When fifty tons of blubber abruptly erupts from the sea beside your comparatively small boat there are a number of appropriate expletives at your disposal; most of which cannot be published on a family forum like this one.
The 20 or so patrons accompanying me aboard the Gaansbai whale-watching vessel were all certainly exercising their rights to express themselves, and hence the air was not only full of a billowing spray, but also a cacophony of extremely colorful language.
So, I placed my hands protectively over my son’s innocent ears, and then joined in with the choir of startled and swearing adults who were all gasping at the Right Whale who had just launched itself from the ocean like a rocket ship.
The boat rocked, we all got splashed, and the captain looked quite nervous.
“Wow!” said my son…Well put I thought.
To witness such a creature breaching up close is truly an unforgettable spectacle, and a popular one too if the 12% annual increase in whale and dolphin watchers is anything to go by. In fact, in many of the 87 countries in which boat based whale watching occurs, it is the fastest growing tourism sector; South Africa included.
Add to this an estimated associated income of approximately 1.5 billion US dollars per year spent by an estimated 10 million tourists and it’s hardly surprising that companies specializing in marine mammal trips have been sprouting up faster than black wattles on a freshly burnt hillside.
In South Africa, we are blessed with an abundance of beautiful marine habitats which harbor almost half of all known cetacean* species- and what’s more, we have seal colonies galore and more Great White sharks than anywhere else on earth.
It’s a recipe for commercial success, what with all the whale watching vessels, shark cage diving operators and SCUBA dive companies working out of South Africa.
Jobs have been created in abundance, a profit is being made, development ensues and poverty alleviation is given a helping hand.
But is all this rapid growth sustainable? And what’s more, is it good for the animals and environment?
Well, the answer it would seem, according to the experts from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund, is a bit ambiguous.
If conducted with sensitivity to the animals, the industry can be a very positive entity indeed, but on the other hand, there have been numerous cases around the world where unchecked and overzealous tour operators have harassed, endangered, and sometimes even killed marine mammals in an attempt to get their clients that special close up experience.
Tour companies that offer “swimming and snorkeling” with dolphins can cause even more unintentional damage….
“The lukewarm water was cobalt blue and as transparent as newly polished glass. Sunrays pierced the surface and cast fractals across the dolphins down below. I floated in a wondrous world of movement and sound—a maelstrom of pantropical spotted dolphins. They clicked and squeaked, probing me with sophisticated sonar, all the while smiling those enigmatic smiles of theirs. Some came close enough to peer into my mask.
They blew bubbles into my face; they pirouetted below my clumsy feet and they danced around me like sleek torpedoes full of energetic fun.
Mothers with their babies, formed themselves into tightly knitted bunches of twenty or more animals a piece and patrolled back and forth as if showing off their young ones to me.”
Well, at least that’s how I, in my blissful ignorance, interpreted the situation when last I went swimming with dolphins in Costa Rica. But experts will tell you a different story.
In Plettenberg Bay I recently met with Professor Victor Cockcroft, a marine biologist who once ran his own marine mammal research station called the Center for Dolphin Studies. He told me that swimming with wild dolphins is highly controversial.
“The animals are often disturbed so much that they are unable to feed and socialize properly” he told me” As a result, they can become ill and die. It may look like they are smiling at you, but dolphins always smile. Their faces are stuck in that position and so they look happy to us when perhaps they are not”
I have since learned that when dolphins “bunch up” with their babies, it’s not because they are being friendly; it’s because they are petrified. The defensive huddle serves to protect them from potentially lethal predators like sharks, killer whales and Norwegians.
Thankfully, South Africa, like many other nations, has banned swimming with whales and dolphins. And what’s more, we have some of the most stringent rules anywhere on earth in regards to whale and dolphin boat based activities.
Every year “Marine and Coastal Management” issues a limited number of whale watching licenses to operators, and if any tour operator is found breaking any of the rules he will have his permit permanently revoked. He may even find himself facing criminal charges.
It is illegal to chase cetaceans and it is illegal to approach them too closely. No more than two vessels can be in the same proximity of a whale or dolphin, and each animal can only be visited for a certain amount of hours in a day. In other words, South Africa’s whales and dolphins are pretty much left in peace, whilst, without their knowledge, they continue to support an ever growing and extremely valuable sector of our tourism market.
“Companies with a true respect for wild cetaceans applaud and welcome the introduction of tight regulations,” Victor told me. “Not only do these laws shelter the animals from harm, they also protect the tens of thousands of jobs and incomes which are supported by the industry.”
One of the upsides to the increase in cetacean tourism is that conservation organizations and animal-welfare groups now have a new tool to use in the argument against commercial or scientific harvesting. Whales and dolphins are simply worth more alive than dead.
This is certainly true for the Great White shark as well- a much maligned creature that has suffered terribly at the hands of man. Recent estimates indicate that between 20 and 150 million sharks are killed globally every year by the fishing industry. It’s a predominantly unregulated harvest which most fishery experts agree cannot be sustained for long.
However, In 1991 South Africa became the first country to ban White shark hunting after cage dive operators banded together and lobbied the government to step in and do something before it was too late.
“People were slaughtering sharks indiscriminately” said Craig Ferreira, proprietor of one of the Gaansbai shark cage diving companies “We were perhaps looking at local extinction, the collapse of an eco system and the loss of a great deal of income and related jobs if something wasn’t done”
As a result of forward thinking policy makers, South Africa now has a flourishing shark diving industry which attracts tourists from all over the world. Shark Alley, a deep channel of oceanic water off Gaansbai has become world famous as the best place on earth to see these ominous and impressive predators….
…And just like the whale and dolphin tours, the shark cage diving industry is tightly regulated by a set of government rules which have been drawn up by a panel of global experts.
“Without these rules the animals may get hurt” said Craig “People may get hurt as well, and that would not be good for anyone- not for us, not for the sharks, and not for South Africa’s tourism!”
So thankfully, when all things are weighed up, the general consensus is that “yes” it is acceptable to go out and enjoy whale, dolphin and shark watching tours (You can even go swimming with seals if you want) providing that the animals are not harmed or harassed in any way. In fact, your presence on a tour and the money you pay for it may well be an essential contribution towards the animal’s long-term survival…
…And as long as whales, dolphins’ sharks and other marine animals are worth more alive than dead, those survival prospects look very good indeed.
*Cetacean- The collective name for Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises
There are numerous locations in South Africa where you can catch a whale and dolphin boat tour, including (but not limited to) Plettenberg Bay, Gaansbai, Cape Town and Hermanus.
For more info visit
If you don’t want to fork out for a boat trip (or if you are prone to sea sickness) there are many spots along our coast where whales can be viewed from the land.
Hermanus, De kelders and Arniston are especially good places where the shore line drop off is so steep that the whales can approach to within meters of where you are standing.
Don’t forget the world famous Hermanus whale festival in September; a celebration of all things blubbery, and yet another way for the locals to capitalize on their overweight marine visitors.
For a shark cage diving experience you can either choose between Gansbai and Mossel Bay.