Whale Watching in Plettenberg Bay, Garden Route, South Africa

Written October 5, 2011

Woke to more rain. Ugh! These clouds were supposed to blow through by now, but like most things in South Africa they are a little slow. We’re not anxious to leave Tsitsikamma this morning. With a hot cup of coffee, it’s warm and comfy in the forest hut, even if it is Nescafe.

After breakfast at the camp restaurant we decided that the clouds really did seem to be moving inland and that today would be a good day for a whale watching trip out of Plettenberg Bay (Plett for short).

Developed Plett looks like many other seaside towns around the world with high priced real estate occupying much of the hillside overlooking a quaint-ish downtown area with shops and restaurants. Central Beach, long and wide with fine white sand,

is just off the town center with ample public parking (remember to acknowledge the attendant when leaving your car and tip him on your return). A few restaurants line the beachfront boardwalk.

Ocean Safari, just across from the parking lot, still had space available on their 11AM Close Encounters Tour. They guarantee an up close and personal experience or reduce the regular 650 Rand (about $100US)/pax price to 500. Normally you pay on the return, but this morning the enthusiastic receptionist was sure we would see whales and had us pay in advance.

The 11 passengers donned standard bright orange life jackets and walked the short distant to the beach and boat. Before boarding the guide gave us a few safety tips and advised those who are prone to motion sickness or have a delicate back to sit in the back of the boat where there is less bouncing around. Thrill seekers should sit in the front.

Driving the boat off of the beach and towards the water he tells us to protect our cameras and brace ourselves as he plunges full speed into the incoming waves. We hit the sea with a jolt. Thankfully the sea is calmer this morning.

The sky over the sea is as blue as the water. Only a small bank of clouds hangs over the town adding character to a gorgeous sunny day.

Having already been out this morning our guide knows where the whales are and finds the first pair hanging out a short distance from Central Beach, just beyond the break. He stops the boat and we all immediately start snapping photos hoping for that great breach shot, but to our disappointment the guide explains that Southern Right whales generally don’t do much more than bob along the coast.

From views of just the top of the whale and the occasional exposed flipper or tail it’s difficult to tell what you are looking at.

Their heads are marked with knobby crusty areas that look like large warts, distinct enough that guides can distinguish one whale from another. While interesting, certainly not the most attractive attribute in the animal kingdom.

The pair hang around the boat a while keeping us interested by flashing a little flipper or tail now and again.

The guide tells us this is a male chasing an uninterested female. He thinks she is already pregnant, but this fact does not deter the male. Ultimately, she uses the boat as her escape putting us squarely between her and her suitor. A clever move our guide tells us females often use.

The guide zips up the coast and finds another female with a few month old calf. This mother is much larger than the last pair, around 70 meters.

As we watch through our camera lenses the guide causally lists whale facts and occasionally asks us questions. But no one says much, too busy waiting for that perfect shot.

The baby gets playful and does a couple of breach moves, satisfying our little paparazzi group.

On to the dolphins further along the coast. A large group of black dolphins are swimming just off the break, occasionally jumping into a wave before it crashes into shore. Their slick bodies glide quickly through the water with only their dorsal fins exposed, making them difficult to photograph. The boat rocks up and down over the incoming swells adding to the level of difficulty.

Amazing creatures to watch as they move so gracefully through the tumultuous surf. Our guide advises us to just keep shooting and sort it out later. The beauty of digital.

Our hour and half on the boat nearly up, we race across the open sea back to shore bouncing along the waves, a little roller coaster thrill tacked on to the end of the program. I feel like I’m going to fly off the boat if I don’t hang on. The town inches closer and I want this boat ride to be over. The guide tells us to hang on – as if we weren’t already – because he is going to ground the boat into the beach. I’m sure it’s a feeling you get used to, but the first time driving full speed into the beach feels like the moment before a car crash, everything moving in slow motion. But then you hit the soft sand and it’s all over in an instant.

Safely back on dry land we stop at Moby Dick’s for lunch, a typical beach fish place with nets hanging from the ceiling and a menu of fish combination platters. Most of the seafood we ordered – line fish of the day, calamari and mussels, were good but unexceptional. However, the fresh oysters suggested by the waiter, claiming they had just come in that morning, were rich and buttery with that just plucked from the sea essence.

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