Discover how your day out spotting cetaceans can make a real difference
If you love whale watching, now is prime time to head for the coast. What’s more, you can contribute to marine research at the same time
Just like you and I and all South Africans, clans of sperm whales have their own dialects. For instance, Carribean sperm whales ‘talk’ differently from sperm whales in, say, the Pacific. Sperm whales communicate with a repetition of clicks, called codas. Caribbean sperm-whale clans click to a calypso rhythm of one, two, one-two-three. It’s distinct only to them, revealed Shane Gero, a research fellow at Denmark’s Aarhus University, in a paper published in 2016.
When a new calf is born to these Caribbean whales, it’s taught the sequence. ‘This is an indication that the call is really important to all the families,’ explained Shane. ‘It’s a marker of their cultural heritage. They’re basically saying, “I’m from the eastern Caribbean.” Having these dialects means that sperm whales are socially segregated. It means that cultural identity is significant to these animals.’
It’s a revelation that social structures – so important to our own species – are also important to cetaceans. Of course, to humans standing on the shoreline, whales are wondrous enough already. We see them balloon up out of the water, knowing that what’s visible is but a fraction of the enormity concealed below the surface.
The travellers among us might envy the freedom they experience as wanderers of the blue: leaving when they choose, swimming to whichever shores attract them on far sides of the world, diving to staggering depths, seeing 3D pictures in sound of creatures and chasms and charms that we can’t even fathom.
Seeing whales is easier than ever today. To do so from a boat in False Bay, David Hurwitz of Simon’s Town Boat Company is the go-to man. He has remarkable stories to tell – such as the time killer whales breached repeatedly in the wake of his boat. ‘The experience of seeing whales is life-changing,’ says Dave.
That said, technology is a perfectly good first access to them. ‘Social media has had such a big role in making cetaceans more accessible to the public,’ he adds. ‘Now, when there are whales in the bay, the word gets out very quickly via social media – and the number of shares is remarkable.
‘We promote land-based whale watching even though we’re a boat company. I’ll tell people where they are because I know that once people see whales from land, sooner or later they’ll want to see them from a boat.
‘Whales are highly intelligent and curious. We can’t comprehend what they’re thinking, but it’s quite obvious when they come up to the boat that they’re having a good look at us. When that happens, the comment from people is almost invariably, “This has changed my life.”’
From June or thereabouts, the sound of fins slapping the water echoes into shoreline homes all along the Western Cape’s Whale Coast, and tourists flock to see them.
The latest newcomer to the whaletourism game is a little further afield: The Bluff in Durban. It’s recently been admitted as a candidate Whale World Heritage Site, the first on the continent. ‘On the west coast, the whales linger,’ says Rachel Kramer, project manager at WildOceans. ‘On the KwaZulu-Natal coast, they swim past en route to the warm east coast of Africa where they breed. But they stop off at The Bluff, sometimes just behind the back line.
‘Last year we had our first Welcoming of the Whales festival [in June]. We couldn’t have planned it better. That day there were whales breaching every 10 seconds or so. It was simply incredible.’
WildOceans is working with The Bluff community office to boost whale eco-tourism here. Despite the fact that this area once had one of the biggest whaling stations in the world, most people nowadays don’t know much about the massive annual humpback migration. A whale-heritage project has been launched by South Durban Tourism Association and WildOceans, and the goal is to eventually
‘ONCE PEOPLE SEE WHALES FROM LAND, SOONER OR LATER THEY’LL WANT TO SEE THEM FROM A BOAT’
have the old Union Whaling Station proclaimed a heritage site.
It was closed down only in the mid-1970s – an indication of how rich the vein of humpback whales streaming past was. And, boy, did the whalers cash in. By the time the moratorium was passed in 1986, only 340 humpback whales were left of one of the KZN sub-populations. The situation has improved somewhat: the latest count, done 17 years ago, had them at 15 000.
The next census is due, which is where WildOceans and its citizen-science project, WhaleTime, comes in. It aims to bring science and conservation together with tourism and citizen science. ‘There’s a big research component to the project,’ says Rachel. ‘We’ll be setting up a monitoring station to count a sub-population of humpbacks in Cape Vidal and Durban. There are two elements to the project: actual scientists doing the work, plus we’ll be working with whale-watching operators and anyone from the public who uploads fluke (tail) images onto the WhaleTime website.’
Back in the Cape, Sea Search is another organisation using citizen-science data. The team of scientists includes doctors Tess Gridley, Simon Elwen, Els Vermeulen and Gwen Penry.
‘There’s been a real shift in the last 10 years towards the value of citizen knowledge,’ says Simon. Along with Tess and their students, he’s been conducting a study looking at the environmental factors
limiting the ranges of coastal dolphin species. They’re also trying to determine what any changes in their presence over time might tell us regarding expected responses to a changing climate. However, the Cape Peninsula area is remarkably data poor, and citizen science has proved to be an invaluable asset in their research.
Citizen science can be divided into two categories: local ecological knowledge and opportunistic sightings by interested members of the public. In the former, the scientists gather information by interviewing people in the tourism business, shark spotters, surfers, fishermen and other people who use a particular area’s waters regularly.
‘We interviewed them using a specific format, and out of that we got some really useful qualitative data,’ Simon explains. ‘This is tapping into local experience; some people have been working in these waters for decades. You’re surveying their expert opinion on where those animals (a particular species) are or aren’t. Even better is when there’s hard data available. For example, Cape Townbased shark-tour operator and photographer Chris Fallows has recorded cetaceans and everything he saw over the last 20 years.
This valuable data has been incorporated into the study and is providing a unique insight into changes in whale and dolphin presence in the False Bay area over the last 20 years.
Regular travellers, water users and beach walkers can also play a role. ‘For this, Seafari or other such apps are really useful,’ says Tess. ‘For example, if you’re going shark diving or taking a trip to Robben Island, you can link that information back to us. Seafari is great for us because the data comes in a standardised way. It’s a trade-off between small amounts of theoretically highquality data that’s limited in terms of time and space, versus fairly large quantities of less detailed data. They’re complementary.
‘We’re granted a much clearer idea of where certain creatures can be found. For instance, we’ve now confirmed a broader range for dusky and Heaviside’s dolphins.’ And, she adds, ‘Using the app also makes people more aware of species.’
It’s not a terrible way to spend a day. To test the Seafari app, we struck out along the Hermanus whale route early one morning. It’s 12 kilometres from the Old Harbour to Grotto Beach, but the sun was shining and the fynbos was dewy. The path runs along the sea’s edge, sometimes on the cliffs, sometimes in line with the beach. It wasn’t whale season yet, but we did see a pod of dolphins. I could make out about 50, but I now know there were probably 200, because Simon has taught me how to estimate: calculate three under the water for every one you can see.
I opened the app and entered my information. Then I put my phone away, happy that I’d added my bit to the deepening well of knowledge. With luck, some scientists, maybe Tess and Simon or Gwen and Els, can put it to use. It’s good to know that you and I can help this amazing tribe gather the info, write the papers and sound the warning bells when the marine world is out of balance. And, hopefully, provide answers for what can be done to restore that balance.
Created by pilot Alex Vogel, this free app is easy to use and will teach you loads about a variety of marine mammal species. seafariapp.org
ABOVE The coastline and waters of De Hoop Reserve in the southern Cape are part of a marine protected area, and great for whale spotting. OPPOSITE A humpback whale can weigh up to 40 tons, yet it’s still somehow able to hoist more than half its body out of the water.