Meet the whales of South Africa’s coast

Posted by Ilhaam Hoosain on 20 June 2022

South Africans have the privilege of seeing some of nature’s most amazing mammals of the ocean. You can witness their journey as they travel from the cold waters of the Antarctic to the warmer tropical waters of the Indian Ocean. The most common whales along South Africa’s shores are humpback and southern right whales along South African shores.

What makes a Cetacean?

Cetaceans can be divided into two groups: baleen whales (masticetes) and toothed whales (odontocetes). Baleen and toothed whales can also be told apart by the number of blowholes on the top of their head. Baleen whales have two blowholes while toothed whales only have one.

Cetaceans breathe through their blowholes and have to surface for air. They communicate through echo-location and it is believed that cetaceans are intelligent because they have conversations that include a wide vocabulary.

Brought back from near extinction, the numbers of the southern right and humpback whales are increasing steadily. Conservation of these animals is still a concern with many species not being monitored. Today they are considered vulnerable.

Humpback Whale

Meet the whales of South Africa's coast

Humpback whale: texaus1

Humpback whales have a small dorsal fin on a hump and they have unusually long pectoral fins which can be seen against their almost black upper body. Humpback whales as large as 18 metres have been recorded although specimens in the southern hemisphere tend to be smaller.

  • Females reach sexual maturity at about 12 metres (usually around 10 years of age)
  • Females are larger than males of equivalent age
  • Gestation: 11 to 12 months
  • Usually produce a single calf that suckles for 10–11 months

Humpback whales consume krill only and create bubble nets to catch their meal. They can be seen this side of the world from June to January, their migration period, in groups, or in calf-and-mother pairs. They travel this route to mate and calve in the Mozambique and Madagascar waters. They are known as the “most talkative” of the whale species and are impressive singers.

Males are known to sing elaborate songs for hours on end with a single song sometimes lasting for 20 minutes. They pass their songs from generation to generation and it has been recorded that the songs can be progressive or modified over time.

Southern Right Whale

Meet the whales of South Africa's coast

Southern right whale: Oregon State University

Mostly black, this whale has no dorsal fin, they have a V-shaped spout and are recognised by their unique blows. They can reach up to 16 metres and can weigh in at 65 tons. they can be identified by the numerous growths on their head; known as callosities.

  • Similar to their northern cousins: northern right whales
  • Competition between males for a mate is non-aggressive
  • Gestation: 11–12 months, producing a single calf that suckles for six months
  • A calf can drink 600 litres of milk per day
  • Calves can reach five metres and five tons at birth
  • They can grow as much as 2.5cm per day
  • Some males are born white and will turn grey over time

These whales make the southern oceans their home and they can be seen between August and October and may be spotted between June to November. They feed selectively on copepods and krill and they travel as far as the tropics to mate and calve in bays.

During the 1800s they were in high demand and were hunted, but with conservation and knowledge, the southern right whale population is increasing at 7% a year. This gives hope to them doubling their population in 10 years. In 2001, 50 southern right whales were recorded together in Plettenberg Bay.

Bryde’s Whale

Meet the whales of South Africa's coast

Bryde’s whale: Jason Thompson

The Bryde’s whale has a prominent hooked dorsal fin and their bodies are dark grey with a light underbelly. What makes them identifiable is three distinct ridges along the top jaw otherwise they are identical to the minke and sei whales.

  • Gestation: one year, with a further year of suckling
  • Not much has been documented about their reproduction cycle

Bryde’s whales eat small crustaceans and shoaling fish and they enjoy the sardine run. They are shy animals and are only seen in late summer and winter. They are mostly found in warmer waters and can go as fast as 24 km per hour.

Bryde’s whales received their name after Norwegian commercial whaling pioneer Johan Bryde. Pronunciation is: BROO-dus and not ‘bride’ as typically thought. When freediving the bride’s whale can reach depths of 305 metres.

Minke Whale

Meet the whales of South Africa's coast

Minke whale: Len2040

According to Oceans Africa the minke whales are the most abundant of the species. They are also the smallest in size reaching about 10m in length, their colouring is often dark-grey with an almost white belly and they have pectoral fins and a dorsal fin.

  • Gestation: 11 months with suckling for only five months
  • Not much has been documented about their reproduction cycle

Minke whales can be found in tropical and cold waters and this solitary animal fills their belly with small crustaceans and shoaling fish. Sightings of them are rare in Southern Africa and they are fortunately the least endangered of the whale family.

Dwarf minke whales grow to a maximum length of 8 m and weigh in at 6.3 tons. These minke whales got their name from a Norwegian whaling spotter named Meincke who allegedly thought a minke was a blue whale. These whales can stay submerged for at least 15 minutes and they can celebrate up to 50 birthdays.

Blue Whale

Meet the whales of South Africa's coast

Blue whale: Christopher Michel

The blue whale is the largest organism on planet Earth, reaching up to 30 metres. They are slender and are blue-grey in colour with a small dorsal fin and a distensible throat.

  • Gestation: 11 months
  • Calves are approx. 7 metres at birth and can weigh between 2–3 tons
  • Calves can consume almost 400 litres of milk per day
  • Sexual maturity is reached at approximately 12 years of age and at a length of 23 metres

They live in small populations and eat krill, crustaceans and small schooling fish. Distributed throughout the Antarctic Ocean, the North Atlantic, North & South Pacific and Indian Oceans, these whales can live up to 110 years old but typically 80 to 90.

The blue whales tongue is as big as an elephant’s. This mammal is not only the largest animal on Earth, but also the loudest. We can’t hear them underwater but the blue whale happens to make the loudest noise of any animal. They have been recorded up to frequencies of 188 decibels and they tend to talk in low-frequency moans, groans and pulses.

Sperm Whale

Meet the whales of South Africa's coast

Sperm Whale: Gregory Smith

A toothed whale with 18-25 conical teeth, Female sperm whales are smaller than their male counterparts and they can grow to 18 metres and weigh 45 tons. They do not have a dorsal fin but they have ‘bumps’ that are distinct. Their one blow hole is s-shaped and their colour can vary from blue-grey to light-brown while they turn completely white in old age.

  • Gestation: 14–15 months
  • Calves 4 metres at birth
  • Suckling can last for three years
  • Sexual maturity is reached at around 10 years of age

The sperm whale’s diet differs as they enjoy giant squid, octopus and fish and they have evolved to deeper waters where they are known for their free-diving skills. They can reach depths of 3 000m and hold their breath for up to two hours.

This whale lives in matriarchal societies and most females never leave their family. Males leave at about six years old and form bachelor groups and tend to live isolated in older age. Each family has a unique click pattern, confirming evidence that whales are social learners and have their own culture.

The spermaceti organ in sperm whales sits on top of the animal’s head, dominating most of it. The oil from the spermaceti organ was used for oil lamps, candle making and lubricants – One sperm whale can possess 1900 litres of oil. There are many theories for the spermaceti organ, the first being for buoyancy and that the whale uses this organ to communicate, mainly through sonar communication.


The whales are here! Humpbacks, southern rights and killers in Cape Town

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