World Whale Day 2021

David Krone
15 February 2021

Today, on world whale day, we appreciate the immense and peaceful creatures who we often glimpse breaching our horizons. There are three species of whale which we are lucky enough to have grace our South African coastline: the Southern Right Whale, Humpback Whale, and Bryde’s Whale.

Whales in South Africa

Between June and October, we are blessed with the presence of the migratory Southern Right Whale. These giants come close to shore for breeding and make for amazing viewing. They are very acrobatic and with their strong tails they can propel themselves out of the water. As these whales can grow up to 15 meters, this is no small feat and is a spectacular sight to witness.

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Making the long and arduous swim from Antarctica for breeding, Humpbacks move up the coast towards Mozambique, Tanzania and Madagascar. These determined whales can be seen between the months of June and October and are easily identified by their humps and long pectoral fins. These majestic creatures are inquisitive and, like the Southern Right, like to put on a show for viewers.

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Bryde’s Whales are often solitary as they wander our oceans. However, sometimes they are seen in groups of mothers and their calves when feeding together. Much like our ‘Durbanites’, Bryde’s Whales prefer to reside in warmer waters, and because of this, these beautiful creatures can be seen all year round in the Indian Ocean, usually far out at sea.

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Boat-based whale watching (BBWW)

With funding from WWF Green Trust, in partnership with Nelson Mandela University and in collaboration with local tour operators, Nature’s Valley Trust has been leading research into the socio-economic and conservation impacts of South Africa’s boat-based whale-watching (BBWW) industry. This forms part of a Sustainable Marine Tourism programme and is one of the foundations that will contribute to the establishment of a greater Plettenberg Bay Conservation Plan: a very exciting and groundbreaking initiative.

A study on boat-based whale-watching (including dolphins and seals) in pre-COVID-19 times has revealed that it is a significant contributor to tourism in and around Plettenberg Bay, bestowing about R371.2 million per year and creating as many as 92 jobs. This equates to about 250 people benefitting from these employment opportunities. The research has also revealed that as many as 49% of tourists come to Plettenberg Bay specifically to experience our marine life. The concern is however that BBWW risks altering the behavior of whales and creating stresses which could result in population decline or displacement over the long term.

To help mitigate this and make BBWW a more sustainable industry, part of the study has been to outline minimum distances which tour operators have to maintain from the marine life. The study also emphasizes the importance of approaching very slowly so as not to startle or disrupt unsuspecting animals. Furthermore, it encourages tour operators to be more transparent in their advertising and to manage expectations of customers so that operators do not feel put under undue stress to deliver sightings and disobey permit guidelines. Colourful and informative infographics providing important information regarding the viewing of different whale and dolphin species as well as our Cape Fur Seal can be found on our website.

Our friendly giants at the top of the food chain are a key indicator of marine ecosystem health. If we are to continue to have these mystical creatures grace our waters, we need to ensure that our interactions with them are guided by research. This is critical if we are to sustainably derive benefit for our tourism industry.

Saskia Minke Chanel Hannah Caitling GT researchers and interns

Sources:

Caitlin Judge , Gwenith Susan Penry , Mark Brown & Minke Witteveen (2020): Clear waters: assessing regulation transparency of website advertising in South Africa’s boat-based whale-watching industry, Journal of Sustainable Tourism, DOI: 10.1080/09669582.2020.1844723

George Branch, Margo Branch, Lynnath Beckley, Charles Griffiths (1994): Two Oceans - A Guide To The Marine Life Of Southern Africa (Paperback, 4th Edition)