Swimming with humpback whales off Barra Point in Mozambique is hands down the best wildlife encounter I’ve ever experienced.
I surfaced after a dive on Amazon Reef, where I’d been mesmerised by their magical songs, but thought nothing of it, knowing their sound can travel great distances. I turned to look for the boat when a 14-metre, 40-tonne giant blew out an enormous poof of air so close it sounded like a gunshot. My heart raced as a family of three humpbacks – including a comparatively small newborn calf – circled inquisitively around and beneath us for what seemed like a lifetime.
It was incredibly lucky, but not surprising as it was winter and we’d been watching streams of humpbacks making their way up the southeast African coast. They were on their annual journey from Antarctica to as far north as Tanzania over a total distance of more than 12 000 kilometres, making it one of the world’s furthest migrations. Their sole mission? To mate and calve. The warmer water is ideal because calves are born with a thin blubber layer and orcas – the humpback’s only natural predator – prefer cold water.
Without the presence of predators, humpbacks seem to be extremely playful, using their uninhibited power to defy the laws of nature with displays of aerial acrobatics. They also repeatedly slap their large pectoral fins and tails (flukes) on the surface, all of which makes for incredible whale watching.
When they’re not splashing about, they continue on their journey, cruising at speeds of up to 15 kilometres an hour, diving to depths of 150 metres for 45 minutes, or sleeping by letting half their brain rest at a time.
The southern hemisphere populations return to their icy summer feeding grounds off Antarctica (interestingly, northern populations probably never meet their southern cousins as the seasons are reversed and they don’t cross the equator). Before reaching the cold, nutrient-rich waters, a nursing mother can lose up to a third of her weight feeding her newborn. She will need to eat at least a tonne of krill and small fish a day in preparation for this voyage.
For me, just for that brief eye-to-eye moment, I felt incredibly privileged to be part of this remarkable migration and can only hope I provided as much entertainment as they did.
Southern Africa whale-watching hotspots
Simon’s Town Boat Company
Cell 083-257-7760 www.boatcompany.co.za
Southern Right Charters
Cell 082-353-0550 www.southernrightcharters.co.za
Africa’s Ocean Safaris
Tel 044-533-4963 www.oceansafaris.co.za
Durban and St Lucia
Advantage Tours and Charters
Tel 035-590-1259 www.advantagetours.co.za
Ponta do Ouro, Mozambique
It’s a criminal offence to approach any whale closer than 300 metres without a permit.
(Photo by Whit Welles/Wikimedia Commons)