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Leaps of joy – seeing whales for the first time in Hermanus

Leaps of joy – seeing whales for the first time in Hermanus
A southern right whale shows his tale at Walker Bay on September 3, 2014 in Hermanus, South Africa. The bay is known as one of the best whale-watching spots in the world. (Photo by Gallo Images / The Times / Esa Alexander)

The Hermanus Whale Festival has finally returned after the pandemic, drawing in many tourists to the quiet town. A group of young Americans saw whales for the first time, experiencing this unique South African celebration.

As an American from North Carolina, where beachgoers marvel at the rare sight of a dolphin, I could not have imagined that I would be witnessing exactly 50 sightings of majestic whales in a single day (I counted).

I was astonished as each whale leapt out of the ocean one by one, producing massive splashes right before my eyes as I wined and dined at a picturesque seaside restaurant in Hermanus, South Africa – Bientang’s Cave Restaurant & Wine Bar.

Hermanus, a sleepy, tranquil fishing town with a dramatic backdrop of the Olifantsberg mountain overshadowing the rocky coastline, was bustling with activity from 30 September through 2 October as the 32nd Hermanus Whale Festival brought in large crowds this year following its two-year pandemic hiatus.

Hermanus, vantage point. Image: Cecilia Taylor

A general view of people walking along the cliff path in front of the Hermanus Esplanade on March 15, 2021 in Hermanus, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images/Misha Jordaan)

A general view of the Old Harbour on March 15, 2021 in Hermanus, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images/Misha Jordaan)

A general view of the Old Harbour on March 15, 2021 in Hermanus, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images/Misha Jordaan)

According to the town’s website, this is the only eco-marine festival in the world, and at only about an hour-and-a-half drive from Cape Town, it attracts many South Africans, and domestic and international tourists.

The festival is a celebration of the return of the southern right whale to the South African coast after their migration, among other whale species. The intention is to raise awareness of how to protect the whales and marine wildlife of the region, according to the festival website.

From couples to little children to seniors to young adults, a wide range of people clustered together on the large, easily climbable rocks jutting out into the Indian Ocean. From the vantage points, the groups pointed out towards the ocean to help each other spot the whales as the festival kicked off in the mornings.

My American colleagues and I were among the most exuberant in the crowd. While everyone was in awe of the whales, the South Africans I interacted with – such as the barista at the charming local coffee shop I frequented throughout the weekend, Café Anna – were shocked when I explained that I had never actually seen one before in my life.

But appreciating whales as part of a collective South African celebration was truly unlike anything I had ever experienced.

The famous Whale Crier of Hermanus, Eric Davalah, wearing a whale-tail feather in his cap, blew his kelp horn periodically throughout the weekend to alert tourists of the arrival of the whales. An international icon, the Whale Crier and the deep, echoing sound of his horn have been a renowned characteristic of Hermanus since 1991, according to the Hermanus Tourism Bureau.

Whale Cryer of Hermanus on March 08, 2012 in Cape Town, South Africa
Photo by Darren Stewart / Gallo Images

It was intriguing to learn that, historically, the Whale Crier has used morse code in sounding the horn to help South Africans interpret where the whales have been sighted and how many may be seen.

As the whales jumped in the background, there also was an array of local vendors downtown to explore, selling handmade African artwork, crafts, souvenirs and clothing, as well as a variety of food and dessert stands. I collected several new paintings and gifts to take back to the States.

A family-friendly event that caters to everyone, the Hermanus Whale Festival kept children busy with face-painting and gelato as the adults in the crowd sipped cocktails and swayed to live music. Marine biologists and whale experts also gave informative talks at the various exhibitions.

Meandering around the festival for hours, we continued to halt to a stop and excitedly gesture to each other when we would spot a whale in the distance.

We wrapped up the busy weekend on Sunday night with a breathtaking sunset tinting the mountain range with a warm orange glow.

Hermanus. Image: Anna Southwell

Hermanus, a tourist destination on the map

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has confirmed that Hermanus – known to be the best place to whale watch in South Africa – is also one of the top whale-watching destinations on Earth.

Peak whale-watching season is between July and November, with the most sightings occurring in the latter months.

Three types of whales can be seen in Hermanus: the humpback, the Bryde’s and the southern right. The calmer nature of the southern right allows tourists and whale watchers to experience the species at a closer proximity than the others.

Southern right whales in particular are attracted to the coast of Hermanus due to the shelter of Walker Bay, allowing them to rest, mate and give birth, according to South African Tourism.

Read in Daily Maverick: 

Researchers cite climate crisis as possible reason behind decreased southern right whale migration to SA

Hermanus is also one of the best places in the world specifically for shore-based whale-watching, preferable for those who wish to stay on dry land, reported The Points Guy, a travel and loyalty programmes website.

According to data from the festival’s website, it has attracted between 100,000 and 160,000 visitors over the three days each year. The festival helps to put Hermanus on the map as a preferred tourist destination. In fact, in an interview with Daily Maverick, the manager of Cape Coast Tourism, Frieda Lloyd, said that whale-watching experiences are immensely valuable to local businesses, who all benefit from increased foot traffic in the town.

The Hermanus Whale Festival helps promote Hermanus to tourists, with multiplatform publicity equating to millions of rands, and prioritises locals, with most of the vendors originating from the Overberg region. According to festival statistics, the festival injected R55-million into the local economy in 2019.

A southern right whale shows his tale at Walker Bay on September 3, 2014 in Hermanus, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / The Times / Esa Alexander)

Whale watching: a special celebration

While many of the locals I spoke to seemed to regard whale sightings as commonplace, the endangerment of whales is a reminder that this South African tradition is remarkable and should not be taken for granted.

The WWF has reported that six out of the 13 great whale species are classified as endangered or vulnerable.

Dr Gwenith Penry, a marine mammal biologist and research associate at the Institute for Coastal and Marine Research at Nelson Mandela University, previously told Daily Maverick: “We’re seeing more drastic fluctuations in the numbers (of southern right whales) that come to our coastline, and current thinking is that this is related to reduced prey availability in their Southern Ocean feeding grounds.”

The harpoons are gone, but whales face more complex modern threats

While the Hermanus Whale Festival has passed this year, whales can still be spotted for the next two months along the south coast, from Cape Town to Mossel Bay. ML/DM

Anna Southwell is in South Africa on an internship with Daily Maverick as part of a group from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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