I grew up in a relatively small town in one of the northern provinces of The Netherlands, which lives of agriculture mostly. And every year in spring there was this general excitement, almost palpable in the air and ‘has the egg been found yet?’, would be a question regularly asked. ‘Cause the finder of the first plover egg found in the fields was given the honor of presenting this little treasure to our queen. It was a sign of spring, of new life surfacing and exciting times ahead.
It is the same here in South Africa with whale watching. Not that we catch the first Southern Right whale coming to our shores to present it to our president. Yet the buzz is the same: ‘have the whales arrived yet?’ And from about the middle of June ‘we’ expect the first whales. It’s magical: without GPS, without any roadsigns under the Indian Ocean’s surface these majestic creatures find the way to our shores. Every year again. They come to mate, and to be honest I’m not too sure why they can’t do that further down south, but they come and do ‘it’ here. Then they return the next year to calve, protecting their young in our shallow waters from all the dangers further out at sea. And the third year the females bring their young, showing them the way to our coast. And so the cycle repeats itself.
Therefore you can imagine my excitement when I got invited today to join our guests on a close encounter whale watching trip. We departed from Thesen Island in Knysna, where we boarded one of the few close encounter whale watching vessels which have a permit to come as close as 50m from the whales. Similar permits have been issued to other whale watching companies in Plettenberg Bay, Mosselbay and Hermanus, but the added excitement of going through the famous Knysna Heads can of course only be offered in Knysna.
The lagoon is quiet. The sky is overcast. The sun is hiding behind the clouds, and the wind is moderate. Once we get right inside the famous Knysna Heads and face the Indian Ocean the scenery seems to change. We’ve had our life jackets on since we left the jetty, and here I can’t help but wonder whether they would actually help if we crashed on the rocks. Salty spray covers our faces, our jackets, our glasses. We dance around Island Rock, we marvel at the Knysna Nostrils and can’t find Nelson, the resident seal. Our boat moves from left to right, climbs to the top of the swells and nose drops down to what feels like the bottom of the ocean. But our skipper Stephan is in charge, he plays with the ocean, dances on the waves and clearly enjoys what he’s doing. And he’s been doing it for a long time, he tells us: he got through The Heads for the first time at age 5, with his father. He’s logged more than 3,500 trips through The Heads in his skipper’s logbook. He clearly knows what he’s doing.
And there, I guess, we’ve come to the point of this story: the Southern Right whales are only here between say middle of June and middle of December. So if you decide to go out on a close encounter whale watching trip, make sure you choose an operator who knows what they’re doing, both with regards to the mammals’ behavior as well as general safety.
Or otherwise you’ll end up like my dad and I used to: we would go out early in the morning, to be the first ones in the fields. We would get stuck when trying to cross the ditches, climb the fences or lose the plover as she would duck into the long grass. We would walk for hours…. And never find an egg…
Want to know what we found, out at sea? Click here to read more…