South Africa enjoys a reputation as one of the world’s best whale watching locations. Every year, pods of Southern Right Whales and Humpback Whales migrate off its shores, and dolphins can be spotted all year round. As such, whale watching is one of the main attractions of South Africa – and indeed the KwaZulu Natal coast – during prime migration months. Some whales tend to stay in fairly shallow waters to nurse young calves, which mean that whale watching is possible from the shore as well as from boats. Here is a guide to some of the main species of whales you might be lucky enough to spot off the coast of KwaZulu Natal.
Southern Right Whales
South Africa is arguably the best place in the world from which to spot the Southern Right Whale. Between May and December every year, they migrate to our warmer waters from Antarctica in order to mate and give birth. Southern Right Whales are easily identifiable by their huge heads, which take up approximately one third of their total body size, and their distinctive “frowning” mouths. Its head is also typically covered in white clumps of hardened skin. A fully grown adult can measure up to 16.5 metres and calves are born weighing a whopping 1,500 pounds. Females often stay in shallow waters in order to protect their newborn calves from the dangers of sea predators; as a result they can often be spotted easily from the shore. Southern Right Whales are baleen whales, which feed on a diet of plankton.
The Humpback is one of the most easily identifiable whales, thanks to its long flippers and lumps of white tubercles on its head. Humpbacks, which are part of the baleen and rorqual whale families, are one of the most fascinating species of whales to watch due to their tendency to breach (jump almost fully out of the water) often. The whales travel in pods and migrate to the warmer waters of South Africa between July and November. The females are slightly larger than the males, can measure up to 16 metres in length, and weigh up to 45 tonnes. Humpback Whales can be a variety of colours, from white (in rare cases) to black or grey. They are often mottled in appearance, frequently bearing scars and barnacle patches. Like the Southern Right Whale, the Humpback feeds on plankton and krill.
Although two thirds of the Bryde’s Whale live in the Northern Hemisphere, they are occasionally spotted off the coast near to Zululand. Bryde’s Whales are part of the baleen whale family and measure between 12 and 14 metres in length and 2,200 pounds in weight. Unlike many other whale species, which spend some of the year in colder climates, Bryde’s Whales stick to warmer or temperate waters all year round. They rarely breach, instead tending to surface just to blow, meaning they can be harder to spot. Bryde’s Whales are dark grey in colour and similar in appearance to its larger cousins, the Blue Whale, Fin Whale and Sei Whale, and its smaller cousin, the Minke Whale.
The Minke Whale is similar in appearance to the Bryde’s Whale, and is a common sighting on many whale watching cruises. They have shorter dive times (often around ten to 12 minutes) which means they are a firm favourite people aboard whale watching cruise trips; operators usually offer high chances of spotting them while out on boats. Like the Bryde’s Whale, Minke Whales are dark grey in colour but are much smaller, measuring up to eight metres when fully grown. The Minke is the smallest baleen whale, and is identifiable by a distinctive white band on each of its flippers and on its belly, which is a contrast to its dark coloured top half. Minke Whales have a worldwide population of around 800,000, and travel either alone or in small pods of around two or three.
Also known as the Killer Whale, the Orca is a member of the toothed family, and is also – despite commonly being referred to as a whale – the largest species of dolphin. It is one of the sea’s biggest predators, often attacking other sea mammals, including huge blue whales. It is also one of the most easily identifiable whales, due to its long dorsal fin and its distinctive black and white colouring. Orca Whales grow up to ten metres long, and weigh around 12,000 pounds – much heavier than most species of baleen whales. Orcas are highly playful and active animals, and are often seen emerging from the surface in a variety of different forms – including breaching, spy hopping, tail slapping and spouting. Female Orcas can live up to an impressive 90 years of age, and can be spotted in South Africa all year round.
Article by Eve Westbrook