Whale Watching for Dummies

Tips on how to find and track a whale.

We are smack bang in the middle of whale season and hundreds of whales are currently cruising the length of our Southern African coastline towards warmer waters further up north. These awe-inspiring creatures have undertaken one helluva journey to get here, travelling all the way from their feeding grounds way down south off the coast of Antarctica. This annual migration is so epic, that it is considered one of the greatest mammal migrations on the planet. Despite the large number of leviathan beauties travelling past Knysna at the moment, with the ocean being as deep and as vast as it is, finding them isn’t as easy as one might think. For many years we have had the good fortune and ample opportunity to learn just what to look out for when we are out on the big blue. There are various clues, one just needs to know what they are. So, for those new to the exciting whale watching game, we have put together a little Whale Watching for Dummies guide!

1. First and foremost, whale watchers need to scan the horizon line for the whale’s tell-tale blow. When a whale surfaces to breathe, it exhales air explosively through its open blowhole. This exhaled air usually forms a stream of water vapour, particularly visible on a cold winter’s day. The blow of both our migratory species (the humpback and the southern right) is V-shaped owing to the fact that both of them have two blowholes (almost like our nostrils) located on the top of their heads. It can be visible from quite a distance and is often the first way of locating them.

whale blow
The tell tale blow of a whale as they surface to breath

2. Okay, so you have managed to spot a whale from a distance and now you’d like to take a bit of a closer look. Well, that’s where the fun starts, because you need to try an anticipate when and where they will surface. And this is certainly not an exact science, but it may help you to view them successfully for a little while. On average they surface every 7 to 15 minutes (babies need to surface every 2-3 minutes) and when they do they will often take a breath every minute or so, two to three times, before taking a deep dive. You often know when they are close to the surface because their powerful flukes leave a tell tale sign on the surface of the water in the form of a glassy ‘footprint’. If you see this, then the whale is usually several metres ahead and fairly close to the surface. When they raise their flukes high up out of the water, it is usually a sign that they have dived deeper.

Whale footprint
Look out for the whales footprint, visible when they are swimming close to the surface of the water.

3. We have two migratory whales which visit us every year, namely the humpback and the southern right whales. They are very different in appearance and easily identifiable by certain distinctive characteristics. The head and upper jaw of the southern right whale is full of huge growths called ‘callosities’, which appear pale in colour because of the whale lice which inhabit these growths. They do not have a dorsal fin and are usually quite a bit wider in the girth that the humpback whale. They are generally much slower swimmers and whilst they do display above the water surface behaviour, they are not usually quite as show-stopping as the humpback.

Southern right whale
Southern right whales have callosities on their head and upper jaw and they do not have a dorsal fin.

4. Humpbacks can very quickly be identified by both their small but distinctive dorsal fin, their powerful flukes and their unusually long pectoral fins, which are about 1/3 the length of its body. They have been dubbed the Angels of the Sea, because when the breach out of the water, their very long pectoral fins look like the wings of an angel. They also have these weird looking knobs covering their head, which are called tubercles.

Humpback whale fluke
The very distinctive dorsal fin of a humpback whale
Humpback whale
The knobbly head, super long pectoral fin and distinctive fluke of the humpback whale

Whale watching is a thrilling game of anticipation which can be made somewhat easier if you follow the guide above, because the ocean provides many tell-tale clues and one just needs to be able to read the signs.