I was so excited by these glimpses of the gentle behemoths, that I thought it would be a waste of a once-in-a-lifetime experience not to get a closer look. Gareth needed little convincing and we rushed to New Harbour to catch the last boat going out at 15:00. The trip was expensive (R550 per person), especially if you, like me, spent most of the time staring intently at the horizon in an effort to avoid staring intently at the bottom of a brown paper bag. But it was worth it! We came across two whales, one black and one albino (I never knew there could be albino whales?), who swam right up against the boat, their mouths open the whole time as if feeding. Our skipper was baffled – he said in his 15 years on the water he had never seen such a sight, and that the whales were not known to feed in South African waters. A truly unique experience!
Southern right whales are non-aggressive and slow-moving. Pared with the fact that they’re rich in oil and float when killed, they were considered the ‘right’ whales to hunt. The species was decimated, it’s estimated population off the South African coast dwindling from 25000 to only 50 in 1935. Thankfully, they have received international protection since then, allowing their numbers to double every ten years. There is now an estimated world population of 5000 southern right whales, with approximately 2200 of them visiting South African waters.
Whale season starts at the end of June, when they arrive from the feeding grounds in the Antarctic. August and September is the calving period, after which the males arrive for mating in October and the population is at its highest. Apparently the whale count in Walker Bay peaks at about 150 at the height of the season, so sightings are definitely guaranteed. The most popular time to visit (if you don’t mind the crowds) is during the Whale Festival which is held annually the last week in September.
While we were only in Hermanus for a day and a half this weekend, the town has much to offer those who have more time available. The cliff paths winding along the coastline not only give spectacular views of the bays and the whales, but also of the fynbos and all the little creatures and birds it attracts. There are many other walks and horse trails in the area, a tidal pool for the kids to play in and a charming shopping district for those needing a little retail therapy (note that all but the major chain stores are closed on Sundays however). For the more adventurous, shark cage diving and sea kayaking adventures can also be booked.
I would definitely recommend Hermanus and hope I get the chance to visit again, hopefully for a little longer next time.
Have you been to Hermanus? Did you see any whales?