Over the past several months you have been introduced to the leading characters in the everyday life of Our Urban Wilderness here in the Cape Peninsula of South Africa.
But that’s only our rather narrow domestic view. They are not the only members of the great family who share our larger world, just those who live around us and brighten our lives daily or at least once every week or so.
What makes our little urban wilderness so special is that it is wrapped in a hugely larger environment throbbing with life. Before us, to the east, lies False Bay, said by many to be one of the most beautiful and bountiful on earth. Up to 30km wide and 100 metres deep, it opens southwards to the chill Atlantic ocean and spill from the warm Indian ocean. Behind us soars the steep, boulder-strewn and cliff-edged spine of the Cape Peninsula, home to a host of animals large and small and the richest floral kingdom in the world. On the far side of False Bay looms the jagged row of ridges and peaks of the Hottentots Holland mountains, slashed by canyons and valleys so deep and mysterious you might well think “There be dragons . . .”
Well, dragons maybe not but certainly leopards and badgers and buck in the mountains on both sides plus a kaleiodoscope of birds from eagles to penguins, resident and migratory. And in the bay itself there is a profusion of marine life so varied that False Bay is a magnet to people from all over the world who like to fish for big game, study the fantastic marine ecology, swim with great white sharks, watch whales or simply enjoy nature at its best.
Nobody who has watched television can not have seen at least one of the multitude of documentary films of great whites leaping right out of the water in their hunt for seals, a technique they use nowhere else. Or of people clad in wet suits and breathing through snorkels while they stand in steel cages close enough to sharks to kiss them.
That particular entertainment we don’t indulge in. There is too much else. From as early as June every year until about the end of November we have an influx of whales, scores of them, maybe hundreds, it is impossible to count them accurately. They are southern rights, a close relative of the northern rights and for a couple of centuries one of the favourites of whale hunters for their oil, hence the name “right”. They came close to extinction before hunting was banned in the last century and their population is recovering rapidly now at a rate of about seven per cent a year. The population today is estimated at about 10000.
The average southern rights spend two to three years about 6000km from here in the South Atlantic seas rich in the minute krill they feed on, fattening up. Then they make the long trek north to the warm waters of South Africa’s southern shores (and top Australia and New Zealand) to mate and for the females to give birth to the calves they conceived about eleven months earlier. The females are ready to mate about every third year.
While in this bay (and at many other places on our south coast) they put on displays of awesome power and spectacle with an ease that belies their size. An adult is about 15 metres long and weighs between 15 and 50 metric tons depending on gender and age, males being the heavier. Yet a southern right can hurl itself vertically almost completely out of the water with only the tips of its flukes touching. It crashes back sideways, pectoral fins extended, in a huge bomb-like splash that can be heard kilometres away. Why they do this nobody can say for sure – it might be to wipe off body parasites or impress females or just for fun.
Sometimes they lie in the sea with one broad dorsal fin upraised. Or with just their flukes projecting like a double sail while they hang heads down . . . the only whales that do so; some watchers say it’s to catch the wind. Or they “stand” with their heads out, eyeballing what’s going on around them.
Southern rights are easily identifiable by their lack of dorsal fins and by large, cobbly patches of white on their jaws and head called callosities. These are actually areas of rough, puckered skin infested with parasites.
They have no fear of humans. One can bring a boat right up to them, which is illegal although a rare few boat operators are permitted to approach within a few metres. It’s not always easy to obey the law when the whale itself approaches a boat or canoe out of curiosity, which they often do.
At places on the bay where the coast plunges steeply they come so close to the shore one can look straight down at them, gentle giants larger than almost any animal that walked the land. (The blue whale is the biggest mammal that ever lived at over 30 metres and nearly 200 metric tons.)
A few years ago we had a partial view of a rare event: the birth of a whale. Early that afternoon an adult swam into a small stony bay in front of Hawkeye Kath’s home. We thought it was female because there was no reason any male would want to do this.
She lay there through the afternoon amid the kelp in water barely deep enough to carry her at low tide, moving uneasily as if in discomfort. Because only her back was exposed we could not see what was happening and guessed it could only be to give birth. She blew regularly, the V-shaped twin jet of a southern right.
At about ten o’clock that night she started moving slowly out of the small bay and past us close to the shore. The sea was almost still, slightly ruffled by wind and ripple. As she passed she crossed across the broad bright highway of light cast by a rising moon, and next to her we clearly saw the shape of her newborn struggling to keep up.
Other whales also use the bay but nowhere near as many and they are shy, seldom coming close to the shore. One is the Bryde’s whale, smaller than the southern right and distinguishable by its curved back with a dorsal fin. Another characteristic is that it never shows its head above water. Sometimes humpback whales make an appearance, also far out in the bay. Other kinds have also been recorded here but we have not seen them.
To be continued/-