Whale watching in KwaZulu-Natal

Marine-based ecotourism is a growing attraction along the coast of KZN with whales and dolphins being the star attractions. During the peak whalewatching season between July and September, whale sightings are virtually guaranteed along the coast. Another major international attraction is the annual phenomenon of the Sardine Run during June and July when huge shoals attract a feeding frenzy of large predators including dolphins and sharks.

From mid-May to mid- September, humpback and smaller numbers of southern right whales migrate along the coastline of KwaZulu-Natal from their feeding grounds in the nutrient-rich waters of Antarctic to their breeding grounds off the coast of Mozambique making the return journey between September and December.

Up until recently, boat-based whalewatching was associated mainly with the Western Cape but a greater variety of species are now being spotted off the KwaZulu-Natal coast including sperm, minke and bryde’s whales. Whales are sometimes visible from the shoreline but boat-based tours will ensure a far better view. Dolphin sightings are also a daily occurrence.

Distinctive behaviours that can be observed include ‘blowing’ when the expulsion of breath causes a spray of water into the air and ‘breaching’ when the whale bursts out of the water with an arching back before crashing back down into the water. Breaching is thought to have a number of purposes including communication or to remove parasites and usually happens several times in succession. ‘Lobtailing’ is when the whale slaps the flukes of the tail on the surface of the water while ‘spy hopping’ involves lifting the body out of the water to the height of the flippers in order to get a view of the surrounding area.

Humpback Whales
These phenomenal mammals can weigh up to 35 tons and are approximately 15 metres in length. Usually black on top and white underneath, they have long, narrow flippers and perform spectacular breaches leaping high out of the water.

Southern Right Whale
The Southern Right Whale is also around 15 metres in length but weighs in at a heavier 50 – 60 tons. Southern Rights do not have a dorsal fin and are often covered in wart like growths.

Boat Tours
The best way to view whales up close is from a boat. However, unless you are aboard a boat licensed by the Department of Marine and Coastal Management you are not allowed by law to approach within 300 metres of a whale. Permit holders have all completed a course which includes the theory and practice of approaching whales and dolphins.

The Sardine Run
One of nature’s great migration phenomenons, this extraordinary event is witnessed every year along the KwaZulu-Natal coast during late autumn and early winter (May, June July). According to folklore, the sardines will arrive when the last aloe plant has bloomed.

Often referred to as ‘The Greatest Shoal on Earth’, the sardine run occurs when millions of sardines (actually pilchards) migrate from their spawning grounds on southern tip of Africa following a cool north-flowing current moving in the opposite direction to the warm, south flowing, Agulhas current.

The shoals are about 6kms in width and about 15kms in length. If the water temperature remains about 20C, the sardines will stay in the cooler waters further south or alternatively move northwards further out to sea on the far side of the Agulhas current. The sardines are followed in a feeding frenzy by sharks and game fish while pods of dolphins join together into super-pods to herd the sardines. Thousands of cape gannets also circle the shoals, plunging into the sea at speeds of 150 kph to eat their prey. Usually the shoals break up and venture out into deeper water just north of Durban.

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Responsible Travel would like to thank Tourism KZN for their sponsorship of this guide
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