In the area around Hermanus, more precisely in Gansbaai, we are in a stronghold of the marine wildlife industry. The price for a tour is almost twice as high as in Plettenberg Bay, the boats are three times bigger and the traffic is gigantic. If we still want to see humpback whales, we have to try our luck here. Guido is skeptical until the end. Such mass stories are not our thing but it remains – here is the last chance to see whales. Otherwise it remains with the memories we have from the sightings on land in Tsitsikamma.
Going to the office
We enter the vendor’s address into the GPS and are guided to Kleinbaai, right next to Gansbaai. When we open the door, we find ourselves in a mix of bar, restaurant, souvenir store and sales office. Huge, crowded, and noisy. On two floors people are bustling about. We speak to the lady at the information desk and she sends us through the souvenir store, across an outdoor terrace to another area – where you can book the whale tours. When we get there, there are about 50 people standing together in bunches, drinking coffee and eating muffins. We hear a laugh here and a chuckle there. Then everyone has to gather and they get a safety briefing via video. No doubt about it, this is a tour about to start. Guido’s grumble comes again – do we really want this?
We wait until the briefing is finished, then we can talk to the responsible employee. She explains the procedure to us again and Guido reports from Plettenberg. She pulls out her cell phone and shows us the sightings of the last few days. At the moment it is fantastic, the groups come back enthusiastic – everything is great. The marketing machinery is running at full speed. Can we sign up spontaneously tomorrow morning? She laughs and says no. The guesthouses are sending us so many people, it won’t work. Okay. We’ll go to the restaurant, discuss things and then see each other again, okay? Okay, fine.
On the wall in the restaurant there is a big TV showing the pictures of the successful tours. The marketing machinery is running. We have enough time to order, look at each other again and again and then make a decision. We are basically totally wrong at the place and yet we book.
Sonja decides that we take the 2:00 p.m. tour. Then you have about an hour of softer light towards the end. The argument convinces Guido and while Sonja waits for the food, he books the tour. While we eat, Guido’s cell phone rings. The payment request has arrived. He pays online, the confirmation comes and we are in.
The tour starts
The next day we are back on time and this time we take a coffee and muffins. After the short safety video we start already. Everyone gets a life jacket and if you want a rain jacket to not get wet. We walk to the harbor and wait for the boat. With delay the boat appears on the horizon. It enters the harbor and is pulled ashore by a large tractor. The morning group claps – Guido remembers vacation flights from his childhood when everyone clapped after landing. Then the stairs are pushed and the group can leave the vessel. Now we board and look for a seat. There is room for 45 passengers on board. Everyone sits sideways to the direction of travel and there are two levels. Strategically, the upper level is better because you have a panoramic view and can move around a bit more freely. We are the last to make it to the top and are satisfied – that has already worked.
Sharks and dolphins
After we leave the harbor, we sail along the coastline the bay. As we hear over the loudspeaker, the captain is on the lookout for humpback dolphins moving close to the shore. After a total of about 25-30 minutes of sailing, we reach the sister company’s shark boat. Here we moor to the side and see a cage attached to the outside of the boat. About 7 people are in the cage, another 20-25 are sitting on board in wetsuits, looking down with anticipation. Two crew members stand to the left and right of the cage and are busy throwing small buoys on long ropes into the water. Pieces of fish, soaked in fish oil, are attached to the buoys. Over and over again they throw these buoys into the water. The fish oil is supposed to attract the sharks.
The marketing is running
Then two sharks appear, the crew excitedly shouts that the participants should dive and the staff pulls the buoys towards the cage. In front of the cage, the sharks turn away and wet people in wetsuits emerge, adding a noisy frame to their just-completed adrenaline rush. No, this is not our world. We just wait until it’s over. The employee with the microphone on our boat comments loudly on what is going on and explains that it is fun for the whole family, that it is totally safe and that the youngest person in the cage was three years young. One could book gladly after the return.
Are we going to find humpback whales?
When we cast off, we know that it is now getting serious. Now comes the part of the tour that decides everything for us, because now there is no net and no double bottom. We ride in the wind over the very rough Atlantic Ocean – the difference to the Indian Ocean is enormous. After another 30 minutes without a trace we see two African penguins swimming in front of us. They are shy and dive off. We continue and then it happens. Suddenly a murmur goes through the boat, because a few hundred meters away we see a humpback whale breaching out of the ocean. Adrenaline now shoots through our bodies as the captain goes full throttle and shoots over the waves to get closer to the giants. We approach to about 50 meters and then we witness a spectacle that rarely happens. Two humpback whales jump surely twenty times into the air. Sometimes straight as a die, sometimes only hinted at, once even lying completely across in the air.
The emotions overflow
What is happening in front of our eyes right now is the greatest thing you can experience on such a tour. To see this, hundreds of people a day spend a lot of money on the coastline of South Africa and hope that they are among the lucky ones who get to experience this spectacle.
We are privileged and know it. The feeling when 40 tons of mass rise bolt upright out of the water and radiate pure joy is indescribable. Guido is very moved and close to tears. It is like a deep connection that this joy conveys. These two humpback whales communicated with us and emitted deep humming sounds – similar to the sounds of elephants. They were underwater, lifting their flukes out and waving them. These twenty minutes or so of time were some of the greatest we’ve ever had. When we then let them move on and continue our journey, the tour is actually over for us and we are happy.
Dyer Island and Shark Alley
What follows are still the other safety lines of this provider. We head to Dyer Island, to a seal colony of about 60,000 animals. On another small island not far away, seabirds nest and African penguins live. The area in between is called Shark Alley, because sharks find a richly laid table here. After staying there for a while, we leave the area and set course for the harbor. The crew is relaxed and laughing – this was a tour according to their wishes. When even the crew members pull out their cell phones, you know that what happened doesn’t happen every day. A look at the provider’s blog shows how privileged we were.
Conclusion and thoughts
Now we have been on two tours and like from a textbook we have been able to experience both extremes. In Plettenberg Bay we have not seen a single whale and in Kleinbaai we have experienced the maximum that is possible. If you look at the blog, you get a good idea of what is likely. Something in the middle is most likely. Seeing whales is likely. Seeing whales breaching is unlikely. That’s just wildlife and if you’re really okay with that, then you can live with anything. Not forcing things to happen gives a satisfaction. Then when they do happen, that real encounter is worth so much more than any forced one with domesticated animals or with manipulated situations ever could be. We know this well from the bush, where we follow the exact same motto. We stick to it: real wild life is our thing. You never know what you get – and that’s a good thing.