Sunday, October 17, 2010

Whale Watching in Cape Town: The Marine Big Five

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Most people have heard of the African Big Five, elephant, buffalo, leopard, lion, and rhino but there is another Big Five in Africa- the Marine Big Five made up of the Southern Right Whale, the Cape Fur Seal, the Common Dolphin, the Great White Shark and the African Penguin. All five of these animals can be seen from the beaches around Cape Town, and if you are lucky (like I was) you will get to see all five in one outing. The trip is considered a boat-based whale-watching trip, but in Kleinbaii you have a chance to see all of the big five, especially if you go with the Dyer Island Conservation Trust (DICT) as they are permitted to go to Dyer Island where you can see the African Penguin colonies. In fact their foundation does conservation on the island and you can buy a house for a penguin on Dyer Island at their offices before you go on the boat. They do a lot of great conservation work and were instrumental in getting the African Penguin put on the IUCN endangered species list in May of 2010. I really enjoyed going out with them and would highly recommend the company. A marine biologist comes on the tour, which is a wonderful opportunity to learn more about the animals and ask questions. The company also works with local communities educating people and hiring locals to be spotters and deck hands on the ship. It seemed to be all around a great example of how you can have responsible tourism and a wonderful tourist experience, which is something many companies in Africa seem to struggle with.

There is a planned route the boat goes on around the bays of Kleinbaii, but if something exciting is spotted they change their course. This happened to us and as we set out for the first bay we received a radio call that there was a pod of a few hundred dolphins in the area and we changed courses and made a beeline for them. The Common Dolphin is a bow chaser so as soon as we came up to them they surrounded our ship and jumped along side of us. It was a rare experience that we were told only happens a few times a year and it was just astounding to be surrounded by dolphins as far as the eye could see.

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After the dolphins we checked out our boat’s sister ship, which is a shark diving boat. As I already mentioned a few posts ago, I did not like the company I went with for shark diving and would highly suggest going with Dyer Island if you would like to shark dive. We were able to see some of the sharks that were by their boat and watch as they swam around checking out the cage and seal decoy.

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From there we went on to Dyer Island where on one side of the boat you can view the Cape Fur Seal and on the opposite side you can view the penguin colonies on Dyer Island. The Cape Fur Seals have a colony on a strip of rocks very near Dyer Island and the space between the rocks and the island is often referred to as shark alley because many Great Whites come into the area to feed on the seals. Many movies and documentaries on sharks are filmed in that tiny strip of water. The seals were adorable and we could see them frolicking about on the rocks and in the water. There are many babies this time of year, which makes them very vulnerable to the sharks, but we did not see any kills.

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Tourists cannot go onto the island itself, and for the protection of the penguins the boat cannot get too close, but you get close enough to see them well with your naked eye. The penguins are highly endangered and habitat loss is a major problem for them. Although guano scraping no longer happens today the impacts from the practice in the 1890’s are still felt by today’s penguins. The penguins need the guano surfaces to burrow into to build their nests and because of guano scraping over 100 years ago the levels are too shallow. The DICT provides artificial houses for them on the island, which they have taken to quite nicely and has been a very successful project. As I mentioned before when you go on a trip with the DICT they give you a little sales pitch about buying the houses for the penguins. I found the pitch to be a little over the top and cheesy, but remember the cause is very important and I am now a proud owner of beachfront property at Dyer Island. When you purchase a house you get a certificate of ownership printed up with your name, which I think makes for a wonderful and meaningful souvenir. If you can’t visit the island, but still want to help the plight of the adorable African Penguin you can check out the DICT and all their great work here.

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The last animal in the big five is the Southern Right Whale. During May-December the Southern Right Whale will travel from the cold Antarctic waters to the warmer South African tides and will mate and give birth in the waters. September-October are prime months for whale watching and while sitings are never guaranteed, most boats have many sightings on the excursions. The Southern Right Whale was given its name because it is the "right" whale to hunt because it is slow moving, which means it can be caught easily and a large profit can be made from them. They are currently considered least concern by the IUCN redlist, but they are being hunted and slaughtered in the Antarctic by Japanese whalers who claim they are conducting research and whale meat should be allowed because they are not considered endangered species. To learn more about the plight of the whale in the Antarctic check out Whale Wars on Animal Planet.

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