Monday, September 21, 2009

Watching Whales Watching Us

Being from Southern California and a short drive to the part of the Pacific that houses the Channel Islands (San Clemente, Santa Catalina, San Nicolas, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Anacapa, Santa Rosa, San Miguel—the one from Island of the Blue Dolphins), I’ve been whale watching more than once as a kid, spotting the smooth circular “footprints” left by gray and blue whales (and possibly humpbacks? I was young) on the water’s surface, watching dolphins play at the bow of the boat, and getting spectacularly seasick to the point of immobility (never a lot of throwing up, but lots and lots of debilitating nausea). In fact, my sharpest memory of whale watching occurred during a hurricane in Mexico that whipped the Californian reaches of the Pacific into mountainous swells and peaks that spilled over the bow of the boat—always a good day for surfers and never for landlubbers like me (as an aside, I’ve always known my secret dream of being a pirate captain would be trumped by my inability to wield a cutlass or even stand up in high seas, but I tried to ignore this fact as a child). My cousin Peter was visiting, and the two of us spent the entirety of the boat ride lying in the stern and moaning while clutching our bellies and eating saltines. I remember not caring in the least when we found whales.

Somehow, I thought that I’d be all right in a boat off the coast at Hermanus, which is one of the premier whale watching spots in the world. It seemed strange when my guidebook talked little of boat-based whale watching and instead spent more than a few pages on coastal whale watching—standing on the rocks overlooking Walker Bay, which is a breeding site for Southern Right Whales, though Humpbacks, Orcas, and Bryde’s Whales also range here. Only twice before had I seen whales from the coast—once while driving back from Malibu on the Pacific Coast Highway, though it seemed as if the whale had been lost, and once at Mossel Bay in South Africa, but it was far away.

And so, we booked a somewhat expensive whale watching tour (it’s much cheaper in California) and drove out along the coast to Hermanus in my new car, a 1993 baby blue BMW, which is in good shape but still makes some interesting noises and has a few quirks. Fortunately it’s an automatic, which is why I got it, and so I only have to learn how to drive on the wrong side of the road. The drive was absolutely stunning from the flashes that I could see, though I spent most of my time trying to stay centered on the incredibly narrow roads while attempting to navigate World Cup-related highway construction, not collide with cars weaving back and forth and cutting corners and tailgating, avoid people jaywalking on the freeway (on the way back, we saw a man who had been hit by a car while he crossed in the dark surrounded by cop cars and ambulances), and continue driving in the right direction. I’m a nervous driver as it is, so this was a bit of a trial by fire. But we got there without incident, parked, and found a good but unfortunately long lunch—we waited about an hour to get our food.

Finally, we were free to explore Hermanus, and as Morgan and Heather (a new fellow at m2m) looked at souvenirs and Wenli bought a giant slice of delicious looking cake, I wandered down to Walker Bay to look at the ocean. As I approached, I saw a few whales in the distance, but once I came to the edge of the cliff overlooking the water, where tons of people were gathered, I looked down and saw Southern Right Whales, identifiable by the callosities on their heads and lack of dorsal fin, herding their babies around the bay within swimming distance of the shore. Whales were breaching (lifting out of the water), spyholing (sticking their heads out to see), lobtailing (lifting their flukes, or tails), logging (resting at the surface of the water with their backs out—looks exactly like it sounds), and rolling on their backs to stick their squarish fins out of the water. I’ve never seen whales more active or closer to shore. I had to fight an urge to throw myself headlong into the water and swim out to them. There’s no other way to describe it other than awe-some, in the classic dictionary definition of being filled with awe.

We had to tear ourselves away after a while to catch our boat, and we were anticipating something even more amazing—if we could almost touch the whales from the shore, then we should have basically been able to ride the whales we encountered from the boat or at least pet them, I thought—and we paid our money and looked at the dinky boat upon which we were about to embark for a two-hour trip with about ten other people (the guys said it could hold 90 people, but I think that may have been in a refugees-fleeing-across-the-ocean kind of capacity). The bay had looked calm, and there wasn’t a lot of wind, and so I was optimistic that I’d be OK, especially if there were whales to distract me. The second we were out of the marina and onto the sea proper (no boats are allowed in Walker Bay so as not to disturb breeding and calving), I knew there was going to be trouble. The swells were huge, and we were glugging right into them, and the boat, shuddering and rolling, almost felt as if it were about to capsize, which became even more of a worry upon recalling the assurances of one of the tour guides that we would be brought home “no matter what.” I was fine for about fifteen minutes. Luckily, we found a mother and calf fairly quickly.

The rules say that you must stay 50 meters from the whales, which can approach if they want to, and that you can only stay with the whales for 20 minutes. We didn’t exactly follow either of these rules as the boat fought the swells and the whales circled us, the mother nudging along her calf, who played with a piece of seaweed, spyholed and stuck out its tongue. At one point, I thought they’d come close enough to touch, but the sea was too rough. We stayed with them for a while (I lost track of time because once I become seasick, a minute is an eternity), and I stayed on the bottom deck, following the whales around the bow and sides of the boat, after one ill-advised run up to the top with the majority of the other people that felt a bit like being on a Tilt-A-Whirl. The whales were beautiful.

We stayed out for about an hour (the tour guides seemed a bit anxious to get to something, probably a Saturday braai or party or whatever) and even though we did not get the full two-hour experience, I was more than ready to get off the boat. By the last ten minutes or so, I couldn’t even lift my head I felt so sick.

When I think about the boat ride and the cost, it feels as if it weren’t worth it, as if we’d have been better off sitting on the rocks and watching from land. When I think about the whales, about how close we were, it was worth every stomach churning, head throbbing second. I wouldn’t get on a boat at Hermanus again, and I probably wouldn’t recommend it, but I’m glad that I did it. It was an unforgettable experience, one that makes me wonder at the heartlessness of whalers—how could one kill something so gentle and playful, so curious, so obviously intelligent—and at how easy it must have been to catch and kill “Right Whales,” named as such because they are slow swimmers, tend to float on the water once harpooned, and stay close to shore. The whales that we saw from land and from sea saw us and seemed interested in us, people watching us as we were whale watching them. They showed off, spinning in the water, breaching, and playing. There were other places less populated with human beings where mothers could nurse their calves, but they came right up to the rocks where people stood, displaying their babies to us. To steal from a recent New Yorker article on whales, despite the terrible history surrounding our two species, there seems to be some kind of gentle connection between us, as we watch each other from solid ground or boat deck and from the ocean.

Photos, from top: the Southern Right Whale calf spyholing (the top of the head is cut off in the photo because the sea was so rough); the view over Walker Bay--no whales visible; a random man on the rocks at Walker Bay to give you an idea of how close the whales were to shore; Morgan, Wenli, and Heather in front of the boat; the baby whale sticking out its tongue.

I tried to post a not-so-great video of the whales in Walker Bay, but the Internet is impossible today. I'll try again later--the video is much better at capturing what was going on, since it was hard to anticipate when one of the many whales would breach or lobtail and get the camera around in time to capture it.


  1. This past February, I had the amazing experience of touching a baby Pacific Gray Whale in Bahía Magdalena. It was incredible that after the initial encounter of 20 minutes the mother and the calf followed our tiny panga for a while. It sure made us appreciate a certain bonding aspect of this specific human-whale interaction. I posted the story and the video of this interaction -

  2. I am so jealous! also, great pictures. Post some that have you in it!!!