About the Whales you will see in South Africa

Whales spend up to 90 percent of their lives below the water, and wander into such stormy and remote seas that despite the urge scientists battle to follow. Consequently, we know very little about these huge yet mysterious mammals of the deep.

Did you know? The best months to see Southern Right Whales in South Africa is in August and September.

Southern Right Whales

The southern right whale, or Eubalaena australis (good whale of the ice), is the only member of the Balaenidae family to swim in the oceans of the southern hemisphere. That their name originates in the whaling industry that hunted them virtually to the brink of extinction is paradoxical. Historically they were the 'right' whale to kill for their abundance of blubber, they floated when dead and because they prefer the shallow, coastal waters, swim slowly, stay close to the surface and generally made it easier for whalers to kill them. Not only was their oil in demand, but their baleen was used for corset stays, stiffeners in gowns, umbrella ribs and horsewhips.

By the time the 20th century dawned they were down in number to a few dozen. Harpooning of whales, however, was not officially banned until 1935 and their recovery has been incredibly slow. The north right whale has barely recovered, and the north Pacific right whales still number in their hundreds. Their southern counterpart, by comparison, has done rather well with an estimated 7500 of them spanning the southern hemisphere.

Southern right whales dive to 600 feet where they brush the seafloor with their heads, an explanation for the callosities (wart-like patches) that grace their heads. They are, on average, 15 metres long, mostly black in colour, lack a dorsal fin like other whales, and are disinguishable by their v-shaped blow holes. They have what is known as a circumpolar distribution in the southern hemisphere, found in the waters of South Africa, South America, New Zealand and Australia.

For more information and photographs, view detailed info: Southern Right Whale.

Bryde's whales

Pronounced broo-duhz, these large baleen whales were named after a Norwegian whaling entrepreneur almost a hundred years ago, even though they were seldom targeted as they lacked thick layers of blubber. Bryde's whales, or Balaenoptera edeni, can dive to a thousand feet, travel alone or in small pods and are distinguishable by the three distinct notches on their dorsal fins.

They can build up to a serious speed when hunting, for they feed on more mobile prey than other whales in the species. Very little is known about them. They are rarely photographed because they are difficult to find, seldom swim close to shore and are hence more likely to be spotted out on the ocean from a boat.

For more information and photographs, view detailed info: Bryde's Whale.

Humpback whales

Humpback whales, or Megaptera novaeangliae, weigh as much as 45 tons, yet manage to roll in spirals, slap the surface with their fins, and generally leap about, sometimes rising 12 metres out of the water before falling back with a sound that is heard across the bay. They are also a lot more vocal than southern rights or Bryde's whales, their haunting songs synonymous with the idea we have of whales as consistently singing.

Which is not to say that they are active all the time. Science reveals that these huge beasts spend a great deal of their time silent and beneath the water. It is only during mating season that their performance antics are so noticeable. Actually they can remain under water, barely moving a muscle, for up to half an hour at a time, and have been witnessed simply allowing the currents out in the deeps to carry them.

They are also said to collaborate, working together to drive fish into groups for them to eat, or herd krill against a shore. They've even been spotted driving off a pod of killer whales set on cornering a lone humpback. They are black or dark brown with a predominantly white underbelly and large throat grooves. What distinguishes them from other whales is their incredibly long flippers, amost a third of their body length.

For more information and photographs, view detailed info: Humpback Whale.

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