As the last of December’s long, balmy days draw to an end, it is the perfect time to pause and reflect on the year behind us. We were once again blessed with a phenomenal whale watching season and even though the whales have left Knysna’s waters until their next annual migration, the unforgettable close encounters we had have left an indelible mark on many souls.
With almost 7 months of whale encounters behind us, it can be hard to pick the season’s highlights, so we sat down with Johannes Pikaan, the primary skipper for Ocean Odyssey, for a little trip down memory lane. Johannes often spends up to 6 hours a day at sea during the season if the weather and sea conditions are conducive and because of that he has been fortunate enough to experience the best of our Ocean Odyssey whale encounters. Each one is unique, but some stand out because of a certain WOW factor.
Johannes was resolute, that for him, the highlight of the season came right at the start, during which time nine southern right whale mother and calf pairs congregated in the protected waters of Buffalo Bay. For three weeks they remained there, a highly unusual occurrence, as they don’t usually hang out in this bay in such large numbers and mother and calf pairs tend to linger only for a while before moving further north. The bond between a mother and her calf is an incredible thing to witness and serves to remind us of the sentient nature of these intelligent mammals. Johannes actually filmed a mother humpback whale swimming underneath her calf and lifting it up and out of the water, quite possibly teaching it how to breach.
Another memorable day was when guests on board got to see a southern right whale feeding near Brenton on Sea. Whales do not usually feed while they migrate up our coastline as there is not a sufficient krill food source in our waters. But on one memorable day a southern right was seen mouth agape feeding on something and that was a sight to behold.
My most memorable encounter of the season was a day I managed to photograph a series of magnificent breaches. We came across a large mating group of 6 or 7 humpback males in pursuit of a large female. There was a lot of showing off among the males and two males proceeded to breach a few hundred metres away from the boat, obviously trying to win the attention of the female. Seeing a whale breach is at the top of any whale watching wish list, and managing to capture it through the lens is very rewarding indeed.
Another memorable day out on our dynamic and species rich Indian Ocean our guests enjoyed what in our business is called a “whale hijacking”. This is what happens when a group of curious whales surround the boat, swimming underneath the hull and moving around the boat for a long period of time. When this happens, the skipper is required to remain stationary and can only move off when they are certain that there are no whales close by. It is a thrilling experience because when the whales come up for air their exhalation is really loud and it sometimes sprays all over the guests. It takes the term ‘close encounter’ to a whole new level.
Our permit regulations require us to log each and every whale sighting, along with the age, sex, behaviour and GPS co-ordinates. There was marked increase in southern right whale sightings this year compared to last and this year less humpback whales were encountered. There was a slight increase in Bryde’s whale sightings for this time of the year too, evidence of lots of bait fish in the area.
Bryde’s whales: 35
Humpback whales: 480
Southern rights: 27
Bryde’s whales: 58
Humpback whales: 350
Southern right whales: 215
We couldn’t possibly relay all the encounters that we had this year, but there is no doubt that 2019 was filled with days of awe and wonder. We witnessed peduncle (tail) -slapping, spy hopping, breaching, mating groups, mother and calf interactions, whales appearing and then disappearing (lol) and much, much more. And while we always enjoy the amazing summers of Knysna, we secretly yearn for the days when the mercury drops and we welcome our gentle giants back to our waters for their annual migratory ritual.