It’s a boom time for whale watchers coming to Hermanus to spot the majestic Southern Right whales cavorting in our bay on their annual migration to calve and to mate. It’s not a question of did you see any whales but rather how many did you see! In the area from Cape Infanta to Hermanus and Witsand a record number of 1,347 Southern Right whales were counted, of which 661 were calves. This is almost three times the number of whales counted in the same area last year, and a new all time record.

Marine Conservation photographer Jean Tresfon shared these amazing photos and article after taking to the skies in August to conduct an aerial whale survey for the Mammal Research Institute Whale Unit. With him, and in charge of the counting, was whale scientist Chris Wilkinson.

whale1

Two southern right whale mothers keeping their calves closely protected between their massive bodies.

Early in the morning on Saturday (18 August 2018), wearing multiple layers of warm clothing plus a flight suit, gloves and windbreaker, I lifted off from Morning Star Airfield into the crisp clear air. The farm fields were covered in a light frost as I passed overhead on my way to the coast at Hawston where I landed to collect Chris. After lifting off again we encountered the first southern right whales almost immediately, hardly surprising since the area between Hermanus lagoon mouth and De Kelders is one of the known hotspots for these gentle giants. The area yielded a count of 107 whales, 41 cow/calf pairs and 25 unaccompanied adults. There were a few more whales at Pearly Beach, Die Dam and Agulhas and then another big group between Struisbaai and Arniston. The next hotspot was at the De Hoop Collection Nature Reserve, from Skipskop Point to Lekkerwater, where we spotted an incredible 1,116 whales, or 558 cow/calf pairs, highlighting the fact that Koppie Alleen is without question the most important nursery area for southern right whales on the South African coast.
whale2

558 cow/calf pairs counted along just the De Hoop Collection Nature Reserve coast, from Skipskop Point to Noetsie with the bulk seen at Koppie Alleen.

There were also several large great white sharks swimming amongst the whales and calves. From here to Cape Infanta there were quite a few more mothers & calves spread out along the coast and then another 60 whales in St. Sebastian Bay, clustered mainly around the Breede River mouth and further east towards the Duiwenhoks River mouth. We terminated the survey at Witsand but could still see many more southern rights along the coast further to the east!

After landing near Infanta to refuel the gyrocopter and grab a quick bite, we set off again, this time in the opposite direction and with more opportunity to get some images since we were finished with the count. We also spotted both bottlenose and humpback dolphins, plenty of cape fur seals and even a few bait balls on the way back. After dropping Chris back at Hawston I climbed up to 4000ft, crossing the mountains at Sir Lowry’s Pass in a rising westerly wind before dropping back down and heading home after nearly 7 hours in the air.

Big thank you to all who made the survey possible, especially African Wingswho displayed amazing airmanship and graciously halted one of their tours so we could move through the area, and as always to Michael Raimondo from Green Renaissance.
whale3

A total of 11 snow white calves were counted. These whales are not albinos (a lack of pigmentation), but brindles, and have a lighter colouration that will darken slightly with age. They almost seem to glow in the dark waters!

whale4

A mating group of southern right whales, stirring up the sediment from the bottom with their efforts