“Good luck seeing any whales in November. You know whale season is basically over by then, right?” An acquaintance at a Pretoria coffee shop was quick to douse my excitement when talking about our upcoming trip to Cape Town.
It was a year ago this time that I was planning our first big South African adventure. Part of our ten day excursion would be a drive down the coast from Cape Town to Cape Agulhas (the southernmost tip of Africa) with a day-stop at Hermanus to do a little whale watching. “The babies have already learned to breach,” she continued, “and all the whales will have headed south again, by then.” she continued.I pretended her comment didn’t bother me and joked, “Well, maybe we’ll spot a slow learner. And anyway, we’re going for the drive and the scenery and to dip our toes in the water at the southernmost tip of Africa.” It was a partial truth to mask my disappointment. We were excited to see the fabled coastline of southern Africa, but I was also desperately hoping to catch a glimpse of the famous southern right whales who come to give birth in Walker Bay. Hermanus is world renowned for being able to easily watch these giants from the shoreline without the need for binoculars or a telephoto lens.
When we lived in California for a year, I watched migrating gray whales from a picnic spot at Point Dume in California, and held my breath watching the largest animals on earth—blue whales—from aboard a boat off the southern California coast. To be so close to one of the most famous whale-viewing spots on earth and not see a whale would be a little disappointing, even knowing we were pushing the end of the season.
I had packed our Cape Town vacation with quite a few adventures, and the whales moved to the back of my mind as we climbed Table Mountain and the Cape of Good Hope, explored the V&A Waterfront, watched Penguins at Boulder’s Beach in Simon’s Town, talked of dipping our toes into the ocean at the southernmost tip of Africa, and mulled over the debate of exactly where the Indian and Pacific Oceans actually come together.
But the day came for our drive down the coast and our reservations for lunch at Bientang’s Cave, a hip and popular restaurant built into a cave in the side of a cliff along Walker Bay. The restaurant was famous for delicious food and even more delicious sightings of right whales coming into the inlet to mate and give birth.
Would we see a whale? Or were we too late?
We were too late to make our reservation time at the restaurant, and watched helplessly as a lucky young couple were seated at our table along the railing just as we finished descending the long flight of stone stairs. Thankfully the hostess managed to get us another table, still in sight of the water though further back.
“Have all the whales gone out to sea again?” I asked our server, a friendly young man adorned with tattoos of what looked like 1950s pin-up girls, and a sincere smile.
“Yes” he replied, seeming to commiserate with our disappointment, before quickly smiling and adding “except that mother and her calf right out there.”
We looked quickly and saw only blue water and the purple haze covering the hills on the far side of Walker Bay.
“Keep watching,” he grinned, “and I’ll be back in a minute with your drinks.”
He placed a couple of weather-worn leather menus in front of us, and we took turns looking at the menus while scanning the bay. All customers’ eyes were on the water when she appeared, spouting a plume of water from her blow hole as she traveled. I had never seen a right whale before, but had studied the drawings and photos of them before we came.
Their mouth is shaped like an upside-down smile. They do not have a dorsal fin, and they have a lot of crusty-looking patches on their heads which is basically rough skin covered with parasites. They rank 3rd largest in size behind the blue and fin whales (they can get up to 59ft/18m).
We could easily see how massive this whale was. At times, with only her head and tail fin out of the water, she was so long she looked like two whales. But the biggest excitement was that we could also see, by her side, the small figure of a calf swimming next to her. It didn’t escape me that I was thinking of a nearly one-ton, fifteen-foot newborn as “small.”
We managed to take our eyes off the whales long enough to order, but we were captivated, like the rest of the customers.
It wasn’t long before the baby began practicing its breaching, and we were rewarded by another couple of whales breaching in the distance as well. But the nearby baby and its mother had us all mesmerized. Against the dark blue ocean, the brown shoreline and the purple haze covering the rising hills, the whales would take turns erupting from the water, their dark bodies rising high into the air against the idyllic backdrop of Walker Bay, before crashing down again in a spray of white.
The diners collectively inhaled, then a ripple of laughter and conversation erupted as the whale flopped back to the surface. Silence as we waited for the next breach.
Between breaches, I was distracted by the beauty of Walker Bay’s geology. In addition to this cave, and the many caves cradling this birthing inlet, the quartzite cliffs were strewn with lush green plants. Outcrops ended abruptly at the edge of the ocean, only to be greeted by crashing waves against the jutting pillars. The rock sparkled in layers of mineral, the milky quartz lines running through the darker cliffs reminded me, appropriately, of stretch marks lining this expansive whale creche.
Blue water, brown shore, lavender mountains, then Pfssssssh! White foam and black whale breach against the landscape: gasping; laughter; conversation; silence.
Rock ledges reached toward the bay all around us. To our right, a pair of Labrador retriever mixes were standing point near the end of a long, flat rock outcrop, watching the breaching whales, barking into the ocean wind, their fur blown high in the rainy, windy weather.
My Cape Malay Curry arrived; a delicious seafood blend. I missed my mouth more than once trying to watch the whales, the dogs, and the crashing waves. What I managed to get into my mouth was just this side of heavenly, and I rated it in the top two of the ten different Cape Malay Curries I tried during our Cape Town adventures.
We didn’t want to leave when our meal was finished. The restaurant is more than generous with the amount of time visitors have to eat and watch the whales, though. We settled our bill and headed out to the rocks to watch a little longer.
Kurt explored the colorful tidepools in the rocks and I just stared out across Walker Bay, trying to memorize it like a painting.
The mother and calf had disappeared from view, and I stood smiling after them, laughing to myself about how lucky we were to catch a “slow learner.” Kurt interrupted me. “Well, are you ready to go?” he asked “It’s another couple hours to the southern tip of Africa, and we have toes to dip.”
I couldn’t knock the dumbstruck grin off my face as we climbed the high stone steps up the cliff and headed on down the coast to our next adventure.
An American Expat in South Africa, Marla is a freelance writer and global explorer. She creates travel adventures for herself following in the footsteps of her favorite authors. An American expat, she currently lives in Pretoria, South Africa, where she blogs her adventures on travelingmarla.com and is revising her first manuscript.