We tell newcomers that each time we paddle along the Simon’s Town coast the experience is different.  Well, Sunday 21 March, was a once in a lifetime experience.   The sea was cold, calm and so clear, that you could see what the anemones were eating for breakfast.  We struck out for the Roman Rock Lighthouse, rejoicing in freedom from the wind that had been howling all week.  The distinct sound of a whale blowing stopped us in mid stroke and cheers from the lead paddlers alerted the rest of us to three Whales swimming less than 100m away.  The excitement of seeing whales at this time of the year and speculation about what they were  (Brydes Whales or Humpbacks) subsided as we split up to paddle past the lighthouse, with some kayakers negotiating the washing machine at the base of Roman Rock.   20 minutes later, while heading toward Windmill Beach the same three whales appeared directly in front of us – almost as if they had been waiting for us to catch up.  One ‘chased’ after the lead paddler who immediately turned back to join the rest of us while we laughed in astonishment, and at his unease.  The other two whales made their presence known by surfacing close by and gently encouraging us to bunch up.  Whenever anyone paddled, they immediately received attention in the form of a huge smooth body with crescent shaped fin following their kayak with distinct interest.  “Is this what it is like to be in a bait ball?” someone asked. “I have heard that  whales swim under boats and lift them up for fun,” someone else in the baitball squeaked just as a whale swam under our kayaks. We followed its progress with abated breath, watching the ripples on the surface that marked its passing .  Margot and William frantically tried to photograph the whales, which were playing with us, surfacing unexpectedly and then sounding with no time to focus.  One took a particular liking to Chris’s kayak and repeatedly surfaced within a paddle length of him, but then gave up when Chris did not accept the invite to play tag.  Another blew next to us, giving us a dose of halitosis on a whale scale.  Without exception everyone was WOWed by the experience.  At no stage were the whales aggressive  – their curiosity was exciting and flattering.  The encounter lasted a few all too short minutes and then the whales peeled off and headed out to sea. 

For anyone who has had a similar experience:  Please share your understanding  about encounters with whales.

Click here to read about kayakers encounter with 1000s of dolphins. http://scenicsouth.co.za//2011/07/kayak-with-dolphins-off-boulders-beach-simons-town/

Nan Rice, well known and respected whale and dolphin expert, confirmed that the whales were Bryde’s Whales and laughed when I said that the whales appeared to have herded us. Nan suggested that they were most likely curious and apparently often approach and swim around boats and yachts.  However, Brydes Whales are not aggressive and do not lift boats out of the water.

Do you know that the International Whaling Commission will be considering a proposal to legalise killing of whales for  commercial gain in June 2010?  For information about this and what action you can take if you disagree, read the article:  IWC considers legal whaling   

More about Brydes Whales:  The Whales we saw probably belong to a resident coastal population which `patrol’ our near shore waters looking for anchovies, pilchard and herring.  Although they are locally common off our coast, they are not as visible as the tail slapping Southern Rights.  Nor do they display by leaping like both the Right Whales and Humpbacks.  They keep a low profile with the result that they are not easily spotted from the shore.

Their name apparently pronounced brewdes or broodess comes from the Norwegian Consul to South Africa, Johan Bryde, who helped set up the first whaling station in Durban in 1908 and another at Langebaan.  Bryde’s Whales do not go off to feed in the Antarctic, but actually frequent warm water.  They are divided into two races, a non-resident race, the individuals of which are typically larger and which feed further out to sea.  This group moves up toward the equator in summer and is the reason why Brydes Whales are called Tropical Whales in some regions.  The coastal race is smaller in size and off the South African Coast, the whales stay within our near shore waters following schools of sardine, anchovy, squid and mackerel.  It is not uncommon to see them feeding alongside dolphins and gannet off  `bait balls’,  so-called dense masses of schooling fish.

Bryde’s whales are baleen whales average 13m long and have no teeth but two rows of baleen plates.  They are rorquals which means that they have pleated throats which can be expanded to catch large volumes of fish. Their erect, curved, dorsal fin is located far down their back and is visible when they surface.  Their broad tail flukes rarely break the surface of the water and their flippers are small and slender.  Color varies – the back is generally dark grey or blue to black. The ventral area is lighter, shading to greyish on the belly. Some have a number of whitish-grey spots, which may be scars from parasites or shark attacks.