Close Encounters


We all have days of being Data Deficient, but to be globally listed as such could be rather an insult.  Yet such is the fate of the Bryde whale.  On further investigation, the implication is not so much that it is naturally blonde but simply that there is insufficient information about the species. This very shy mammal is estimated to number just 90 000 – that’s approximately the population of Hemel Hempstead – sprinkled throughout the vast tropical and temperate waters of the world.  There have been more sightings of the Loch Ness Monster. Probably.

About the Southern Right whale, on the other hand, we know pretty much all there is to know. Their annual migration to the Western Cape has just begun and shortly there will be thousands here, having meandered their way up from the Antarctic for their annual love-in in our relatively warm waters.

Last weekend Joseph and I were invited to go looking for whales with Dave Hurwitz, one of Cape Town’s great characters and the sole permit holder for boat-based whale watching in False Bay.

It was one in a series of stunning Cape Town winter days.  The sun beat down, warming the cool, crisp air and hardly a breath of wind ruffled the sea’s surface.  Even if we’d seen nothing more exciting that a cormorant it would have been a beautiful day just to be out on the water.  And for a long time we saw, well… nothing at all… just the blue haze of the mountains around the bay and the long golden stretch of the Muizenberg strand.

Then the cry went up – the distinctive V-shaped plume of a Southern Right hung in the air just 100 metres away.   Within minutes there seemed to be whales all around us.  Not loads, as often happens at peak whale season in September, but 5 or 6 – enough for us not to know which way to look… which one might pop up next?  Would it surface in the same place or would it have moved on a distance?  Did that one look like it was diving deep?  Might it show us its tail…?

Dave operates a small yet roomy boat and we were just 9 passengers, able very easily to rush from side to side for the best viewing, while he regaled us with facts and stories about Southern Rights.  Facts such as that a single Southern Right testicle can weigh up to 500 kg.  For a fraction of a second everyone paused as we all subconsciously marked the moment of absorbing a piece of trivia that, like it or not, would stay with us for the rest of our lives.

Then a shiny black back appeared with a small dorsal fin.  Definitely not a Southern Right yet far too large for a dolphin.  Squeaking with excitement, Dave rushed back to the helm and nudged the boat a little closer.

No doubt about it, this was one of the famed Bryde whales known to haunt False Bay but incredibly rarely seen.  By law Dave was required to note its GPS location and the time of sighting.  The water was so calm we awed passengers could see the long, thin outline under the water as it slid silently past – smaller and slimmer than the Southern Rights and distinctly elegant.  It appeared to show an unusual interest in the boat and circled around us for I don’t know how long – it could have been two minutes, it could have been ten.  All we knew was that it was a Momentous Occasion.

On our return I Googled for more information on both the Southern Right and the Bryde whale.  There were an inordinate number of references to the size of the Southern Right’s testicles, though none to those of the Bryde.  Or to anyone in Hemel Hempstead for that matter.  Now that’s Data Deficient… but it’s fine with me.



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