By Gretchen Healey
When considering land-based whale watching, you hardly need to visit a resort (though I would never discourage a stay at Grootbos!) Any seaside town on South Africa’s southeast coast will do during the right season, and we spent an afternoon walking the beaches along Gansbaai on our own, spying whales with our binoculars, and even *hearing* them from shore on one occasion. While it was wonderfully easy to watch the whales both with binoculars and the naked eye, the thrill of actually listening to these immense animals felt like an incredible privilege and left me with goose bumps and a pounding heart.
The four star service, excellent meals, and the fine wine that were on offer at Grootbos were a welcome experience, of course, but the wealth of available activities were the highlight. We enjoyed self-guided hikes through their private fynbos forests, climbing hills covered with Dr. Seuss-inspired vegetation. Flowers the size of a man’s fist boasted thin, spiked petals reaching for the coast’s azure skies and provided a lush counterpoint to the stark hillsides. We had the trails to ourselves, enjoying glimpses of the sparkling southern ocean around nearly every bend. We also visited a cave only safely accessible during low tide, exploring what was once a primitive residence long before maps were drawn of the area.
There are certain unique advantages available when staying at a place like Grootbos, however. The resort owns a house overlooking one of the most active spots along shore, and it’s only accessible to guests. They make afternoon excursions to the house to watch for whales while guests sip bubbly wine and nosh on snacks. It’s a luxurious and fantastic way to experience the local wildlife, and for us the whale sightings were abundant. It’s hard to describe the magic of seeing a 50 ton whale breach, launching its entire 45 foot long body out of the water, and then crashing back into the waves. To get a close up of breaching, as we did, is often considered the best part of whale watching, and one has to be in the right place, at the right time, to enjoy it. Yet on our last evening we had the luxury of what almost certainly had to be the same whale, breaching over and over right in front of the deck, with the setting sun illuminating it from behind. It is said that whales breach for multiple reasons, perhaps even simply as a form of play. If that is in fact the case, we were glad that particular whale decided to include us in its games
The highlight of our visit was a 35-minute flight over Walker Bay in a tiny, four-seat Cessna 175. Evan, our pilot, could not have been more enthusiastic about his vocation. He had given up a desk job to fly a plane over the whales every day the weather allowed because of his love for marine life. Our flight was something we’ll never forget.
Unlike a boat ride, the plane soars above the whales, leaving them wholly undisturbed in the waters. Evan won’t even let the shadow of his plane cross the whales’ path. The Cessna flies slow enough to make extremely tight turns around a grouping of whales, allowing passengers to take photos, or just enjoy the incredible views. For a flyer that occasionally finds herself uncomfortable in teeny tiny planes, Evan was a great communicator, and I appreciated his advice to ‘lean in’ to the plane’s tight turns. While it was great advice, I may have been too enthusiastic in following it, banging my camera lens against the windows more than once trying to capture the aerial beauty of the whales in the turquoise waters.
For a person that doesn’t fare well in the sea, it was absolute magic to see whales and dolphins from the air. The Southern Right is the second largest whale on earth, smaller only than the Blue whale. We witnessed calves feeding from their mothers, including brindle calves, which are male young that are born entirely white, but mature into the dark blue-black color that all other Southern Right whales exhibit. We also witnessed large family groups and numerous dolphins. We saw at least 40 whales during our flight, likely far more than we ever would have seen from a boat, and from an extraordinary vantage point. It was an unforgettable experience, and well worth the $350 price tag.
While not something I’m interested in, this area is also known for its shark-cage diving. Friends that have done it describe it as thrilling, although the Atlantic Ocean is quite cold (the Indian Ocean begins a bit further East), and the wait for other passengers to dive can be long and choppy. Additionally, from May to July, the sardine run occurs. Billions of sardines spawn and then move along South Africa’s coastline. This creates a feeding frenzy of immense proportions. Scientists estimate that the sardine run could rival the great wildebeest migration in terms of biomass. I would imagine seeing this could equal nearly any marine experience on offer anywhere in the world.
One of the magical parts of a trip like this is the realization that South Africa has an incredible number of diverse experiences on offer. We enjoyed a traditional wildlife safari in the northern part of the country, visited Cape Town with its wonderful dining, culture and outdoor activities, spent time in wine country sipping excellent vintages and capped it off with the wonder of spending time near whales. I return again and again only to make new discoveries each time.
If you’re drawn to the water, the southern coast of South Africa is an ideal destination. In addition to its marine life attractions, it boasts tremendous deep sea fishing, beautiful beaches, world-class surfing, sailing and sea kayaking as well as wind and kite surfing – literally every activity you might imagine for water-lovers. It’s a long, but relatively straightforward journey, but worth all the hours in an airplane to enjoy its many adventures.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Grootbos – www.grootbos.co.za (for both accommodation and booking whale-watching flights)
South African Tourism – www.southafrica.net
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