Through the fog of deep sleep I heard it; I woke momentarily all my senses on high alert, then the sound came again, this time familiar. It was the sound of a whale, close to the shore line in the cove below my home. During breeding season and mostly at night the Southern Right whale often bellows and moans loudly.
Waking early I grabbed a shawl, draped it around my shoulders and with bare feet walked to the edge of my deck to see if the whale was still there. She was and I could see and hear her clearly. This is the third year that some of the migrating females have used this little protected area to drop their babies
After they have calved the whales teach their young how to swim in these sheltered waters, slowly moving from one point of the bay to another. The new-born calves have almost no blubber to insulate them from the cold and they are quickly fattened on rich whale milk with its high fat content. This produces spectacular results in that whale calves may double their weight within a week. Calves learn skills they need to survive in one of our planet’s great wilderness areas, the Ocean; they stay close to their mothers, playing and suckling for about a year.
From May onwards Southern Right Whales pay homage to the waters off our coast in order to calf their young and to mate. The best time for whale watching in the Cape is
between August and November; at this time the various bays which they habituate is dotted with whales and more often than not, they’re more than happy to put on a performance. After the females have calved, the adults begin their courtship displays of breaching, tail splashing, jostling and caressing.
The Southern Right Whale although a slow, lumbering swimmer is also amazingly acrobatic. When it breaches, it sometimes does this several times in a row, and the splash can be heard long distances away. At times it will wave a flipper above the surface, flipper-slap, lob tail and head-stand. Sometimes raised flukes in the air are used as sails, allowing the wind to push it through the water. This appears to be a playful activity as these mammals have often been seen swimming back to do it again.
Southern Rights are skimmer-feeders. Their baleen plates measuring up to 2 metres long filter out plankton and krill as they cruise along the surface. The average swimming speed is approximately 6 kilometres an hour when cruising, although they have been known to reach 11 kilometres an hour in short bursts.
Conservation: Southern Right whales are protected internationally under the convention for the regulation of whaling and have not been actively hunted since 1935.
Southern right whales are regarded as an endangered species as their numbers have been considerably reduced in the last 200 years. Between 1790 and 1825 it is estimated that over 12 000 southern rights were killed by whalers of the South African coast. Now collisions with ships or entanglement in fishing gear are the main dangers. There are now about 4500 southern right whales, with about 1500 coming to southern Africa. Statistics show southern rights are increasing in number, doubling in size every ten years, which means that they should have returned to their optimum population size in about 2040.
In 1980 and again in 1984 legislation was introduced in South Africa to protect whales. It is now illegal to shoot at whales, or harass them by coming closer than 300 metres in any boat or craft.