Winter has come to Walker Bay, and with the cold, so too comes the start of whale season 2019. With Southern Right Whale sightings rising over the last three years, and individual numbers rising drastically over the last year, this season is almost certain to deliver once again. The increase in these iconic cetaceans brings many benefits for the Overberg’s tourism industry, but why exactly are these whale numbers on the rise?
The answer may lie in a global weather phenomenon known as El Nino. El Nino is a naturally occurring event that is defined by unusually warm water off the coast of South America for five months or more. This increase in surface water temperature affects the numbers of krill – tiny, shrimp-like animals that are the primary food source for Southern Right Whales. With this effect extending into parts of the Antarctic Ocean, it is possible that the whales have moved away from affected waters, and instead into the more eastern reaches of the Antarctic Ocean where cold, nutrient-rich water makes krill plentiful. Once the whales have had their fill and it comes time to leave the Antarctic, more of their numbers may be choosing to mate and calve around the Overberg where ocean temperatures are cooler – where in the past, many would have returned to their ancestral breeding grounds around South America.
Since El Nino began over the 2015-2016 period, Walker Bay’s Southern Right Whale sightings have very nearly tripled: from just 834 sightings in 2016, up to a colossal 2257 for the 2018 season. While sightings alone can be affected by multiple factors and do not necessarily translate to an actual increase in individuals, it is worth noting that 2018 saw an increase of almost four times the number of individual whales observed in 2017. This massive increase in whale numbers has caused Hermanus to be named the top destination in the world for whale watching – a title that was previously held by Santa Catarina in Brazil. While it is anticipated that ocean temperatures around South America will normalise again, this has not yet taken place. Given that whale season has already started, it is very likely that Walker Bay will once again see a huge amount of Southern Right Whales taking to its shores this year.
While Hermanus has been named the top spot for whale watching in the world, the best place from which to see the miracle of birth is De Hoop, where the warmer water is favourable for calving. While boat-based charters are not allowed into the marine protected area, visitors on foot to De Hoop will not be disappointed – they can walk the reserve’s Whale Trail and try their luck from land with either the naked eye or a pair of binoculars.
Although De Hoop is the perfect choice for a female Southern Right Whale to give birth, the water here is too warm for her to stay. Once the calf is strong enough, she will move to De Kelders with her newborn in tow. Nestled between soaring sandstone cliffs and flanked by seaside caves, De Kelders is a favourite spot among Southern Rights when it comes to safeguarding their calves. Bordering the pristine white sands of Die Plaat, De Kelders gives mothers and their calves easy access to the shoreline, where many cows will instinctively nestle calves right up against the beach for protection. De Kelders is also the ideal location from which to view this spectacle by boat – although it is important to remember that vessels may not approach within 200m of a calf.
While there is much excitement over the increasing numbers of Walker Bay’s Southern Right Whales, this exciting finding and its implications for this season have come in the wake of a difficult time for the Overberg tourism industry. During 2018, Cape Town and surrounds faced the imminent danger of Day Zero, while Hermanus was subject to rioting – this drove down the number of visitors to the area, with many guesthouses facing booking reductions of 20-30% as droves of international visitors cancelled their trips to South Africa.
Whale season 2019 however, brings with it the hope of better days to come. Not only have water conservation efforts pushed back the threat of Day Zero, but the riots have calmed. Hermanus has taken the title of whale watching mecca from Brazil, and Gansbaai boat-based whale viewing company, The Ivanhoe, has been inducted into the Trip Advisor Hall of Fame for receiving five consecutive Certificates of Excellence. Hotels and guesthouses are already reporting an increase in bookings, and with whale numbers expected to remain strong for the season, the future of Overberg tourism is looking bright – thanks in no small part to the Southern Right Whale.