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Counting the Giants: an Aerial Whale Survey

If there’s one thing about the natural world that continues to amaze me, it’s that whales still exist. As we contemplate habitat destruction, oceans of plastic and mass extinctions, it gives me much heart to know that these giant creatures – the biggest animals that have ever lived – continue to slowly make their way around the globe.

And in South Africa at this time of year, you can see them without having to leave the comforts of dry land. From late August, Southern Right whales (Eubalaena australis) arrive in the shallow coastal waters of the Western Cape to display, breed or give birth before returning to the food-rich but icy waters of the Antarctic in November.

Aerial shot of Southern Right whales in South Africa.

The clear waters of the Indian Ocean makes spotting whales from the air relatively easy for the survey team.

These whales, measuring up to 18 metres (60 feet) long, once visited the Cape’s coast in such numbers that their breath – expelled from their blowholes – used to create clouds of mist over the ocean. Needless to say, the Southern Right was exploited mercilessly in the great whale-hunting years – 90% of the population was killed – and although they reliably grace the coast every year, two big questions remain:

How many are there? And where is the best place to see them? Well, the first aerial whale survey of the 2021 season gives us some good answers.

Conducted by marine conservationist Jean Tresfon for the Mammal Research Institute Whale Unit, the census involved flying along the Western Cape coast from within sight of Cape Town to the white-sand beaches of the De Hoop Nature Reserve over 200 kilometres (120 miles) away.

You may be surprised by how easy counting whales is: of course they are huge but the Cape’s Indian Ocean waters are crystal-clear and by observing the pattern of callosities on a whale’s head, an individual can be compared against a database of known whales. This helps understand their movements better, and also means you don’t end up counting the same ones.

Aerial whale survey at South Africa De Hoop

Seen closer, the white markings on the head – called callosities – reveal a whale’s identity as surely as a fingerprint reveals ours.

The survey began in Hermanus and Walker Bay, the traditional whale-watching area close to Cape Town where they saw 35 individuals, mostly unaccompanied adults – some of whom were presumed to be adult females due to give birth.

Whale sightings came and went as they negotiated the twisting coastline but nothing prepared them for what was waiting at De Hoop.

Jean takes up the story: “We counted 132 cow/calf pairs and 16 unaccompanied adults at De Hoop for a total of 280 southern right whales … Some of the whale calves were truly tiny, probably only days old. This truly is the whale hotspot of South Africa!”

Cow and calf Southern Right whales at De Hoop

Lekkerwater Beach Lodge enjoys a prime location with the extraordinary De Hoop Reserve.

All in all, the survey revealed a total of 368 southern right whales, with almost 80% of that number found off the De Hoop coast. Let’s take a closer look at this place.

The De Hoop Nature Reserve is a unique conservation area: it encompasses both land and marine habitats and the easiest of walks in the reserve bring sightings of flowers, antelope and baboons.

Protected from any fishing or exploitation, the De Hoop coastline heaves with life – the tidal rock pools are legendary – and it’s not unusual to see dolphins coursing through the surf. It’s no wonder that this corner of the Cape attracts so many Southern Right whales.

There are several accommodation options at De Hoop. Tucked into dunes overlooking the Indian Ocean, Morukuru Beach Lodge has five suites (including a honeymoon hideaway) and can be booked by suite or as an exclusive-use property.

Its smaller sister lodge – Morukuru Ocean House – is a good choice for a luxurious, off-grid experience that would suit an intergenerational family or group of friends.

And then there is Lekkerwater Beach Lodge, set quite literally between land and sea, and rapidly gaining a reputation as one of the country’s top travel destinations.

Lekkerwater Lodge accommodation with a view

You can watch whales at this time of year without leaving the comfort of your Lekkerwater suite.

De Hoop is easy to access: it’s a 3-hour drive from Cape Town through a gentle, meandering countryside and although it is peak whale season in September, there are some great accommodation deals around – Morukuru is offering low season rates until 24th September for example – so it pays to act quickly.

Another aerial survey is planned for early September – who knows, maybe you’ll spot them as they fly along the De Hoop shoreline.

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