Thursday, September 29, 2011

South Africa Day 2: Whale Watching in Hermanus

Capetown at Sunrise, Saturday, September 23, 2011

South Africa Day 2: Whale Watching in Hermanus

Saturday, September 23, 2011

After 5 weeks of being with our ship community, Pat and I finally had 3 days to ourselves!  On our second day in South Africa, we took the plunge and rented a little Opel Lite mini-car (small!), willed ourselves over to the left (read: British) side of the road, and headed out of Capetown.  

False Bay and Table Mountain from Sir Lowry Pass

We were bound for Hermanus, the whale-watching capital of South Africa, 2 hours southeast of Capetown on Walker Bay.  South African friends John & Isobel de Gruchy live just outside Hermanus at Volmoed Community (see next blog entry); I first met the de Gruchy family nearly 30 years ago at Holden Village.  They arranged for us to stay in one of the Volmoed cottages for a couple nights, and we were excited to see a new section of the Western Cape.

Hottentot Holland Range, Sir Lowry Pass

After initially getting lost trying to exit Capetown (and getting an unplanned tour of the University of Capetown where John spent his teaching career), we headed east on the N2 National highway (at the unnerving speed of 120 kph).  Our trusty little Opel had no problem ascending the rocky Hottentot Holland Range and soon we were up at Sir Lowry Pass, looking back across False Bay and the Cape Flats to Table Mountain.  Stunning views!

Coastline near Hermanus

From Sir Lowry Pass we traversed fields of apple orchards, wheat, and vineyards, and made our way first to Volmoed Community, nestled in the coastal hills, and then to Hermanus.  We arrived a week before the annual Whale Watching Festival, but were in luck, as we had a beautiful sunny day, and people were spotting whales and their telltale spouts at several places around the Bay.

Hermanus is particularly noted for whale watching because it sits high on the cliffs (it reminded Pat so much of La Jolla north of San Diego), and the whales are able to come within a few hundred yards of shore.  When we first arrived at mid-day, we could see a handful of whales several hundred yards off shore, including several pairs of mother & calf. 

Whale Watchers in Hermanus
We also met the Hermanus Whale Crier – a local who keeps a close watch on the ocean and blows his horn when whales are spotted.  He stopped to chat with us a while, and was delighted to find that we were from Montana: at over 15,000 kilometers from South Africa,
Hermanus Whale Crier
he figured we were probably the farthest away visitors in Hermanus that day (for comparison, the South Pole is only a little over 6,000 km away, and New York and Beijing are roughly equi-distant at around 12,500 km distance)

Southern Right Whale on back
Whale Spouting

Following a fun lunch of local fish and chips, we returned to the watch, crossing tide pools to wave-battered rocks at sea-level, and this time we were rewarded with several whales only a few dozen yards away – amazing!  Several times the whales would roll on their backs and lift their fins in the air, or turn over and slap the water with their tales.

Southern Right Whale Breaching
Southern Right Whale Breaching
Then a little further out own whale began “breaching” – where the whale would hurl itself out of the water vertically, and come down with a crash, sending water flying and drawing cheers from all assembled on shore. 

Whale "Spyglassing"

The most common whale in these waters is the Southern Right Whale – so named by whalers because it was considered the “right” whale to harvest, for both the oil it provided, and because the dead whales floated and could be harvested more easily.

At one point South Africa’s Right Whale population numbered over 25,000, but overhunting over several decades had reduced it to the point of extinction: by the 1930s, only 35 Southern Right Whales remained around South Africa.  An international moratorium on whaling has allowed its population to slowly rebound, and it now numbers over 2000, and is growing at about 6.7% annually.

Its Northern Right Whale cousins have not been so lucky, and now number only about 200, and do not appear to be reproducing, and so may be heading toward extinction.

Sunset over Vineyards above Hermanus

In the evening we returned to Hermanus for another seafood supper with John and Isobel and their long-time friend, Carolyn Butler.  A stunning sunset over the ocean, the growing lights of a chain of coastal villages strung along Walker Bay, and then we headed back to Volmoed where a moonless night allowed the southern stretch of the Milky Way to streak across the sky, ending in Pat’s first view of the Southern Cross.  We slept peacefully that night in our little cottage, appropriately named “Grace.”

Sunset over Hermanus; View from our Restaurant


  1. This sounds like a marvelous couple of days. I am so glad that you got some time to yourselves. Thanks for all the work on this blog. I am very much enjoying following along with your trip. Good travels. Jean

  2. Wow, you got up close and personal with the whales! We saw a couple when we went to Kalk Bay with Layne and Brian. When I was in Hermanus last year, it was cloudy and overcast--I had no idea it was as beautiful as the coastline picture you posted above!

    Kristin L.

  3. So pleased you came whale watching in Hermanus! Love seeing pics by visitors - they're always so fresh. BTW The whale is 'spyhopping' not 'spyglassing'. Hope you come back soon!