Although the boat I’d chosen was further (Gansbaai is another 30 minutes on from Hermanus) it seemed better, in that Ivanhoe Sea Safaris use a smaller boat and don’t run it to capacity. They are also one of the oldest companies operating whale watching boats. My confidence in them is boosted when my mobile ‘phone goes and it is Michelle from Ivanhoe, checking we are still coming and letting us know the weather conditions!
As we were getting used to, it was another bright sunny morning, not a cloud in the sky and just a gentle breeze blowing. This made it a very pleasant drive, cruising steadily along the N2 through some terrifically scenic areas. Out more in the country, the courtesy of other road users became clear; most of the roads are really wide and have a yellow line marking the edge of the normal carriage way on the left. To the left of this is effectively a hard shoulder and most drivers, when you come to overtake them, will happily move over into this area to let you past. A quick flick of the hazard lights to acknowledge this is then usually rewarded with a flash of their headlights in return. A far cry from the “they shall not pass” attitude you all too often get driving in the UK.
As we get further into the country, the road starts climbing steadily, culminating in a huge, long sweeping climb that goes on for miles. Expecting to see for miles when we reach the top, we’re surprised to look down into a valley that is completely filled with cloud! Fortunately, we stay well above this as we carry on towards Gansbaai. Some 80 kilometres or so from Cape Town, we turn off of the N2 onto a “minor” road; this is the R43, which takes us into Hermanus. Although notionally a minor road, this is still a good quality road, wide, flat and pot-hole free (unlike minor roads back home).
Hermanus is much bigger than we’d expected and it takes quite some time to pass through it. Once clear of the town, we can see Walker Bay off to our right and the excitement level gets higher. Another thirty minutes on and we see the signs for Gansbaai. The instructions to the harbour are easy to follow and we quickly find our way to the harbour, where we are charged the exorbitant sum of R2.40 to park. We pull up to Ivanhoe Sea Safaris about five minutes late, not bad after a journey of 166km.
We step out of the car and are assailed by an incredible stench; the one down side to Gansbaai as a start point is the pilchard canning plant in the harbour. It reeks. Still, putting this to one side, we go in to the office to pay for the trip and get some more information about the trip. We’re all really encouraged when Michelle talks about what to do when (not if) we see the whales and how the captain of the boat has to work within legal limits when approaching them (he can’t sail closer than 50m – however, if the whales then chose to come closer, that’s fine).
With our sense of excitement growing further still, we are then led down to where our boat, Ivanhoe, is moored. This is a pretty (but small) twin hull boat, with a high level viewing deck. We clamber aboard, where it becomes apparent that the trip will be almost empty apart from us. We’re sharing the boat with just two people who are going to film the whales and one old boy, who turns out to be Rudy Hughes, who founded Ivanhoe Sea Safaris but has since sold out to the current crew (who used to work for him). This means that, including the Ivanhoe crew, there are only ten people on a boat that can hold forty.
We cast off and Jason, the skipper, gives us a safety briefing as we head out of the little harbour into Walker Bay. The conditions are wonderful, with just a slight breeze blowing. This is enough to cause a slight swell which, if anything, adds to our enjoyment. Rudy is explaining to Paula the history of the company, that he was one of the first to realise both the commercial potential of whale watching but also the need to study and protect them. Consequently, he worked with academics to devise the code of conduct and was given the first permit to operate a whale watching operation in Walker Bay. Each license allows a single boat to operate within a defined area of the bay and there are strict rules about how close boats can approach the shore (to allow shore based watchers the opportunity to see whales as well) and how to approach whales. Rudy sold out to his crew a couple of years back but still lives on Walker Bay and part of the deal was that he can go out with the boat whenever he wants; this is the first time he’s been out this season and he’s hopeful of getting some good sightings.
After ten minutes or so, Jason suddenly points to the horizon and calls to us that there are some whales on the surface! We rush to the front of the boat and we can see these black shapes flat on the surface – suddenly, one of them blows out a huge burst of spray. It’s our first whale! We close towards them and 50 meters away, the cox cuts back the engines, to allow us to drift in. Unfortunately, this group (there looks to be three whales) seem disinterested and gradually slide away under the surface without us getting a clear view. We’re all hoping that this isn’t it and that we will get to see some more.
Up close with a Southern Right Whale
Up close with a Southern Right Whale
Turning away, we increase power and run back into the centre of the bay. We’re all keeping our eyes peeled to see if we can see another tell-tale spout but again it is Jason who spots another group. Once more, we close towards them and can see it is a bigger group this time, all Southern Right Whales. The cox kills the power and we start to drift straight towards them. This time they make no attempt to move away and decide to investigate us instead! They edge closer and closer and then they are right alongside the boat, almost close enough to touch. One of them vents and we see a beautiful rainbow in the spray. We can hear them breathing with the whoosh as they exhale and a roaring sound as they breathe in.
Tail flukes as the whale dives
Tail flukes as the whale dives
This is just jaw-droppingly awesome and suddenly we get a real sense of just how big these creatures are. This is really brought home as one of the whales decides to dive and swim right under our boat. This brings a mixture of total wonderment, tinged with fear – after all our little boat weighs seven tons and these behemoths can weight up to 70 tons. We hope the whale realises where it is and doesn’t decide to surface while underneath us. As it dives we can see every detail with total clarity, from the monstrous callosities on its head, all along its body to the massive (must be 10 feet across) tail as it slides beneath us. What a wonderful, unforgettable moment.
As with the first group, this pod loses attention and silently dives into the depths, leaving nothing but a curiously flat pool of water on the surface. We start up again and head towards the shallow water, in search of more whales. While we cruise towards the shore, a massive seabird floats past, skimming the waves; Jason calls, excitedly, that it is an albatross and that this is indeed a rare sighting this close to land. Unfortunately, it drifts past before I’m able to photograph it.
Sure enough, as we close to the shallow water, there’s another whale. This one appears to be on its own and again doesn’t seem that interested in us. It surfaces by the boat, appears to take a look at us and dives away, leaving us alone again. Jason decides to head back to the deeper water out ion the bay as this seems to be where the main groups are. He again sights a pod and raises our hopes by calling that he thinks there’s a Humpback in with a group of Southern Rights. This doesn’t turn out to be the case, it is “just” a big group (we think we can count seven) of Southern Rights. This group seem more inquisitive again and we spend some time floating in with them. Three of them line up alongside each other at one point, looking for all the world like giant stepping stones, while the others play and swim around and under the boat.
We don’t want to leave but all too soon it is time to turn and head back to Gansbaai. All through this, the crew (and Rudy) have been wonderful, telling us all about the whales and other life in the bay (they often see dolphins and very occasionally a Great White Shark that patrols here) and being really attentive to us. I really can’t recommend this tour highly enough.
The boat heads back towards the harbour and we can see a slick of smoke hanging over the area – coming from the pilchard canning plant. This is probably the only downside to the trip, the stench from here. We can see that the sea is starting to get rougher, with waves crashing against the beach and a far more noticeable swell than when we left. Again, thanks to Michelle for recommending a morning trip as it normally gets rougher later in the day.
There’s one last twist left for us as we slip through the harbour entrance; in the middle of the harbour is a trio of seals. They are just sunning themselves in the water, curling their flippers together to act as an anchor. We dock and, having filled in the guest book with just one word “WOW!” reluctantly climb off the boat to the jetty.
Adrian Carter - 10/08/2010 (United Kingdom)
Fully recommend the trip, once in a life time experience! Amazing gentle giants..... Top marks to the crew for looking after us so well.
Peter Corsac - 10/08/2010 (London)
This was a once in a lifetime experience, guide and crew was very friendly, will definitely recommend you to all I know.