Day 6 – Whale watching at Gansbaai

WOW!!!! Really, this is the only way to describe today.

We were up early and had to forgo a cooked breakfast as we’d not told Marco the night before and needed to be away by 8. Being Saturday morning, traffic was even lighter than yesterday and we were soon onto the N2 heading out of the city.

The others were really excited, having found out what we were doing only the previous evening. This had prompted a few “wise after the event” comments, along the lines of “so that’s why we’re gong to Gansbaai instead of Hermanus; I wondered why” and “you lied when you said you’d changed the day we were going whale watching from Friday to Saturday to give us more time!”.

I too was really looking forward to this, having searched the Internet for what looked to be the best option. Although the boat I’d chosen was further (Gansbaai is another 30 minutes on from Hermanus) it seemed better, in that Ivanhoe Sea Safaris use a smaller boat and don’t run it to capacity. They are also one of the oldest companies operating whale watching boats. My confidence in them is boosted when my mobile ‘phone goes and it is Michelle from Ivanhoe, checking we are still coming and letting us know the weather conditions!

As we were getting used to, it was another bright sunny morning, not a cloud in the sky and just a gentle breeze blowing. This made it a very pleasant drive, cruising steadily along the N2 through some terrifically scenic areas. Out more in the country, the courtesy of other road users became clear; most of the roads are really wide and have a yellow line marking the edge of the normal carriage way on the left. To the left of this is effectively a hard shoulder and most drivers, when you come to overtake them, will happily move over into this area to let you past. A quick flick of the hazard lights to acknowledge this is then usually rewarded with a flash of their headlights in return. A far cry from the “they shall not pass” attitude you all too often get driving in the UK.

As we get further into the country, the road starts climbing steadily, culminating in a huge, long sweeping climb that goes on for miles. Expecting to see for miles when we reach the top, we’re surprised to look down into a valley that is completely filled with cloud! Fortunately, we stay well above this as we carry on towards Gansbaai. Some 80 kilometres or so from Cape Town, we turn off of the N2 onto a “minor” road; this is the R43, which takes us into Hermanus. Although notionally a minor road, this is still a good quality road, wide, flat and pot-hole free (unlike minor roads back home).

Hermanus is much bigger than we’d expected and it takes quite some time to pass through it. Once clear of the town, we can see Walker Bay off to our right and the excitement level gets higher. Another thirty minutes on and we see the signs for Gansbaai. The instructions to the harbour are easy to follow and we quickly find our way to the harbour, where we are charged the exorbitant sum of R2.40 to park. We pull up to Ivanhoe Sea Safaris about five minutes late, not bad after a journey of 166km.

We step out of the car and are assailed by an incredible stench; the one down side to Gansbaai as a start point is the pilchard canning plant in the harbour. It reeks. Still, putting this to one side, we go in to the office to pay for the trip and get some more information about the trip. We’re all really encouraged when Michelle talks about what to do when (not if) we see the whales and how the captain of the boat has to work within legal limits when approaching them (he can’t sail closer than 50m – however, if the whales then chose to come closer, that’s fine).

With our sense of excitement growing further still, we are then led down to where our boat, Ivanhoe, is moored. This is a pretty (but small) twin hull boat, with a high level viewing deck. We clamber aboard, where it becomes apparent that the trip will be almost empty apart from us. We’re sharing the boat with just two people who are going to film the whales and one old boy, who turns out to be Rudy Hughes, who founded Ivanhoe Sea Safaris but has since sold out to the current crew (who used to work for him). This means that, including the Ivanhoe crew, there are only ten people on a boat that can hold forty.

We cast off and Jason, the skipper, gives us a safety briefing as we head out of the little harbour into Walker Bay. The conditions are wonderful, with just a slight breeze blowing. This is enough to cause a slight swell which, if anything, adds to our enjoyment. Rudy is explaining to Paula the history of the company, that he was one of the first to realise both the commercial potential of whale watching but also the need to study and protect them. Consequently, he worked with academics to devise the code of conduct and was given the first permit to operate a whale watching operation in Walker Bay. Each license allows a single boat to operate within a defined area of the bay and there are strict rules about how close boats can approach the shore (to allow shore based watchers the opportunity to see whales as well) and how to approach whales. Rudy sold out to his crew a couple of years back but still lives on Walker Bay and part of the deal was that he can go out with the boat whenever he wants; this is the first time he’s been out this season and he’s hopeful of getting some good sightings.

After ten minutes or so, Jason suddenly points to the horizon and calls to us that there are some whales on the surface! We rush to the front of the boat and we can see these black shapes flat on the surface – suddenly, one of them blows out a huge burst of spray. It’s our first whale! We close towards them and 50 meters away, the cox cuts back the engines, to allow us to drift in. Unfortunately, this group (there looks to be three whales) seem disinterested and gradually slide away under the surface without us getting a clear view. We’re all hoping that this isn’t it and that we will get to see some more.

Up close with a Southern Right Whale

Up close with a Southern Right Whale

Turning away, we increase power and run back into the centre of the bay. We’re all keeping our eyes peeled to see if we can see another tell-tale spout but again it is Jason who spots another group. Once more, we close towards them and can see it is a bigger group this time, all Southern Right Whales. The cox kills the power and we start to drift straight towards them. This time they make no attempt to move away and decide to investigate us instead! They edge closer and closer and then they are right alongside the boat, almost close enough to touch. One of them vents and we see a beautiful rainbow in the spray. We can hear them breathing with the whoosh as they exhale and a roaring sound as they breathe in.

Tail flukes as the whale dives

Tail flukes as the whale dives

This is just jaw-droppingly awesome and suddenly we get a real sense of just how big these creatures are. This is really brought home as one of the whales decides to dive and swim right under our boat. This brings a mixture of total wonderment, tinged with fear – after all our little boat weighs seven tons and these behemoths can weight up to 70 tons. We hope the whale realises where it is and doesn’t decide to surface while underneath us. As it dives we can see every detail with total clarity, from the monstrous callosities on its head, all along its body to the massive (must be 10 feet across) tail as it slides beneath us. What a wonderful, unforgettable moment.

As with the first group, this pod loses attention and silently dives into the depths, leaving nothing but a curiously flat pool of water on the surface. We start up again and head towards the shallow water, in search of more whales. While we cruise towards the shore, a massive seabird floats past, skimming the waves; Jason calls, excitedly, that it is an albatross and that this is indeed a rare sighting this close to land. Unfortunately, it drifts past before I’m able to photograph it.

Sure enough, as we close to the shallow water, there’s another whale. This one appears to be on its own and again doesn’t seem that interested in us. It surfaces by the boat, appears to take a look at us and dives away, leaving us alone again. Jason decides to head back to the deeper water out ion the bay as this seems to be where the main groups are. He again sights a pod and raises our hopes by calling that he thinks there’s a Humpback in with a group of Southern Rights. This doesn’t turn out to be the case, it is “just” a big group (we think we can count seven) of Southern Rights. This group seem more inquisitive again and we spend some time floating in with them. Three of them line up alongside each other at one point, looking for all the world like giant stepping stones, while the others play and swim around and under the boat.

We don’t want to leave but all too soon it is time to turn and head back to Gansbaai. All through this, the crew (and Rudy) have been wonderful, telling us all about the whales and other life in the bay (they often see dolphins and very occasionally a Great White Shark that patrols here) and being really attentive to us. I really can’t recommend this tour highly enough.

The boat heads back towards the harbour and we can see a slick of smoke hanging over the area – coming from the pilchard canning plant. This is probably the only downside to the trip, the stench from here. We can see that the sea is starting to get rougher, with waves crashing against the beach and a far more noticeable swell than when we left. Again, thanks to Michelle for recommending a morning trip as it normally gets rougher later in the day.
There’s one last twist left for us as we slip through the harbour entrance; in the middle of the harbour is a trio of seals. They are just sunning themselves in the water, curling their flippers together to act as an anchor. We dock and, having filled in the guest book with just one word “WOW!” reluctantly climb off the boat to the jetty.

By now it is lunch-time and, to my surprise, we find that the trip cost also includes lunch. There’s a little café in the harbour, where we are served fish and chips, burgers or pasta, depending on choice. This is a nice touch and allows us to chat about what we’ve just seen, as well as watch some of the video footage taken by our fellow passengers. Then, finally, it is time to take our leave and start the long journey back to Cape Town. This has been one of the most enjoyable experiences any of us has ever had – as Paula points out, you can see any of the other animals we are likely to see later in our holiday in zoos but you can’t see whales in any zoo anywhere. WOW.

Still on a high, we begin our trip back, initially re-tracing our steps back as far as Hermanus. Just outside Gansbaai, there’s a signpost to a whale watching beach so we turn off to see if you can see anything from here. Sure enough, as we park just off the beach we see the now familiar water spouts that signify whale venting. Although fascinating, it just can’t compare to the experience we’ve just had, so we move on towards Hermanus. We decide to stop here, as it is the self-styled “whale watching capital”. It’s a pretty little town and there are high cliffs overlooking Walker bay. There is, however, a noticeable shortage of whales! I guess they were all down nearer to Gansbaai (written very smugly). They do at Hermanus, have one thing we’ve not had so far – an ice-cream shop! As is pointed out to me, we’ve been on holiday for five days and haven’t had an ice cream yet – my protestations that we’ve done other stuff are drowned out by a chorus of moans, so we go and get one. They have a great selection of interesting flavours here, with us going for things like Kinder Joy. These go down well and we eat them while keeping an eye out (in vain) for any whales.

Our route back to Cape Town takes us back along the coast road, instead of the free-way that we’d come down on, as we aren’t pushed for time. This road takes us through some great little towns, such as Betty’s Bay where we stop to watch the waves. By now, the wind has picked up and is blowing quite strongly, so the crash of the sea against the rocky coast causes huge plumes of spray to be hurled into the air. As we round the peninsula at Pringle Bay, we can see Table Mountain in the distance. We get a bit of a shock here because, unlike every other day so far, it is covered in the famous “Table Cloth”, a thick layer of cloud extending the length of the mountain top. This brings home the change in the weather during the course of today and just how lucky we have been to have had such perfect weather so far.

We carry on back down the coast until we come in to Muizenberg (what’s this named after again Jo?). Here the wind has picked up so much that sand is blowing across the road, making for very slippery driving conditions. We turn north here, starting to retrace our route from yesterday; this time we keep to the main road and this takes us right past the Newlands Rugby Stadium. There is obviously a big match going on here as there are cars parked everywhere; literally any spare inch has a vehicle on it. Despite this, there’s no traffic congestion as they’ve all made sure they keep the roads clear.

Finally we roll back into the Cape Paradise Lodge; we’re a little surprised as, for the first time in our trip, there are other guests here! We bump into Marco, who asks about our day; he tells us that the winds got very rough in False Bay and he’d heard of a Shark Diving trip where almost all the 30 people on board had been sea-sick. We were certainly lucky with our boat ride! We explain that we’ll need to be out very early tomorrow as we have an early flight, so he agrees to leave out stuff for breakfast. We go and settle up and then pack before calling Intercab for our last ride down to the Waterfront. As soon as I say I want a cab from the Cape Paradise Lodge, I’m asked “is that Mr. Heywood?”; obviously we’ve become well known there.

The Mixed Grill is HUGE

Paula with the HUGE mixed grill

We discuss where to eat and agree that as it’s our last night, we want somewhere we know, so opt for the City Grill for one last time. Paula and I were very jealous of Rick’s Mixed Grill last night, so go for that, as does Rick. Jo sticks to the Karoo Lamb Chops. It is a really nice meal and a great end to our, all too brief, stay in Cape Town.

With a heavy heart, we call up the faithful cab company one last time and head back for our last night in our little Paradise.

Our route to and from Gansbaai

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About mkrower

Veteran sculler (sometime rower) at Milton Keynes Rowing Club.
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