All about Whales

Whales you can see

The Humpback Whale

Scientific name
Megaptera novaeangliae (means “Big winged New Englander”)
Appearance
Dark grey with white underside, a fairly low dorsal fin with wide base and a noticeable hump in front of the dorsal fin
Length
Up to 16m, with females being larger than males.
New born calves are about 4.5m.
Weight
Adults – 25 – 45 tons
Newborns – 1 ton
Blow
Two blowholes that create a tall, single plume measuring around 4 meters high
Lifespan
45-50 Years
Diet
Krill, and small fish such as mackerel and sardines
Sightings
(Migratory – July to November) During season they are sighted on 90-95% of our trips

For many whale watchers throughout the world, humpbacks are the most endearing, as they are the most social and frequently perform aerial displays, such as breaching (jumping out of the water), or slapping the surface with their pectoral fins, tails, or heads and thus one of the most enjoyable whales to observe in the wild. Another reason we are so drawn to them is that the males love to sing. The humpback whale song is thought to be the most complex in the entire animal kingdom. After years of research however, we are yet to grasp the complexities behind their underwater vocal repertoire.

The humpback whale is a species of baleen whale, characterised by having baleen plates for filtering food from the water rather than eating with teeth. Humpback whales are well known for their long “pectoral” fins, which can be up to 4.6 m in length. These long fins give them increased manoeuvrability; they can be used to slow down or even go backwards. Humpback whales travel great distances during their seasonal migration, the farthest migration of any mammal.
Their fluked tail has a wavy trailing edge and is unique on each individual, much like a fingerprint. During winter and through spring we see hundreds of humpback whales travelling along our coastline, often in large mating groups.
The humpback whale is considered to be a vulnerable species.

The Southern Right Whale

Scientific name
Eubalaena australis
Appearance
Black colouration with callosities on the head, no dorsal fin
Length
Up to 18m, with females being larger than males.
New born calves are about 4.5m.
Weight
Adults – Up to 60 tons
Newborns – 1 ton
Blow
Two blowholes that create a distinctive V-shaped blow which can measure up to 4 meters high
Lifespan
50-100 years
Diet
Tiny crustaceans like copepods, krill and pteropods
Sightings
(Migratory – July to November) During season they are sighted on 80-90% of our trips

They find many of our Southern African bays favourable for giving birth and they love the protected area between Buffalo Bay and Brenton on Sea, and very often during winter, mothers are seen spending several weeks nursing close to shore with new-born calves. We also often see large mating groups, where the occasional breach and other exciting whale behaviours are seen.

The Southern Right whale is readily distinguished from others by the callosities on its head, a broad back without a dorsal fin, and a long arching mouth that begins above the eye. Its skin is very dark grey or black, occasionally with some white patches on the belly. The right whale’s callosities appear white due to large colonies of cyamids (whale lice).

Bryde’s Whale

Scientific name
Balaenoptera brydei
Appearance
Most are black or slate-grey, a falcate dorsal fin positioned two thirds along the back
Length
Up to 14.5m, with females being slightly larger than males
Weight
Adults – 12-20 tons
Blow
Low bushy blows
Lifespan
Unknown
Diet
Krill, squid and fish, including sardines and anchovies
Sightings
All year resident – they are sighted 60-70% of our trips

The Bryde’s whale is a moderately-sized baleen whale and a year round resident of our Southern African waters, continually moving up and down our coastline in search of food. Research has shown that the area between Mossel Bay and Jeffrey’s Bay has the highest number of the inshore Bryde’s whale species. Compared to their relatives the right whales, they are more slender and streamlined in shape, and most have narrow, elongated flippers. They have a dorsal fin, situated about two-thirds of the way back. They feed mostly on small crustaceans, but also on various fish species. Bryde’s whales tend to be more shy and elusive than our migrating visitors and often take deep dives, staying down for fairly long periods of time while feeding.

Killer Whale (Orca)

Scientific name
Orcinus Orca
Appearance
Mostly black, with a belly, white patches behind the eyes, and a light gray to white patch behind the dorsal fin
Length
From 7 to 10m
Weight
Up to 6 tons
Lifespan
50 – 80 years
Diet
Cephalopods, birds, fish, reptiles and marine mammals of all sizes including large cetaceans
Sightings
Sporadic sightings

Killer whales are in fact not a whale but the largest species of dolphin. The whalers named them killer whales, because they saw them killing other species of whale and dolphin. Killer whales live in the deep water and are sighted intermittently throughout the year when they come inshore. They have a very robust body, large rounded flippers, and a small beak. A male’s dorsal fin is tall and triangular, and can reach up to 6 feet tall. A female’s dorsal fin is much shorter and curved. Killer whales have 10-14 pairs of large teeth, which they use to eat a wide variety of prey. These whales have been known to feed on small schooling fish, squid, seals, and even large baleen whales and sperm whales.

Whale identification

Spouts
The shape and size of the blow is distinctive to each species, based on the size and shape of their blowhole. Southern Right whales have a very distinctive V-shaped blow which can measure up to 4 metres high. Humpback whales have a tall, column-shaped blow. And orcas typically have a bushy-shaped blow. If you see something that looks like a blow, keep watching! Some whales can dive for 10 minutes or longer, so keep looking in the general area where you first saw the blow.
Dorsal fin
The Humpback whale gets its name from its distinctive bump in front of its dorsal fin. You will see the similarities with the Humpback dolphin. Notably the Southern Right whale does not have a dorsal fin. The dorsal fin on both the Bryde’s and Minke whale are very similar and situated 2/3 down the back. Orcas have pronounced triangular fins that can grow to over 6 feet high on males.
Tail flukes
Cetaceans have powerful tail flukes that propel them through the water. The shape and size of the tail flukes is different for every species. In some species, like Humpbacks, the markings on the tail flukes are unique like a fingerprint and can help identify individual whales.

Whale Behaviour


Breach
The whale is jumping out of the water, sometimes clearing it completely.

Head Lunge
Similar to a breach, but without the rotation slamming their heads down, landing chin first.

Spyhopping
An inquisitive move, slowly lifting its head out of the water to have a look around. Usually happens during a mugging.

Lobtailing
Quite an explosive move throwing its tail stock around or slapping its tail on the surface.
Images supplied by Noel Ashton – www.noelashton.com