South of Cape Town, stretching all the way through to the Garden Route in the Eastern Cape, is the playground of Southern Right Whales and Great White Sharks, both being incredibly powerful and breathtaking creatures.
The Southern Right Whale
The Southern Right Whale (Eubaleana Australis) gets its name from being an inhabitant of oceans in the Southern Hemisphere, especially along the South African coastline. When whale hunting was still legal, it was considered the ‘right’ whale to kill as they had more blubber than other whales. Once killed, blubber makes the whale carcass float and therefore was more easily harvested. The whales weigh between 40 and 60 tons and grow up to 20 meters long. They are amongst the larger whales in the ocean.
Thankfully, South Africa enforced strict laws in 1980 and reinforced in 1984 to protect the gentle mammals from harm. Laws include a prohibition of shooting, coming within a 300m radius of a whale, or causing disturbance or stress to any whale. Southern Right Whales are now listed as a “vulnerable” species. Previously they were listed as an “endangered” species, but with a lot of effort and change, their population has managed to gain stability.
The Birth of a Gentle Giant
In the winter and spring months (May to December), the Southern Right whales travel northwards from the Antarctic to mate and calve in the warmer waters along the South African Coast, especially in areas such as Walker Bay in the Western Cape. Despite whales eating up to four hundred kilograms of food per day in the Antarctic, the whales do not feed while they spend time along the South African coast. Southern Right Whales can live for fifty years or longer and are truly a gentle and playful species.
Whale Watching Adventures
Walker Bay is considered the best land-based Whale Watching site in the world. Due to the nature of the coastline visitors can witness these giants close to the shore. They often perform by slapping their tales on the water and breaching numerous times in succession. Hermanus features a Whale Festival which is usually held towards late September to celebrate the Southern Right Whales in Walker Bay.
The Great White Shark
Another creature of the ocean populating this area is the Great White Shark (Carcharodon Carcharias). Born five feet long and destined to grow three times as large, the pup is at the top of the food chain – often hunted by its own kind.
Many Great White Sharks do not survive long enough to reach adulthood due to other predators. However, once a Great White Shark has reached adulthood, it becomes the fiercest and most skilled predator of the ocean, hunting on seals, sea lions, dolphins, and even small toothed whales.
The shark generally attacks with a surprise attack from below, either fatally wounding the prey with a single bite or stunning it for another attack to ensure its prey is fatally wounded. Some victims do swim away and survive, however.
The largest population of Great White Sharks occurs around Dyer Island, a small island situated off the South Western Coast of South Africa. The island is heavily populated by tens of thousands of Cape Fur Seals and the African Penguin, both prey of the Great White.
Not For the Faint Hearted…
A popular activity available along the South African Coastline is Shark Cage Diving – a chance to view the most feared predator of the sea from within an underwater cage, ultimately allowing humans to see the Great White Shark from a very close distance. A typical shark cage dive excursion consists of an early rise for a trip from the shore on the dive boat. To attract sharks the boats deposit chum (a mixture of seafood and other proteins) into the water. Once a shark is spotted, the boat crew lower the cage into the water and the first diver descends into the cage through the open top for an unparalleled view of the sea’s most dangerous inhabitant! The sharks are not fed and research has shown that this form of attracting sharks to the boats does not affect the shark’s behaviour.
A Mistaken Creature…
It must be stressed that the Great White Shark is a heavily misunderstood creature and is now listed as a “vulnerable” species, mostly thanks to incredibly bad press, ignorant vengeance seekers and ill-advised films such as “Jaws” and “Deep Blue Sea”. Despite the bad press which the great white receives, the animal is capable of fatal attacks on humans, although when these attacks do happen, the shark is usually confused and mistakes the human for a turtle or dolphin.
When the Worst Happens
Many attacks happen to surfers and divers, bearing the appearance of a turtle or dolphin and once the shark has bitten, it releases, realising that its prey is human. Attacks are rarely fatal to humans yet unfortunately, in the case of mistaken identity, the injuries sustained by humans can be severe, if not fatal.
The bottom line of the shark attack debate is reasonably simple – if swimmers and surfers took heed of warnings and general safety precautions regarding sharks, many attacks would not happen. For a Great White Shark, it is in its nature to attack prey and eat.
Tourism and Conservation
The Western Cape coastline from Cape Town through to the Garden Route is a unique and thrilling place to spend a holiday for any traveler, whether you are from South Africa or are an international globe-trotter. Whale watching from the coast, enjoying fresh seafood, local culture and caring for an environmentally important issue is all part of the experience. Ecotourism is a relatively new venture involving the use of tourism and conservation as a means of creating jobs, awareness of local nature and educating tourists as to the environmental issues and treasures of the eco-tourism location.
The Western Cape has some luxurious destinations for eco-friendly tourism; especially in Walker Bay at various conservation sites where whale watching and shark cage diving is offered to provide an unbeatable glance into the lives of these powerful sea creatures.