Hermanus is one of the twelve best whale watching destinations in the world according to the World Wildlife Fund (although we believe it is the Whale Capital of the World). This makes the village a favourite holiday destination for both local and overseas visitors. As the whale migration season is coming to an end, tourism in Hermanus is just starting to pick up again during the current level of lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic and with the borders slowly opening, tourists from abroad will hopefully soon start streaming to our shores again.
Walker Bay is famous for being the breeding grounds for the Southern Right Whales, travelling all the way from their feeding grounds around Antarctica. According to marine environmentalist, Noel Ashton, the South African coastline provides an ideal playground for over half of the world’s species of whales and dolphins due to the two oceanic system supporting so many different life forms.
Although it was believed that the whales feed in the Northern hemisphere waters and only come here for birthing and (a process called feast and famine), in recent years Humpback whales had been seen feeding off Cape Columbine, near Paternoster in early summer, where food is in abundance. Read about and look at amazing aerial pictures of the 2019 migration of humpbacks at https://www.sapeople.com/2019/11/30/unbelievable-sighting-of-hundreds-of-whales-off-south-african-coast-photos-by-jean-tresfon/.
Species of Whales Visiting Walker Bay
Other than the Southern Right Whale, Humpbacks and Bryde’s Whales are also found visiting Walker Bay. The bay has a few residential whales which are seen infrequently right through the year.
Hermanus’ Whale Season
The best time to come to Hermanus to see whales is between June and November, with September being the ideal time. The annual Whale Festival is normally held on the last weekend of September. Other related festivals around the time is the Kalfiefees (translation: calve’s feast) in Onrus and the Flower Show (normally the weekend before the Whale Festival).
How to Watch our Celebs
Hermanus has whale watching boats which take visitors to experience the whales up close and personal. For visitors on a tighter budget or for those preferring not going on boats, the good news is that they are visible from the promenade, with Gearing’s Point, the Old Harbour (in the CBD-area) and Siever’s Punt, popular places to watch from. Hermanus’ own whale crier could be found on busy days, blowing on his kelp horn when a whale is observed.
What to pack when visiting Hermanus to do Whale Watching
Although springs shows its warmth in the rest of South Africa, Hermanus can see some of the coldest days during September and October, with rainy and windy days sandwiched in between beautiful wind-still days. So, if you plan to visit, please remember to:
- Make sure to pack some warm clothes for cold weather and layer when getting clothed in the morning.
- With the cool sea breeze almost a constant, carry a jacket and beanie when going out.
- Bringing good binoculars will ensure a great viewing experience.
- Although cell phone cameras are incredibly good these days, bring your DSLR or a good smaller camera. If going on a boat, you will be able to take close by photos of whales, but from the shore you will need a camera with a good zoom ability.
- Good walking shoes is a must for going ‘whale hunting’ from spot to spot to get good pictures.
Interesting Whale Facts
- The Southern Right is one of three species classified as ‘baleen’ whale. They are black with brownish bonnets, with parasite crustaceans attaching themselves to the whale’s body.
- Whales normally give birth to only one calf, although they may carry up to seven foetuses.
- The gestation period is about 12 months.
- Calves are born between June and September in the bay, making a visit to Hermanus and surroundings during this time quite rewarding.
- Mother and calf stay close together in Walker Bay until the calves are strong enough to make the journey back to the North.
- Calves are nursed for about six months.
- They usually return to the same place to give birth, although there are exceptions.
- Instead of teeth, they have hornlike plates consisting of bone.
- It is believed that whales have a three-year cycle of pregnancy, providing them with enough time between calving to feed and recuperate sufficiently.
- According to the University of Pretoria Mammal Research Institute’s Whale Unit, there were between 70 000 and 80 000 whales in the 1700’s. From then on, their numbers declined so much that they were put under international protection. It is estimated that there are around 12 000 Southern Rights now, of a third of which roam through South African waters annually.
Reading through books about Hermanus, many a story is penned about people’s experiences with whales – mostly death-defying recordings of men in fishing boats, big and small. Hermanus’ most famous dame though didn’t endanger anyone’s life as far as I have read, but she chose her favourite spot in Walker Bay and kept coming back here. Wendy, as she was called by locals, loved a spot near a cove close to town nearby Hermanus Pieters’ fountain. The cottage standing there on the rocks by itself was thus fittingly called Wendy’s Cottage. It is still standing, being awarded heritage status. Wendy stopped coming there in the early 1940’s and another whale came to inhabit her spot. Of course, she was named after her popular predecessor. Maybe she was even Wendy’s offspring…
Other Residents to Lookout for when the Whales are Shy During your Whale Watching Holiday
If you miss the superstars during ‘whale season’ or if you are here at the right time but they seem to be shy and don’t show themselves, keep an eye out for other stars on our marine stage.
- Dolphins are frequently passing through the bay swimming and diving, with their shimmering bodies and bold moves making it look as if they are flying in and out of the water. They are sometimes accompanying penguins.
- Close to Hermanus are two sanctuaries for African penguins – at Kleinbaai, (near Gansbaai towards L’Agullas), and the other at Betty’s Bay (to the other side towards Cape Town). A visit to these sanctuaries is a great family activity and a wonderful daytrip to also explore other sights in those areas.
- In the absence of the whales, the cute dassies (rock hyrax) entertain locals and tourists with their laziness on the one hand, and their swiftness and craftiness when it comes to acquiring food throughout the year.
- Cape Fur Seal colonies are also to be found in Walker Bay and on a walk of the cliff paths they can be seen hunting and playing in the water near to the rocks. The New Harbour, Gearing’s Point and Kwaaiwater are places to be on the lookout for these wonderful creatures.
- Sharks are protected in the area and shark cage diving is an option for the ‘dare-devil’ visitor. Kleinbaai, near Gansbaai, is the basis of cage diving in the area.
- Birdlife is of course aplenty in the Overberg area. Use your whale watching binoculars to spot the many species found along the coast and keep the camera ready to capture spectacular pictures of seagulls and other birds in flight.
To find more things to do in Hermanus, read my previous blog entry at https://fieliesdekock.com/2020/10/09/hermanus_is_awaiting_you/
Sources to check out for much more interesting facts and lots more information about whales:
Book: Hermanus Whales, Wines, Fynbos, Art – by Beth Hunt (and photographs by Johann and Kobus Kruger)
Book: Whale Capital Chronicles 1, S. J. Du Toit
Read about Hermanus’ history on Robin Lee’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002247851042
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Partnering with House Watchers Hermanus