De Hoop Nature Reserve near Cape Agulhas on the southern Cape coast is one of the best places in the world for land-based whale watching, particularly for southern right whales in September…
Words: Fiona McIntosh
Pictures: www.dehoopcollection.com and Franki Black
The marine reserve off De Hoop is one of the most important nursery grounds for southern right whales in the world. Having migrated north from their sub-Antarctic winter feeding grounds in order to mate, calve and rear their young, large numbers of them can seen from the shore from May/June to December each year.
The dunes at Koppie Alleen are the ideal place to watch the whales – which, in addition to southern rights, include humpback, Bryde, minke and short-finned pilot whales as well as orcas and dolphins – but, as with all wildlife encounters, you can never predict what you might see.
Sometimes there’s no action and the huge behemoths look like big grey logs. Very boring. At other times you’ll be treated to such an impressive display of sailing (whales sticking their tail fins out of the water), spyhopping, blowing, breaching and belly-flopping that your memory card will be full long before you’re ready to stop shooting.
The dunes are a short walk from the public car park so you can self-drive, and the De Hoop Collection (which has a range of accommodation options and activities in the reserve) also offers guided marine walks, birding and quad bike tours to the coast. Alternatively, if you’re feeling energetic, they’ll rent you a bike so you can ride to Koppie Alleen along the mountain-bike trail, taking in the magnificent landscapes, flora and fauna of the reserve as you go.
Why are southern right whales so called?
Historically, this species was regarded as the right kind of whale to hunt because they provided much-needed oil and bone, were easy to hunt and, thanks to their thick layer of blubber, did not sink when harpooned. Whaling in the 19th century led to a drastic fall in their number but, since the International Whaling Commission banned commercial hunting of southern right whales in 1935, the species has been protected. Stocks, though still low, are recovering.
Interesting facts on the southern right whale, courtesy De Hoop Collection
- Southern rights are easy to identify by their V-shaped blow and by the absence of a dorsal fin.
- Adults are 14-18m long, weighing, on average, 55 metric tons.
- Calves are 5-6m at birth.
- Southern rights are slow movers, with an average swimming speed of 3 knots (5.5kmh).