As Keri Harvey discovers, not much beats watching these leviathans heave themselves out of the deep
Pictures: Lloyd Edwards, Martin Coetzee, Advantage Tours & Charters, Dyer Island Cruises
Lloyd Edwards has had a lifelong love affair with whales. “We still know so little about them,” he says, his sea-blue eyes transfixed on the ocean as he steers his boat Winkle out of the harbour.
He’s been watching whales almost daily for 22 years in Algoa Bay, off Port Elizabeth – long before permits to do so by boat were available. Now he’s a licensed whale-watching boat operator, and shares the whale-watching experience aboard Winkel, while simultaneously collecting data for his master’s degree on Bryde’s whales.
Throughout winter and spring, South Africa has whales coast to coast. Southern rights, humpbacks, Bryde’s and Minke whales are just a few of the species to be seen. Some are passing by, others stay throughout the year, but all will take your breath away when they breach like living rockets from the ocean’s surface.
This morning it’s a smooth ride out into the bay across an unusually glassy sea. All aboard are twittering in anticipation of seeing whales. Some are speaking French and German, but the language of excitement is universal. Ten minutes into the trip, Lloyd slows the boat and six heads spin around scanning the ocean surface for fins or tails. There’s nothing to be seen. Lloyd smiles and says, “Just be patient, there’s a southern right close by.”
The chatter stops dead and six sets of eyes scan the sea, none quite sure what will happen next. Then there’s an almost choreographed gasp as a southern right clears the ocean in a mighty breach and belly flops back onto the surface of the sea, sending spray flying in all directions. The watchers are caught completely off-guard and fumble clumsily for their cameras. “Just save that one to memory,” says Lloyd, “there should be more.” Cameras are now ready.
Lloyd turns Winkle in a different direction towards St Croix Island – here live penguins and also huge schools of dolphins. It’s also quite likely there’ll be more whales to see en route. As he steers us smoothly out to sea, questions are fired from around the boat. Lloyd has likely answered them all a thousand times, but he never tires of whale talk.
“Whales are so mysterious, that’s why they keep me captivated,” he answers one guest. “Besides, every day at sea is different – the conditions, what you see and how the animals behave. Always something new.”
One theory why whales breach, Lloyd explains, is just for fun. But it could also be for communication, or to increase muscle tone in the calves, learnt from copying their mothers. Many believe it’s to shake off parasites since they land on their backs where parasites usually live. “Except,” says Lloyd, “the Bryde’s whale breaches at 45 degrees with no real force and lands back on its stomach.
*Catch the rest of the story in the September 2014 edition of Country Life.