#EcoTravels: Whale season kicks off with massive monitoring project launched on KZN coast

2018-07-09 11:44 - Gabi Zietsman
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Universities, conservation organisations and other NGOs are banding together for a 2-month monitoring survey of humpback whales that migrate along the KwaZulu-Natal coastline between the Antarctic and Mozambique.

Kicking off in iSimangaliso Wetland Park, the monitoring project forms part of a 30-year survey that is tracking the population recovery of these giants after their numbers were decimated by the coast's commercial whaling practices between 1908 and 1979. 

SEE: Spain creates a Mediterranean reserve for whale migration

It was first started by Professor Ken Findlay and Dr Peter Best from Cape Peninsula University of Technology and University of Pretoria, respectively, in 1988. The long-term monitoring will not only highlight the impact whaling and its ban had on the species, but how other factors like climate change, whale watching, pollution, fisheries and oil and gas exploration have affected the whales over the decades.

The data collected will include numbers and pod sizes, density, migration speed and their distance from the shore. This data in turn will also create a measuring stick for the southern ocean's wider ecosystem, which can be used to influence policies around conservation and resource use in the area.

"The recovery of Southern Hemisphere humpback whales from severe whaling pressures last century when some 210 000 animals were whaled, must rate as one of the world's great conservation recoveries," commented Findlay.

"Populations that migrate on the KwaZulu-Natal coast each year were whaled in the Antarctic, on their migration and in their Mozambican breeding grounds. Their current recovery at some 10% per annum is really heartening to see."

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Monitoring equipment looking out at ocean bay at C

The whale towers afford observers a panoramic ocean view, ideal for spotting whales. (Photo: Love Africa Marketing)

Professor instructs Wildlife ACT volunteers in dat

Chris Wilkinson, Technical Manager at the University of Pretoria's Mammal Research Institute, instructs Wildlife ACT volunteers in data collection techniques. (Photo: Love Africa Marketing)

The park's Cape Vidal dunes are hosting the surveyors from conservation NGO Wildlife ACT, offering the perfect vantage point as migrating humpback whales move close to the shore en route between the colder and warmer waters.

“Over the past decade, it has been presumed the humpback whale population is increasing as the number of reported mortalities have increased. However, threats to these whale populations are accelerating,” said Jennifer Olbers, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife Marine Ecologist.

One of these threats includes noise pollution in the ocean from large ships and offshore mining activities. Whales communicate through a singing-like vocal language and the noise from human activities can overlap with their frequencies and thus cause habitat displacement and changes in behaviour.

"The iSimangaliso coastline offers an important area in which ocean noise from anthropogenic sources is reduced because shipping lanes are further from the coastline and offshore mining is prohibited, making it an ideal location for such a monitoring survey,” concluded Olbers.

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East Coast Humpback whale breaching

East Coast humpback whale. (Photo: Ken Findlay)

The best spots to see whales in SA

The West Coast 

On the Cape West Coast, excellent sightings of southern rights can be enjoyed all the way from Strandfontein to Lambert's Bay, Elands Bay, St Helena Bay, Saldanha Bay and Yzerfontein, just north of Cape Town. Even in the bays of Cape Town southern right whales are frequently spotted. If you’re lucky, you can even see them from the road along the False Bay coast, or on the scenic coastal Victoria Road. If you don’t want to push your luck, book a trip with the experts

READ: Welcoming of whales: Africa’s first World Whale Conference to be hosted in SA

Hermanus and Walker Bay 

There is real value behind the now commercial Hermanus whale season. The whales really do come up close to the shore here, and they have a particularly playful attitude towards people it seems.

ALSO WATCH: Whale super-pods have made SA coast their regular buffet table

Mossel Bay 

If you’re after the Killers, here might be a good place to look. Hiking the St Blaize Trail will give you a good view of the bay below, where you can spot southern rights, humpbacks, Bryde’s whales or the deadly killer whales feeding on seals on the island in the bay. If you want to go out to sea, book a trip with the boat operators in Plettenberg Bay, further along the Garden Route. 

The Wild Coast

From Cape St Francis onwards, the cliff-lined coast gives some of the best vantage points from where to see Humpbacks, Bryde's whales, and further north towards Port St Johns, even sperm whales. Dolphins are also abundant in this area. You can spot them from land, or opt for a whale watching boat ride.

CHECK OUT Whale watching: Hermanus Whale Festival all set to delight

St Lucia 

This is humpback whale territory, which stretches as far as Cape Vidal. The whales always stay in the perimeters of the coastline. From mid-May to mid-September, they move more north to breed off the Mozambique coast, and from September to December they return, on route to the nutrient-rich waters of Antarctica.

ALSO SEE: Winter whale watching: Spotting the creatures of the deep around SA’s coasts

Eastern Cape

During the months of May to December Humpback whales and Southern Right Whales arrive along the Eastern Cape coast.

One of the best parts of whale watching along the Eastern Cape coast is that you don’t need a boat ride into the ocean to see the whales – they are clearly visible with just a pair of binoculars.

ICYMI: Whale Watching: A must-do winter experience