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In the seas around Southern Africa, we have the good fortune to find 37 species of Cetaceans, compared to the 41 species found in the whole of the Pacific and North Atlantic combined.

In South Africa, all Cetaceans as well as the Great White shark, are protected by law. We are proud of our conservation efforts for these animals but, unfortuneately, that was not always the case. In the 1920's, fully one third of all Sperm whales killed worldwide, were hunted by ships from the two whaling stations which existed in Natal. Fortuneately, time and official protection have healed our misdeeds and the numbers of whales seen off our coasts is increasing year by year. In fact, the 2004 season saw so many Humpbacks hugging our coast that, in stead of quoting percentage possibilities of seeing whales, our Whalewatch tour operators guaranteed sightings on every trip between June and November. A wonderful situation.

 

Humpback Whale (Megaptera noveangliae)

Hunted almost to extinction between 1900-1975, their numbers reduced from 100,000 in 1910 to 3,000 animals in 1975. Since legislation was passed protecting them, their numbers have recovered to the extent that during their migration period of June to November, we regularly see groups of 2 or 3 animals on our way to the divesite.

At birth, the Humpback has a length of 4-5 metres growing to 19 metres and 48 tons at maturity. The Latin name 'Megaptera' means 'Big wing' and with it's pectoral fins reaching a length of 6 metres, the name is fully justified.

The Humpback is the clown of the seas. They often breach with their body clear of the water. Another favorite is lifting that huge pectoral fin clear of the water and smacking it down on the surface of the water- very impressive when it is a 6 metre fin and we are in a 5 metre boat !

The Humpback has a much more stocky body than other Rorquals with a huge head and those enormous pectorals. It's throat grooves allow an expansion enabling it to take in huge amounts of water to engulf large numbers of fish or shrimp which are filtered out by passing the water through the baleen - fine bristles arising from horny plates arranged along the upper jaw.

Southern Right Whale (Eubalaena australis)

 

With huge reserves of whaleoil, prodigious amounts of baleen for use in corsets and umbrella stays of the time, easy to approach closely and always floating when dead, this was, in deed, the 'Right' whale to hunt and it suffered accordingly.

The scientific community are divided as to whether the Southern Right Whale (Eubalaena australis) and the Northern Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis) are the same or different species. What is sure is that the population of the Northern Right Whale has reduced enormously with perhaps only 300 individuals remaining which may well to too small a reserve to enable the species to survive.

The Southern Right Whale numbers today between 6-7,000 individuals and is estimated to be increasing at between 7.1-8.3% per annum. An incredible victory for the conservationists.

With a maximum length of 18 metres, the Right Whale eats tiny crustaceans. They leave our shores at the end of November for the Antarctic returneing slightly later than the Humpbacks, normally around the begining of July.

As with the Humpback, we often see the Right Whale breaching.

Minke Whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata)

 

The Minke Whale reaches 10 metres and 10 tons in weight. It has a distinctively pointed, aerodynamic form, brown or black on the back and white on the underside.They eat small fish, squid and crustaceans, often very close to the beach.

Minke are far less numerous than Humpbacks or Right Whales but we do sometimes have the pleasure of seeing them between June and November.

Bryde's Whale (Balaenoptera edeni)

Larger than the Minke, the Bryde's reaches 15 metres and 20 tons weight and is the fourth of the Great whales that we see on our coast.

The Breyde's is the only Great Whale that reproduces year around. They do not go to the Antarctic merely doing short migrations along the coast of East Africa. The best time to see them is in summer from December to May.

When seen close to shore, the Bryde's feeds on small fish whilst when in the open sea, they consume krill.

Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus)

The largest animal which has ever existed. They can acheive a length of 33 metres and 190 tons with a heart the size of a small car.

 

In 1930, official figures quote 28,325 Blue Whales killed and their numbers have never recovered. The worldwide population is estimated at between 6-14,000 animals. Whilst you have probably a better chance of seeing them off our coast than anywhere else, it is a very rare privilege.

Sperm Whale (Physeter macrocephalus)

During the ravages of the Whale hunting boom, this was one of the hardest hit species and yet it is the one which best maintained it's numbers.

The Sperm Whale does not have the whaleoil typical of the other species. It does, however, have a large organ within it's head, the 'Organ of Spermaceti' which contains a waxy oil. This is thought to play a role in adjusting buoyancy during the Sperm Whales very deep dives to 1,000 metres and perhaps as deep as 3,000 metres.The oil may also have a function in interpreting sonar signals which it uses to locate it's prey.

Unfortuneatley for the Sperm Whale, this 'Spermaceti oil' had much sought after lubrication properties which condemned so many thousands of Sperm Whales to death.

The Sperm Whale eats giant squid, other squid species, octopus and various types of fish.

South Africa's coasts are home to a large population of Sperm Whales but it is a deep water species and the possibility of our seeing one en route to a dive site is virtually nil. Sorry about that - I would also love to see one.

Killer Whale or Orca (Orcinus ocra)

Normally arare sighting on our coasts, the Killer Whales arrive with the 'Sardine Run' in June and July when sardine shoals tens of kilometres in length arrive on the coast of southern Natal.

Supreme hunters, the Killer Whales eat seals, squid, fish, marine birds, other cetaceans and even juvenile whales.

Dolphins

A favorite of most divers, dolphins are numerous on our coast and are frequently encountered on the way to the dive site. Often they show an interest in the boat and that is when we know that they want to play. The call is 'mask and fins'. As with Whale shark encounters, No backward rolls or leaps into the sea, please . Feet over the side and slide into the water - do not forget your camera. The skipper will drop us forward in their direction of travel. Sometimes you will just get photos of them as they pass but often they will join in the fun, circling the snorklers and coming back again and again.

We were always sceptical about stories of dolphins helping swimmers until mid 2005. An experienced lady diver- a very strong swimmer-chased after a group of dolphins unwittingly getting into a zone of heavy breaking waves. As she began to be tossed by the waves, three Common Dolphins returned to her and swam just below her until she regained calmer water when they turned and left. Not conclusive, by any means, but watching, it was difficult to not believe that they were preparing to help her if necassary.

We have large numbers particularly of Bottlenose, Common and Humpback dolphins.

Dolphins, particularly Humpbacks, are very much at ease around humans and, unfortuneately, they often suffer as a result. The home of Discovering Africa Safaris is the largest port in Africa ( in surface area and total tonnage)- Richards Bay in Zululand. Our beaches are popular with bathers and surfers and are protected by anti shark nets which often trap dolphins and turtles as well as sharks. The Natal Sharks Board patrol the nets each morning and releaseany trapped sharks which are still alive but air breathing dolphins are invariably drowned.

We at 'Discovering Africa' support the 'Richards Bay Dolphin Project' (www.dolphins.org.za) whose research is aimed at obliging government and the Natal Sharks Board to develop shark protection for our beaches which does not kill sharks, dolphins or turtles.

Sophie Verdoux from Mayotte says 'My unbelievable shark dive 6 January 2018 with Peter Griffiths of Discovering Africa Safaris'. In one 50 minute dive we saw 6 shark species --6 Bull sharks, a Silvertip,a Dusky, Oceanic Blacktip, lots of Scalloped Hammerheads and a huge 4 1/2 metre Tiger shark.Click

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