Spotting whales at the Hermanus Whale Festival

Posted by Yvonne Lazarowicz on 4 October 2011

30 September marks the beginning of the Whale Festival in Hermanus, Western Cape. Whale season lasts longer than the festival, from June to October when the Southern right whales swim up from the cold Antarctic seas up to the relative warmth of the waters on the shores of the Western Cape. What would normally be considered low season in winter and spring in Cape Town is a little island of high season in Hermanus as people flock to catch a glimpse of the massive underwater beasts.

As trite as the phrase ‘charming’ is, Hermanus really does fit the description of a charming town, around one-and-a-half-hour’s drives from Cape Town. The views in Hermanus, are not charming, they are breathtakingly stunning. From the coastal walkway, there are dramatic views of the bay, the dassie-dotted, stony slope in front of you giving way to a rocky shore, further a seemingly endless white-sand beach and a sea dotted with kayakers, swimmers and boats, and this time of year: whales. Behind you are shops and cafés, all with huge windows and outdoor tables, inviting you to enjoy the views over a coffee.

A month ago it was my dad’s birthday and we decided to make a day trip of it to Hermanus from Cape Town. The drive is spectacular, Hermanus has some fabulous restaurants and the weather in Cape Town looked so-so. Also, we hoped to catch sight of some of those whales.

By ‘we’, I actually mean my two little girls (four and two) and my husband, who gets as excited about nature as my daughters. Binoculars and whale story book in hand, we set off on our road trip, the girls craning their necks from the back seat to see whales. With every rock that was lapped by the waves, they cried ‘whale!’

The drive from Cape Town to Hermanus along the coast road is worth leaving the house for in itself. As the road rises up past Gordons Bay the whole of False Bay opens up. The road seems be chiselled out of the mountain side, wide enough to accommodate two cars. The view as you pass every bend causes an involuntary, awe-inspiring intake of breath, as the road drops away sharply to the waves crashing at the foot of the mountain.

Going inland, you pass through Betty’s Bay and Pringle Bay, the houses dotted amongst the rocks like they were sprinkled at the foot of the towering rocky mountain behind them.

Finally, an hour or so later we were having lunch in Hermanus, overlooking the harbour, the girls reluctantly eating between taking turns to hold what look like oversize binoculars in their tiny hands. They were disappointed as the still surface of the water stubbornly refused to throw up any whales, or even a tell-tale upward spurt of water.

I must confess that I have always been rather dubious about whale watching, although I was trying very hard not to spoil the party. I had never seen a whale but any pictures advertising whale watching cruises always featured the same old picture of a tail or a spurt of water. I suppose I felt it was all rather over hyped and the money spent on these trips seemed rather a lot to only see part of an animal. I mean, really, a tail? That’s what, like 10 % of the whale? Imagine how ripped off you would feel, going to the zoo and only being allowed to see 10 % of all the animals- half a cheetah’s face, just the elephant’s bottom, only the lion’s man, one giraffe leg … you get my point. So, frankly, I couldn’t really get terribly excited about seeing a portion of the whale. Rather go the whole hog and go diving.

After lunch, we walked along the beautiful coast path in Hermanus, meandering past whale watchers. Suddenly there was a collective intake of breaths and all fingers and eyes were pointed in the same direction- there it was. A whale! Perhaps 25 m from the beach. My heart jumped, I was transfixed, and began snapping away and waiting patiently for it to resurface. And yes, I only saw the tail and a spurt.

So why was it so exciting? I don’t know, I can hazard a guess that maybe the immediate juxtaposition of human civilisation and the wild creature of sea was something amazing. The fact that I could buy an iPhone , have an espresso and watch one of the most amazing creatures on the earth frolicking, not 100 m away, not even having to get a on a boat, is a miracle of the modern world.

And maybe we should only see a part of the whale, maybe it should retain some of its mystery and privacy, leaving us in awe and imagining the rest.

Don’t be fooled by the name ‘Whale Festival’, the whales aren’t actually attending the festival. They won’t be manning any stalls, sipping espressos and perusing postcards and souvenirs. No, the festival is not quite big enough (physically) to handle a couple of browsing whales. But they may well be there. You know, just over the wall, playing in the water while you enjoy your ice cream or your kid hangs off what must be one of the most spectacularly place jungle gyms in the world.

Trust me. It’s worth it just for the tail.


Heading to Hermanus for the whale festival? Find accommodation here.

Read more about the launch of the official Cape Whale Coast Route, which spans the southeast coast of the Western Cape.

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