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Whale of a time

The South African coastline is the place to be from June to November if you want to hear these gentle giants sing or catch them in action.

travel Updated: Oct 29, 2012 13:09 IST
Sneha Mahale
Sneha Mahale
Hindustan Times

You’d think that spotting a whale would be an easy task. After all, they rank amongst the largest mammals on earth, have set migration patterns, few natural predators and move around in pods, usually spouting spray through their blowholes. And they are known to love the attention, often coming close to visitors’ boats or jumping out of the water or waving their tail fins at crowds. That is till you realise that the ocean is a rather vast expanse and a whale can easily get lost in all that blue.

Yet we took a chance and headed for some whale watching one cold morning in September this year. The trip was being organised by Ocean Blue Adventures at Plettenberg Bay in South Africa, a place known around the world for its high chance of whale spotting. Several species of the large mammals pass the South African coastline as part of their migration route and as we had arrived during the season (June to November), we were told that our chances to see at least one whale would be high. This left us rather happy with our choice of activity for the day.

After a few safety instructions and details on how to tackle sea sickness, we were off on a speed boat in search of the gentle giants.

It was only then that the enormity of the task at hand became apparent. If the sight of the never-ending ocean was not daunting enough, the rather small boat looked even tinier against the large waves on the choppy seas. A few seals and sea birds provided some entertainment, even as we scouted the seas for one of the world’s largest mammals. All this time, the operator co-ordinated with whale spotters for their exact locations. To keep everyone’s spirits up,
he even informed us that we would get a refund of nearly 60 per cent if we did not see anything.

But we did not need to take him up on his offer. As he said it, we saw a huge humpback whale breach in front of us. We stayed on course with him, as he
continued to dive into the water and breach every few seconds. But before one could click a solo picture of him, two more joined in the frolic in the high seas. They raced, flipped, thrashed, jumped out of the water, waved and even sang for the delighted tourists onboard. After 30 minutes with this animated pod, it was time to make our way back.

And if the time spent searching for whales in the rough seas wasn’t enough, we had a second interaction while taking a ferry back from Robben Island to Cape Town a few days later. A humpback whale decided to make its presence known with a few jumps and quite a lot of thrashing.

The experiences did make it to the top of that travel bucketlist for anyone onboard both boats, even if the one checking out the action was a nature
lover or not.

Spot them here

Spain: The clear warm seas between Tenerife and La Gomera attract gentle pilot whales all year round.

New Zealand: Head to the small town of Kaikoura to spot sperm whales.

USA: California is one of the best places to see the blue whales, the largest species around.

Azores: Expect to see blue whales, killer whales, pilot whales, and a variety of dolphins.

Iceland: Head here in the summer months to see minke whales, blue whales and humpback whales.

Alaska: The ‘Whale Pass’ in Ketchikan is a must-visit spot to see the grey whales, along with humpbacks and killer whales.

Norway: Head to this beautiful country to see killer whales in action.

Canada: Visit Vancouver Island to see migrating pods of whales of all varieties.

Argentina: Visit the protruding Valdes Peninsula from February to April where you can see killer whales hunting sea lions.

Top tips
* Take a good pair of binoculars and choose clear, calm days.
* Select an area where whales have been reported previously.
* Look for the blow of a whale, that is the cloud of spray or mist that appears as the air is exhaled through the blowhole.
* Do not allow whales to become boxed in, cut off their path, or prevent them from leaving and do not approach mothers with young calves.
* Keep the camera clicking. You never know when the whale will breach and you get that perfect picture.