Hermanus, South Africa
Photo credit: African Wings
Without whales, the picturesque coastal town of Hermanus in South Africa’s Western Cape still draws a crowd, but with them it’s the ultimate seaside town. Hermanus’ most prized attribute is being ‘the best land-based whale watching in the world’, an opinion from best-selling wildlife author and presenter Mark Carwardine. It’s qualified by the fact that he didn’t even need to go outside his hotel bedroom to experience whale watching in Hermanus – he just had to look out of the window!
Pathways along a rocky cliff edge right opposite the town’s restaurants and shops provide all the perfect vantage points for whale watching in Hermanus. Being able to do this gives a new perspective on size and makes you realise that Southern Rights are the largest creatures you are ever likely to see! At 15-18 metres long, they are smaller only than blue whales who clock in at more than 33 metres (bigger than dinosaurs).
Top 10 Southern Right Whale facts
- Adult weight: +-50 tonnes
- Birth length and weight: 4-6 metres long and +- 900 kg
- A calf can drink up to 200 litres of milk a day and grow three centimetres
- Females calve every three years; a year gestation; a year to raise the calf; and a year to recover
- Southern Right Whales are the most common whales to see in Cape waters
- Two blow holes make a V-shaped blow sending spray 4 metres into the air
- Whales migrating from Antarctica can travel 6,000 km/miles
- Callosities on the head and a lack of dorsal fin are distinctive identification points
- About 4% of calves are born entirely white. They become quite famous during their nursery stay in Hermanus, but they darken as they mature
- They were called ‘Right’ Whales because they were the right ones to hunt because they moved slowly, were inquisitive and rich in oil, meat and whalebone
Photo credit: Noel Ashton
For an insider’s guide to these great ocean travellers and their hidden lives beneath the waves, Noel Ashton’s beautifully illustrated book ‘The Whales of Walker Bay’, is available at many venues around town, or on order from his website.
His current project is a new quick pocket guide to the whales of southern Africa. Noel is available as a guide for whale watching in Hermanus, for exclusive groups who often stay at Birkenhead House, which he describes as “An extraordinary venue with incredible whale watching opportunities.”
When is whale season?
By June each year, the whales should be well on their way from Antarctica; their stomachs full of krill and a good layer of fat on their bodies. This enables them to mate and calve off the coast of South Africa without eating for a few months. Come July the southern right whales are often seen rolling around in the wave break just metres from the shore. They can also put on quite a show breaching repeatedly, sending reverberations through water and air for more than a kilometre. They are also known for spy-hopping (raising just their heads out of the water for a good look), and flipper slapping. Then there’s lobtailing (slapping the water with the tail) or just sailing (head down with the tail sticking out like a yacht sail). Although whale watching in Hermanus affords the best views of the impressive creatures, nothing can be guaranteed, so if they don’t appear on cue for you, there are at least six different ways to achieve the dream of seeing whales so close that you can make eye contact.
The best spots for whale watching in Hermanus
- From a boat with Southern Right Charters or Hermanus Whale Cruises
- From a kayak with Walker Bay Adventures
- From the air on the Flight of the Giants with African Wings
- From the grounds of Birkenhead House Hotel and Ocean Eleven Guest House
- From various vantage points along the town cliff walk
- At sea level from the town harbour
At an average of around 15 metres long, Southern Right Whales exceed the length of most pleasure craft, which becomes evident when surrounded by them on board an official whale watching boat. These crafts have a permit to get to within 50 metres of whales while everyone else must remain 300 metres away. Tell that to curious whales that often approach boats to within a few metres, giving exceptional photographic opportunities and some memorable moments. A close up encounter with the whales of Walker Bay leaves the watcher filled with inexplicable emotions.
But perhaps the ultimate experience of whale watching in Hermanus is from the air, with an eagle’s eye view of whales that are completely undisturbed and unaware of human presence. Evan Austin, owner and pilot of African Wings Charters, has set the record by seeing 135 whales in one 30-minute scenic flight. The ‘Flight of Giants’ reveals the extent of just how many whales are in the bay and you may be astounded. So sure are they that you will see whales, that African Wings guarantee sightings, offering a full refund if whales aren’t spotted. And because the best photographs of whales are from the air, the aircraft door is removable for an unobstructed view! Be like a wildlife filmmaker and make your own documentary to show back at home.
Flourishing after being on the brink of extinction
The southern right is a successful example of a species returning from the brink of extinction. The population is now flourishing and reproducing at their maximum biological rate of 7% per annum, resulting in a doubling of the population every ten years. It might not be too long before pilot Evan Austin beats his own record. It certainly means that whale watching in Hermanus will improve your chance of seeing these creatures during the season, by one mean or another.
It was thought that most of the whales migrate back to Antarctica, but in recent years it’s has been noticed that a significant number are remaining along the Cape West Coast. From old records, it seems the whalers knew about the nutrient-rich upwelling from the warm Benguela current that attracted whales to stick around. But as the whales became depleted they stopped being seen along the West Coast – until now that is. This is particularly interesting to researchers, because either we see the whales outside traditional breeding season because there are just so many more or there’s an intriguing possibility that the whales have returned to the west coast because of some long-term inherited memory.
Either way, it’s a joy to behold these extraordinary animals and if you can’t see them from your bedroom window, listen out for the Town Whale Crier who blows a kelp horn to tell of the best sightings that day. There’s nothing quite like whale watching in Hermanus in the whole world, so make a point of adding this destination to your bucket list for one of the best wildlife experiences on land or sea.
Where to stay
If you want your own hotel room with a view of whales, it’s as easy as staying at Birkenhead House Hotel or Ocean Eleven Guest House. Every bedroom at both these Barefoot Chic properties have elevated sea-facing windows looking straight onto the best stretch of ocean, making them the ideal base from which to enjoy whale watching in Hermanus.