Yesterday I bumped into Meredith Thornton, the manager of Cetacean Research at the Mammal Research Institute at Pretoria University. Basically, she’s one of South Africa’s experts on whales, and she’s currently in the Agulhas area flying low over the ocean, taking photos of all the whales which come into the sheltered bays along the southern Cape coast.
Southern right whales arrive from the southern oceans to give birth to their young, and their numbers peak in September and October. They use the bays to suckle their young, which are born about 5 metres long, and grow at an astonishing rate of about 2,5cm per day – the mother’s milk is incredibly rich.
Of course, whales were hunted for several centuries, and were only given protection in the last few decades. The Southern Right Whale numbers are now recovering, increasing at close to the maximum possible biological rate of about 7% a year.
Meredith spends two weeks every year flying in a helicopter, at about 1 000 feet above sea level, looking for pairs of cows and calves. When she spots them, the helicopter drops down to about 300 feet so that she can take photos to identify each whale by the pattern of the so-called callosities. These callosities “are warty skin on the whales’ heads that become colonised by cyamids, a kind of crustacean that eats whale skin. Sometimes there are a few barnacles that also live on the callosity. Each whale has a different callosity pattern which means it can be used for individual identification purposes.”
“The survey takes 6 days to complete,” Meredith told me, “from Nature’s Valley in the east to Muizenberg near Cape Town, but it is always delayed along the way due to mist, rain, swell and wind – we are usually finished in 2 weeks.”
Meredith explained that there are about 1 000 cows in the research catalogue, and the latest population estimate for South Africa is 3 600. The world population is about 10 000 animals, but this is a long way off the estimated 80 000 animals which once existed, before the days of whaling.
On the current flyover, Meredith recently counted 189 pairs of cows and calves between De Hoop and Cape Agulhas – more than 400 whales along a coastline stretching about 160km.
But where do the whales come from every year? And how far do they travel across the oceans? The research project’s founder Dr Peter Best wrote in a local guide that a southern right whale called Cover Girl was first seen with a calf in nearby Sebastian Bay, in 1984. Incredibly, in February 1997, Cover Girl was spotted and photographed in the Antarctic at 58 degrees South, 2 degrees East, or about 2 900km south west of Cape Agulhas. Eight months later she was found with a young calf just near De Hoop to the east of Cape Agulhas.
But not all whales travel so far. Some have been found to hang around the Cape all year – moving from Agulhas to Cape Point then up the west coast to St Helena Bay to feed off the rich levels of zooplankton, each organism smaller than a grain of rice. Seems as if whales are like people – some are more adventurous than others!
Thanks very much Meredith for sending me the information and these awesome photos which were taken recently near Agulhas National Park.
Unfortunately, Meredith can’t take people up in the helicopter with her, although she’d love to share the experience with others. “I feel very priviledged to experience it,” Meredith smiled, “and while it very stressful and tiring work, it is simply awesome to see these animals from the air!”
If you want to see the whales from the air along this beautiful coastline, then contact pilot Evan Austin who owns African Wings. They run charter flights along the Southern Cape Coast. They also have some amazing photos on their website and Facebook page. Check them out!
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