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Jun 2012

By Greg Vogt

A surf launch off the St Lucia coastline is an experience in its own right. When this launch is the beginning of a two-hour whale watching journey, it comes with the anticipation of an adventure. It starts with an early morning call and a short drive over 400m of beach in a 4x4 vehicle.

The coastline runs from north-east to south-west, so the rising sun emerges from the ocean horizon. The early morning temperatures are surprisingly warm for those not accustomed to the subtropical Elephant Coast. Sea temperatures are also inviting.

This stretch of coastline is blessed with a high diversity of marine mammals. Winter months coincide with the migration of the humpback whale. They head north from their Antarctic feeding grounds to their breeding and calving grounds off Mozambique and Madagascar.

After the beach drive one arrives at the base of Advantage Cruises. The outfit is co-owned by Danie Bennet, who designs and purpose-builds the catamarans that are used. The pre-briefing and safety check have a serious tone, with Danie explaining that the catamaran will be hurtling through the St Lucia shore break. This is an aspect that most other whale watching tours don’t have.

Getting up close and personal with 45 tons of marine mammal is always an exhilarating experience. The tour includes narration on whale behaviour and the latest whale research. You’ll learn a lot of interesting things about humpback whales. For one thing, they ‘sing’. These ‘songs’ are actually a series of low tones used to communicate during the mating months. The whales start emitting these tones from shortly after they pass Richards Bay, indicating that they have arrived in mating territory.

I’ve been involved in whale watching since its inception along the South African coastline – and yet every trip still feels as exciting as the first one. My adrenalin pumps during the surf launch and then the excitement settles during the searching phase. The first sighting is something everyone can get involved in and is usually interrupted by sporadic sightings of dolphin groups. Then the first whales are sighted and Danie begins the calculated approach. Skilled skippers approach so as to not disturb the whales. Once the boat is within the no-wake speed zone, the animals will be close enough for you to see clearly. But keep your cameras down for the moment and enjoy the approach as the vessel slowly edges closer.

It’s not always completely serene either. Humpbacks surprise and delight. They disappear below the surface, to emerge in a sea of spray as they vent their blowholes very close to the boat – more often than not giving all on deck the fright of their lives.

Tours are also used to contribute to research, as operators are required to complete logbooks for every trip. This includes filling in the GPS readings of every encounter, the weather conditions and descriptions of unusual behaviour. The sighting positions in these logbooks are correlated with data from other operators. When superimposed upon a map of the coastline and correlated by time, they help to reveal micro-migration patterns.

At the same time we know relatively little about these animals. Few facts have been derived from them while they are living. Other than what has been gleaned from photographic identification, counting and limited satellite tagging, most of their lives remain a mystery to us. Why these animals breach, lobtail and spy-hop, are speculation.

That said, Danie brings a wealth of anecdotal information to your outing – the product of seven years of experience. He has observed many breaches and has collated this information with weather conditions and other coinciding criteria to formulate ideas and opinions that seem> credible. He has also contributed skin samples and thousands of photographs for ID purposes to scientists at Marine and Coastal management.

Nightjar Travel