Whales and DolphinsWhen and where to watch
The Southern Right and Humpback whales pass Strandfontein in groups of 8-10 between June and December. There is a look-out point on top of the hill to the south of the town. Be on the look-out for Bryde’s whales, common dolphins, Heaviside dolphins and dusky dolphins. Seating and an information board have been erected at this site. The Wandering Whale Labyrinth, just south of Strandfontein, is an exceptional labyrinth with the path made of blue mussel shells with a pink rose quartz centre.
Southern Right Whale (Eubalaena australis)
The southern right whale is the most commonly spotted whale along the West Coast in the cool season between May and November. Courting pairs breach and lobtail or slap the water with their flippers while the mothers can be seen escorting their newly born calves around sheltered bays. This whale acquired its name from early whalers, who considered it to be the ‘right’ whale to hunt as it occurred close inshore and was a slow swimmer. It has been protected since 1931. The southern right whale is distinguishable from other whale species by the absence of a dorsal fin and the v-shaped blow, which is the spout from the blowhole as the whale surfaces. The head is covered with callosities (paler, wart-like patches), which are inhabited by barnacles, and whale lice that feed on the dead outer layers of skin.
Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeangliae)
On departing the Antarctic waters and its abundance of krill, humpbacks feed on zooplankton in our coastal waters. These gentle giants have enormous flippers and the males are renowned for their stirring underwater vocalisations during mating season.
Bryde’s Whale (Balaenoptera brydei)
Off South Africa, there appear to be two populations: one resident inshore over the continental shelf and another, which is migratory, found off the shelf. These whales are more likely to be encountered at sea rather than close to shore. Their coastal distribution is recorded mainly between East London and Cape Point, although sightings have been made beyond but taper off after Cape Columbine in the west and Port St John’s in the east and are more likely to be encountered at sea than close to the shore.
Killer Whale / Orca (Orcinus orca)
These cetaceans are in fact not whales at all but dolphins. Says Meredith Thornton of the University of Pretoria’s Mammal Research Institute (“MRI”) “There are three different types of killer whales: transients that are mostly mammal eaters, residents that are fish eaters and the offshore type that probably do both. We suspect that the ones occurring off our coast are the mammal eating type.”
Heaveside’s Dolphin (Cephalorhynchus heavisidii)
Of the dolphins that inhabit these waters, Heaviside’s dolphin is the smallest. Found only off the West Coast of southern Africa, this species can be easily identified by its blunt (rather than prominent) beak and the triangular dorsal fin. They socialise inshore in small groups in the mornings, while in the afternoons and at night they travel offshore to feed on juvenile hake. They are also very athletic and take readily to the breakers along the surf zone.
Dusky Dolphin (Lagenorhynchus obscurus)
These dolphins also frequent the cold Benguela current waters, but not exclusively. They have also being found south of the Tropic of Capricorn. Their dorsal fins are sickle-shaped. They are often seen riding the bow waves of boats and cooperating in large groups to corral fish in a bait ball by leaping and slapping the water’s surface with their bodies and tails. Unlike whales that visit our waters for mating and calving, dolphins migrate with their food.
Common Dolphin (Delphinus delphis)
These dolphins prefer deep offshore waters and to a lesser extent over continental shelves to shallow waters. They have a wide distribution worldwide and are known to interact with other cetaceans from time to time.