Whales, Sharks & Dolphins in False Bay
May to late November - Whale Watching Season in the South Western Cape around Cape Town. The number of Southern Right Whales in our waters peaks in September annually - approximately 3000 or more individuals visit to mate & give birth, in the protected bays along the long shorelines.
Cape Town has several species of dolphin, shark and whale that frequent the shores throughout the year, Southern Right Whales are the stars of the show. They begin arriving in May and stay until late November, entertaining thousands of visitors from the elevated roadways all along the South Western Cape Coastline. The highest density of these Southern Right Whales occurs in the De Hoop Nature Reserve coastal area, where regularly numbers of between 40 & 60 whales are seen mating in the small bay during "Whale Season". Accommodation there is provided by Cape Nature and is clean, comfortable and very adequate, well worth a trip up the coast (about 3 hours (270Km) from Cape Town). But for those of you with limited time on your trip to Cape Town - just head for Simon's Town, it is closer than Hermanus and just as popular with locals for Day and Weekend Trips on their way to Cape Point & the Boulders Penguin Colony.
If you plan to swim at Fish Hoek PLEASE BE AWARE WE HAVE HAD TWO FATAL GREAT WHITE SHARK ATTACKS ON THE BEND BETWEEN FISH HOEK AND SUNNYCOVE IN THE PAST 5 YEARS, LAST ONE DEC 2009). Do not swim out of your depth off the main Fish Hoek beach South East direction towards Sunnycove - or in a North East direction around the bend towards Kalk Bay, this is a naturally positioned Geat White shark attack area - DEEP WATER off a STEEP ROCKY OUTCROP - the local schools of fish move with the current in & out of the Fish Hoek bay and pass regularly along this rock shelf as they navigate in and around False Bay. This is a very dangerous area to swim especially out of your depth in deep water, please be warned!
If you see the "Fish Hoek Trek Fishermen" in action pulling fish out on the beach PLEASE GET OUT OF THE WATER IMMEDIATELY. This time is particularly dangerous as sharks follow the schools of fish in to Fish Hoek, before the Trek Fishermen catch them in their hand-held sein nets. Also, get out of the water immediately if you see any birds diving for fish, or seals or large fish swimming in the water near you, where there are seals and fish there are also sharks hunting behind the school of fish.
FALSE BAY IS A GREAT WHITE SHARK HUNTING GROUND, Seal Island is a Cape Fur Seal colony numbering around 70 000 individuals, this attracts many sharks into this area. They do not stay in the Bay, they come to hunt & then move away to cover their large predation range. Surfers should avoid swimming out beyond the Backline at Muizenberg (or anywhere else along this coastline) as this is an area known as a Shark Dormitory - where they come to hang out in the current of the surf, lowering their metabolism to get some rest whilst the surf irrigates their gills for them. Spear Fishing with Skin Diving is not advised in False Bay, there are common attacks on such Spear Fishermen who trail fish behind as they swim back to shore. This creates a scent trail for the sharks to follow and soon attracts predators, this does not seem to deter some very adventurous divers who frequent this coastline! The local scuba divers seem to be the safest, they go up and down usually on boat dives and do not tend to swim on the surface like sufers, nor do they catch fish whilst they are in full scuba gear. FALSE BAY IS A NATURAL BREEDING GROUND FOR MANY SPECIES OF FISH, SHARK & WHALE - the water is calmer than in the huge currents around Cape Point, so the fish, sharks AND whales find a safer enviroment to breed. This is obvious when you go scuba diving in the area, there is a huge variety of sea life and many shoals of small fish in the early stages of their development. The Southern Right whales are by far the largest species of mamal that breeds in False Bay.
A huge amount of research information into whales & dolphins along the coast of South Africa has been done by Dr Peter Best, Extraordinary Professor University of Pretoria. He is the local expert and has many publications. most available online from the University of Pretoria Publications section. He states, "Currently my principal interests lie in tying up the loose ends of a 45-year career working on these animals, writing up those dormant papers and trying to get data sets organized. At the same time I am continuing to study the demographic basis for the recovery of the southern right whale, mainly through aerial photo-identification surveys that commenced in 1979, and I am excited by the opportunities offered by the recent discovery of a coastal feeding ground for right whales on our west coast. I also hope to be able to spend a little more time with my wife, and to write a few more right-brained things than just scientific papers." Dr Peter Best - his helicopter aerial survey shows Southern Right Whale population growing at about 10% pa off South Africa - was 2000 now over 3000 individuals
Bring your binoculars & cameras, warm coats & a picnic and stay for a while watching the Southern Right Whale courtship and mating behavior just meters from the rocks where you can stand. The many coastal drives around the Western Cape provide the opportunity for sighting whales. When in the water there is a 300m exclusion zone around whales and dolphins, do not approach their mating pods when on canoes, kayaks or boats. If luck is on your side they will decide to surface near where you are watching, (either from land on on a water craft), but they do tend to move quite fast and they drift around.
So keep an eye on them - it can be very exciting, watch out for a puff of whale breath that creates water vapor spray "site marker" above, and a clear shiny pool on the surface of the water (their huge air bubbles & movement under the water cause this "shiny surface"), also watch for sea birds - these indicators will help you to spot the areas where whales are congregating in the sea.
Three whale species frequent our Cape coastline, whilst others, includingKiller Whales (Orca) are also seen periodically, but not regularly. This picture of a Killer Whale (Orca) attacking and then eating a dolphin was taken by local Capetonian, Dave Hurwitz of the Simon's Town Boat Company, in False Bay.
He also took the very rare photo of two Southern Right Wales actually in the mating stage in the Simon's Town small craft harbour vicinity. Booked trips to watch whales & dolphins with him leave several times daily from the Simon's Town Jetty, the only Licensed Whale Watching Boat in False Bay. To book a trip in advance please contact Simon's Town Boat company (+27) 083 257 7760 for short trips hourly to visit the SA Navy harbour, or longer trips (several times daily) to Cape Point, or Seal Island in False Bay. Booking is essential - especially for groups. Children of all ages welcome, boats equipped with Life Jackets and comply with all safety regulations.
The Southern Right whales that come to Simon's Town are renowned for being very curious of humans, they regularly approach people in boats, kyaks and canoes in the area, and often go and mate right in front of the main SA Navy Harbour entrance. The South African Navy must be commended for limiting "Gun Firing Practise" for the Navy Cadets in Simon's Town during the Whale Season from May to November - they agreed not to practice with their large guns during this period - unless they have an urgent export order for our arms manufacture Armscor (the SA Navy tests ammunition batches for Armscor). This takes place from the Simon's Town Gun Battery areas. So if you hear the "GUNS FIRING" in Simon's Town don't be alarmed , its not an invasion, it is SA Navy gun practice time! The Navy has Whale Spotters on ships active during their manouvers).
In False Bay the local fishermen report that whales often surface at night right next to fishing boats who are listening to the radio - are they curious to discover the noises we make? The shoreline between Kalk Bay and the end of Simon's Town is the HOT SPOT for watching whales, they are easily spotted from Boyes Drive above Kalk Bay, also often seen in Fish Hoek on the Sunny Cove bend, and often in front of Glencairn Beach and the corner in front of Glencairn Railway Station. Or even better spend the day taking a trip out onto the sea in False Bay to watch whales from a Licensed Whale Watching Boat with Simon's Town Boat Company.
The whales do seem to have favourite spots as they return to these every year to mate and socialise. If you are patient and you have enough time, wait and watch a group of these huge whales as they circle each other and prepare for the mass mating that takes place, they often mate in groups of 6 - 15 whales. You will often spot large volumes of cars parked along the coastline and in Whale Season this can cause quite a traffic jam, especially on the weekends!
The females will allow several males to circle over them as they sink down and assume the mating position (Female under the water and on back with two side flippers waving in the air (see pic above). These groups can congregate and spend hours together playing and rolling around on top of each other, and if a male gets lucky it can take from 10mins to 2 hours for him to have a session with a female, then often he breaks away and swims off at high speed with a couple of full breaches to "shout the news to the group"!
See more breathtaking paintings and information on the population of whales and dolphins frequenting our shores with local artist and research team - Noel & Belinda Ashton - Whale & Dolphin conservation education professionals
South Africa has an extremely diverse cetacean population, with 37 species having been recorded. Whales and dolphins are mammals, giving birth to live young and suckling them on milk. Several species of dolphin, one endemic, frequent our shores throughout the year and can be seen in impressive numbers. Dusky, Heaviside's and Bottlenose Dolphins are most likely to be spotted. They often enter False Bay in very large pods of over 100 individuals, usually chasing a big school of our local fish, the Yellow Tail. They feast on these schools of fish and create a hunting pattern which helps them to create a "Bait Ball" to enable them to group fish for attack. This phenomenal dolphin behaviour is most observable further up the East Coast during the local Sardine Run - one of the world's great nature shows that happens annually.
In South Africa whales are protected under the Sea Fisheries Act of 1973. It is illegal to catch, kill or get close enough to disturb whales. The law prohibits approaching closer than 300m in a watercraft (including boats, surfboards and windsurfers). For whales that have been stranded on shore or entangled in netting or ropes, call SA Whale Disentanglement Network via local hero of the Simon's Town Boat Company - David Hurwitz (+27) 083 257 7760. These individuals can usually be assisted if correctly handled. The whales sometimes get ropes tangled around their tails, these can be cut off by a team of specially trained divers and boat crew who used special large blades to cut through the heavy boat ropes. It is very dangerous and needs a specially co-ordinated operation to handle it safely for all individuals. The blowhole of a stranded animal must be clear of obstruction. Single strandings are inevitably due to sickness; old age or injury and these whales are not usually re-floated. During 2009 over 40 Pilot Whales mass beached themselves at the Kommetjie end of Long Beach, most if not all of them died. These sorts of incidents are possibly resulting from the leader of the group becoming disorientated and leading the group onto the shore mistakenly. There are reported to be some unusual magnetic fields in this area of the Peninsula, could be because thie Sun Valley between Fish Hoek & Kommetjie / Noordhoek is the ONLY place on the Cape Peninsula where there is a direct valley linking the Atlantic Ocean to False Bay - over 20 000 years ago when we had the last Ice Age the sea would have flowed through this valley. Perhaps there is an ancient geological memory the dolphins pick up from the rocks in the area? Over 100 years ago there was a similar mass dolphin stranding in the very same place. These mass dolphin strandings are a more common occurrence in Australia & New Zealand, world leaders in equipment preparedness to handle such large animals. They generally succeed in re-launching the dolphins only if they manage to get enough of them to follow the group leader back out to sea (all at the same time - which is very difficult to manage in with such large numbers in strandings.)
An alternative method to rescue stranded dolphins in Australasia follows a procedure where they lift the animals off the beach in huge harnesses using cranes attached to heavy vehicles. These animals are then raced to a hopefully nearby jetty with a deep water launch, to enable the team to get them back into deep water fast. These sort of mass stranding events to not occur often in South Africa, hence our un-preparedness to deal with them with the right equipment. As a very last resort, mass euthanasia (by shooting) is carried out by the local city management authorities, then the dolphin or whale bodies are loaded up by the Waste Management Team and taken to a dump site on the outskirts of Cape Town. Not a very dignified way to deal with our distant ancestors who just happened to try get out of the sea on to land again.
Contact Simon's Town Boat company (+27) 083 257 7760 for trips to Cape Point, or Seal Island in False Bay. To book a 5-day "De Hoop Whale Trail" call Cape Nature at 021- 659 3500.
Find more info at the site of the most experienced Capetonian specialist underwater photographer, Charles Maxwell www.underwatervideo.co.za and also take a look at sharks on www.bbc.co.uk/nature/blueplanet. Start a local Shark Awarness campaign as EVERY YEAR hundreds of 1000's of magnificent sharks and turtles end up as soup, their life cycles cut short and breaking the breeding cycle. Learn more about sustainable fishing and make a difference locally. Encourage your country to start banning day light Long Line Baiting - if this is done at night ONLY then far fewer pelagic birds (such as Albatross) are killed accidentally on these mass fishing tools. PLEASE GET ACTIVE ON THIS ISSUE - IT IS CRITICAL FOR THE SURVIVAL OF OUR OCEANS OCCUPANTS.
GREAT WHITE SHARK (Carcharodon carcharias)
Seal Island in False Bay is home to "Air Jaws", where these magnificent creatures can be seen hunting Cape Fur Seals during the winter months. They are thought to live approximately 20 years, females give birth to around nine live offspring, and can reach speeds of 40km/h (25mph) when in pursuit of prey, and can leap clear out of the water.
Great White Sharks can reach 6m (20ft) in length, average 4m (13ft), with a white belly and a grey back. They hunt fish, rays, sea lions, seals, sea-birds, small whales, turtles, porpoises, carrion and other sharks, they tend to attack from below.
Great Whites are responsible for 5 to 10 human attacks worldwide per year, but these appear to be mistaken identity and non predatory - the silhouette of a swimmer / surfer from below is similar to a seal or a sea-lion.
The behaviour of Great Whites is thought to include intricate peer relationships at all size classes, they have good vision and a good sense of smell, and a "sixth sense" that detects electrical signals. The majority of yearly shark deaths are caused by accidental entrapment in commercial fisheries and entanglement in anti-shark beach nets.
Contact www.apexpredators.com (+27) 082 364 2738, to arrange a Great White Shark Cage Diving expedition, free diving with Mako and Blue Sharks (snorkels only - no scuba experience required), or Pelagic bird trips. These trips go either to Cape Point or accross False Bay to see Seal Island, where over 40 000 Cape Fur Seals breed in a huge colony, the place of the famous Great White Shark hunting ground. The Simon's Town Boat Company also does smaller Harbour Tours (if you are lucky you may see a shark or a whale in the vicinity) their shorter trips leave hourly from the Jetty (more suitable for the young ones and the older ones too - not so long or bumpy). See a hilarious You Tube ADVERT clip of a fisherman climbing out of a shark's' mouth - very funny! Also find National Geographic on You Tube for all +1700 professional video clips.
The longer trip to see the southern tip of Cape Point OR the False Bay Seal Island OR both if you are feeling seaworthy! To combat SEA SICKNESS IN ADVANCE - THE SECRET IS TO take 1 x anti-travel-motion-sickness tablet THE NIGHT BEFORE your planned boat trip, then take one more at breakfast, you should be fine then, hopefully! Lower the dose for children.
See the work of local Capetonian Charles Maxwell of UNDERWATER VIDEO SERVICES - The Underwater Image Capture Specialists.
SOUTHERN RIGHT WHALE (Eubalaena australis)
The Southern Right Whale entertains thousands of spectators each year, as they come close to shore to calve their babies and also to mate. During their mating season June to November, sightings peak in September. The coastal road between Muizenberg and Simon's Town provides excellent viewing sites. These slow moving gentle giants are easily identifiable by the presence of wart-like growths, known as callosities, around their heads and their characteristic V-shaped blowhole.
Females measure about 14m and males are slightly smaller, average weight estimated 41 tonnes. Calves at birth can be over 7m in length. They have a life expectancy of about 50 years. After November they return to the Southern Ocean where they spend up to four months feeding, building up their reserves of blubber, which sustains them during the breeding season. Their favourite foods are small animals called copepods (a planktonic crustacean) of which they consume up to 600kgs per day.
Whalers used the name 'right' whale because this species is slow moving, floats when killed, yields good oil and has useful long baleen plates. Since 1929 they have been protected by international legislation.
HUMPBACK WHALE (Megaptera novaeangliae)
These whales do not calve or mate in our waters, so are less frequently encountered on this coastline whilst on their way up the coast to calve in warmer waters. The exceptionally long, white flippers and large patterned tail flukes are diagnostic, as are the wart-like knobs on the head and the triangular shaped dorsal fin.
BRYDE'S WHALE (Balaenoptera edeni)
The smallest of the three whales described is present in our waters all year round. Feeding mainly on shoaling fish and often seen swimming among seabirds and dolphins, this whale has three distinct ridges running from its snout to the top of its head and a triangular dorsal fin set well back. They are mainly a subtropical species but there is a resident population along our Atlantic coast. They feed on mackerel, herring, squid and krill and are often seen in big groups from 10 up to a 100.
Observable Whale behavior: The Southern Right Whales spend December to April feeding in the freezing waters of the South Atlantic, skimming Copepods (a small shrimp species). These animals migrate annually to our warm South African waters to calve their babies and suckle their young safely, a stage which both mother and baby are particularly vunerable to a shark attack because of the placenta and blood in the water. The groups of whales will form a protective circle around a female giving birth - it is rare to see this, possibly often taking place under the shadow of nightfall. During the night in Simon's Town you may be lucky enough to ACTUALLY HEAR the whales communicating with puffing noises, that sound rather like blowing through a long pipe, a sound similar to a Didgeridoo, short or long blasts of air make different sounds. They also make rumbling noises, cracking noises by slapping the water continuously with their huge tails (can sound like a rifle shot), and loud sighs can often be heard by the local residents as the sounds drift over the water, and up the mountain amphitheatre! How do whales sleep? Not sure about that one, but I think they could hold their breath for 20mins or so and slowly bob up and down during the night as they assume a rest pose? Any suggestions on this topic would be welcome! Please email me!
The same Southern Right whales that come to give birth here then continue the cycle here by mating every 2 - 3 years. This behaviour is all played out in full view of the public who gather waving along the many shorelines and rocky headlands. Small bays are especially popular with the Southern Right Whales visiting our shores during the Cape Whale Season - from May to late November each year.
Breaching is when the whale leaps clear of the water exposing its body, usually repeated several times and is thought to be communicative or to try to dislodge heavy loads of whale parasites. After a whale has breached ther suface water in the area will have loose bits of whale skin floating around it, which the sea birds then arrive to feast on! Watch out for this phenomena if you are on the water and near a breach.
Lobtailing is where the whale slaps the water repeatedly with its tail flukes, or waves the tail high in the air like a giant butterfly, thought to be communicative and also a means of temperature control. Often it is used to attract attention by one individual, it makes a huge cracking sound rather like a rifle gun going off. They can repeat this for hours, can be heard more clearly at night when there is no traffic nor a high wind.
Whales also 'spyhop', where the head is held clear out of the water and the whale appears to look around. They are often seen doing this with their mouths open along the edge of the Kelp seaweed beds on the corners of the bays, where the water is deep. They are often feeding on small "fingerling" stage fish which congregate in the Kelp to breed in safety. They probably only consume small volumes of these compared to the huge volumes of Copepods they eat down in the Southern Oceans (estimated over 600kg Copepods consumed DAILY by each individual!)
Mating behaviour: Very often you will see one or two female whales roll over, their small side fins & tummy area become visible above the surface of the water and then this individual sinks down below the surface - as the males congregated above & attempt to mate her.
They do this by swimming directly over the now submerged female who has their tummy pointing upwards, can place her flippers in a gripping position to hold the male above in place. (I have often noticed that after mating the females will often swim into nearby beds of a very long seaweed Kelp, possibly to rest & avoid the further attention of males, or even to continue mating with just one individual male. Once the mating starts (this can take some time, even hours of the group (numbers in the group range from 2 to over 20 in a larger group) circling and socialising by rolling around with each other). Numbers in the mating pod group range from 2 to over 20 in a larger extended group which can extend and mix over a wider area over time. The males all bumping each other in a sort of "peer test" to see who is fittest to mate, if you look closely at their skins you will see how many scars they each carry from this "sparring behaviour". Eventually a single male & female manages to connect, and for this very reason the calm waters of False Bay, Walker Bay and De Hoop are very popular with these whales.
But even in high wind conditions the mating takes place, it is just much more difficult for us to watch. The largest groups of Southern Right whales mating are seen in South Africa at De Hoop Cape Nature reserve coastline (too difficult and too many to count from land). Local small aircraft pilots in Swellendam are now offering short flights in two seaters from Swellendam airfield to this coastline. Find out more from Swellendam Information. If you want to get out on the water with a Licensed Whale Watching Boat then Simon's Town is the place to head. Situated just 40mins from Cape Town centre, down the Cape Peninsula and close to Cape Point, this special harbour village is home to the South African Navy and has it's own small craft harbour where you can launch with Simon's Town Boat Company.
For the best whale watching experience - Try to pick a calm day when the sea goes flat (a Berg Wind condition in the Cape is the day or two before a Cold Front arrives - and is ideal as there is very little wind on the water). But what ever the weather you find yourself out in False Bay watching whales from May to November, the views and the experience is unforgettable. Also launching from Simon's Town Jetty most mornings around 6am, trips 36km South West of Cape Point to Cage Dive with Blue & Mako Sharks with Apex Predators, a world class shark watching experience. A specially designed boat by the "Air Jaws Sharks of False Bay" movie maker & photographer & researchers Chris & Monique Fallows. The many international film crews that come to Simon's Town to film these crew are often hosted by this local couple, and they dive with Charles Maxwell, our famous Underwater Photographer who has spent more time underwater filming Great Whites than probably any other living person!
More about this above in the Shark section. Both boat companies do a wonderful trip accross False Bay to see Seal Island, where over 40 000 Cape Fur Seal colony is situated, the famous Great White Shark hunting ground. The Simon's Town Boat Company also does smaller Harbour Tours that leave hourly from the Jetty (more suitable for the young ones and the older ones too - not so long or bumpy), and a longer trip to Cape Point OR Seal Island OR both if you are feeling seaworthy! To combat SEA SICKNESS IN ADVANCE - take 1 x anti-travelmotion sickness tablet THE NIGHT BEFORE your planned boat trip, then take one more at breakfast on the day of your sea trip, you should be fine then, hopefully!
Author "Shark Cage Diving" with Yellow Fin & Long Fin Tuna, plus
Mako & Blue sharks 36Km south off Cape Point, with Apex Predators