“ Address: The Whale Shack / New Harbour / Hermanus / South Africa „
Hermanus in South Africa's Western Cape is the main centre for whale watching off the coast, and in fact they have a whale festival here every September and even employ a whale-crier to blow a kelp horn when one is spotted. Between June-November you can often spot them from the shore as they come in close during breeding season, and indeed we spotted quite a few at various places along the Western Cape coast.
Although there are various other whales you may spot the most common in the Southern Right Whale, so named because it is a meaty whale that swims slowly and floats when it is dead and therefore was the 'right' whale to hunt back in the days when whaling was allowed.
As an alternative to spotting from the shore, you can also do a whale watching boat trip which is what we did. We used a company called Southern Right Charters, which leaves three times a day (four times a day from September to December) when whales are around. We had a noon sailing and the cost was R600 (£52/$80) which is one of the most expensive activities I did on my holiday. The length of the trip varies depending on how far out they have to travel to get to the whales and can vary from 90 minutes to three hours. Ours took about two and a half hours. It is advisable to get there about 30 minutes before sailing as the captain gives a little talk about basic safety and what you can expect to see. Children (by law) must wear life-jackets which are supplied, but adults do not, although it is clear where they are located if you are worried. The boat, a specially adapted catamaran can hold 70 passengers plus crew. There is enough seating inside (enclosed area) for all if you wish, but I preferred to stand on the outside and move about. We had a smooth trip but when the boat was stationery we did rock a bit in the swell, especially when we were close to shore, when we could really feel the waves. I would recommend taking a travel sickness tablet or alternative method if at all concerned.
As a licensed whale watching company the boat is allowed to go 50m from the whales after which they switch their engines off. It is up to the whales from there on in. More often than not they will swim up to and under the boat (they are massive - up to 15-16m long as an adult - if you look down as they swim under all you see is seemingly never ending whale). We often got to see the tops of their heads and backs as they drifted past, as well as a flick of a fin or flipper. Sometimes their whole head popped up and they watched you through a beady eye. They seemed curious but not at all fazed by us. We did see a number of whales breach (when they leap out of the water) but they don't tend to do that close to the boat so you need to keep your eyes peeled in the distance as there are no warnings, but if they do it once, they often do further breaches. We saw two whales breaching at the same time in different parts of the ocean - naturally I was looking in the wrong direction nearly every time. When taking photos on a boat note that (even with the engines off) it does rock a bit with the swell of the water so it is quite hard to focus at a distance, as you may be using a zoom and by the time you have it centred in your view-finder, it has slunk below the surface again.
The boat waits until all whales are 50m away again before turning the engines back on and moving off to find some more. The trip includes a guide but I couldn't really hear him very well when the engines were on as I was outside, but once they were off I could hear what he was telling us, which was informative regarding the animals and guiding us as to where we should look. He spoke in English but there was a language translator that spoke multiple languages and went around talking to non-English speakers. Your ticket also includes a free can of soft drink and bag of crisps, which was handy considering the time of our sailing. I am sure you could have purchased extra if you wanted to. They also had toilets but I didn't use them. On our journey back to Hermanus the captain/whale guide went around with photos to show people of previous trips and what they had spotted as well as answering questions.
If I had a gripe it was that the boat was fairly full and it was difficult to see the whales sometimes as there were throngs of people in the way. I found a little spot on the side and more or less stayed there however, as it is pot luck as to which side of the boat the whales decided to grace with their presence. However if you do get a spot right at the front it would be good, but popular. The back also seemed to be a good place to stand.
Although we didn't see any other types of whale, we did spot dolphin, seals and a penguin as well as a variety of sea birds. My photos of the whales did consist of a lot of shots of dark shapes and blank expanses of sea unfortunately. In fact I think I got my better whale photos from land based spots. Whilst this is an expensive activity and my photos were a bit hit and miss I did really enjoy the trip and do recommend it if you are in the vicinity at the right time and it fits your budget as there is a chance of getting close to numerous whales and observing them go about their business and felt very honoured that the whales obliged by coming close to us.