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

Getaway (South Africa) - - CONTENTS - WORDS BY SONYA SCHOE­MAN

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


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.

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