Knysna puts on a deep-sea show wor­thy of gi­ant ap­plause

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE - TANYA WATER­WORTH

HEAD­ING out to do some whale watch­ing by boat is al­ways ex­cit­ing, but go­ing out through the leg­endary Knysna Heads is adrenalin-in­duc­ing.

The waves are smooth as our me­dia party sets out on the Ocean Odyssey whale-watch­ing boat for a “recce” around the la­goon, be­fore brav­ing the Heads.

Skip­per St­eff Pe­pler has been in Knysna for the last 20 years, and has en­cy­clo­pe­dic knowl­edge on just about ev­ery­thing we see – in­clud­ing that Egyp­tian geese drop­pings are like those of a dachshund.

Cross­ing the la­goon, we spot two oys­ter­catch­ers look­ing very cosy atop a nar­row rock. Oys­ter­catch­ers pair for life or re­main sin­gle, and their loved-up re­la­tion­ship is kept strong on a diet of oys­ters and mus­sels. We watch them pa­tiently wait­ing for shells to open so they can dine sushi-style.

The boat glides past cave mouths yawn­ing with an­cient sta­lac­tites. Pe­pler says the Khoisan lived in the caves along­side the la­goon many moons ago.

Sud­denly we spot Nel­son the seal sun­ning him­self just in­side a small cove. He looks up lan­guorously, shakes, sits up and el­e­gantly dives into the wa­ter. He’s al­most smil­ing for the click­ing cam­eras as he sur­faces with a flour­ish.

With the Heads loom­ing, we pass Featherbed Bay, so named be­cause old tim­ber trad­ing ships would find safe har­bour in the bay, with sailors liken­ing their stay to “sleep­ing on featherbeds” af­ter the wild waves of the Cape seas.

It be­comes more choppy and the skip­per guides the boat through the swirling waves and rocks, the mas­sive cliffs that make up the Heads tow­er­ing above us as we hold our col­lec­tive breath.

It’s be­lieved the cliffs once formed a gi­ant arch­way.

Another minute and we are through. Pe­pler revs the en­gine and we crash through the wa­ter at an ex­hil­a­rat­ing speed.

The whale spot­ter is sit­ting at the top of the Heads, comb­ing the ocean with pow­er­ful binoc­u­lars. Now, there’s a dif­fer­ent job – no sit­ting be­hind a desk for this guy – and he’s ob­vi­ously good at his job; within min­utes the ra­dio crack­les and hump­back whales have been sighted ahead.

There’s an au­di­ble stir of ex­cite­ment, al­though one or two jour­nal­ists are look­ing pale and keep their eyes firmly on the hori­zon.

Dark shapes sud­denly ap­pear in the wa­ter ahead. The en­gines cut and we bob a good 50m away. As if on cue, a huge hump­back sud­denly heaves it­self out of the wa­ter in a dra­matic ex­plo­sion of spray. Within sec­onds, the mas­sive tail sinks into the wa­ter, of­fer­ing the iconic whale photo.

A burst of chat­ter breaks out on board.

We can see five whales close by and the boat trails them. The skip­per puts on a record­ing cap­tured un­der­wa­ter. It’s a deep res­o­nant sound that echoes back thou­sands of years, and there’s si­lence on the boat as we watch th­ese crea­tures at play.

We fol­low the whales for another 10 min­utes, be­fore head­ing back to­wards the Heads. We catch a flash of dol­phins – the res­i­dent pod has come to look at what’s hap­pen­ing.

As we pass back through the Heads, Pe­pler tells us that visi­tors to Knysna have be­come a dis­cern­ing lot. They’re look­ing for nat­u­ral ex­pe­ri­ences ver­sus the con­trived and com­mer­cial.

I take a last back­ward glance at the ocean. A seabird skims the wa­ter and a tail ap­pears and is gone.

This is about as nat­u­ral as you’re ever go­ing to get.

PIC­TURE: OCEAN ODYSSEY

GI­ANT OF THE DEEP: A hump­back whale crashes back into the ocean off Knysna.

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