Whales in the City



Cape Town is a lucky city. Located on the shore of Table Bay, Cape Town is a metropolis of about 3.5 million people celebrated for its natural setting with the monumental Table Mountain as a backdrop, and the picturesque harbour with a panoramic vista rolling out to an infinite Atlantic horizon. Home to 65% of Western Cape's population, it is a melting pot of culture reflecting its role as an oasis for expatriates and migrants to South Africa. It was bestowed the title of World Design Capital for 2014, and was recently named the best tourist destination in the world by both The New York Times and the UK Telegraph. Despite all this acclaim, the real reason I think Cape Town is so special is that the city waterfront is home to a resident pod of whales.* Not just any ordinary whales, but the Right whales.


And I am one lucky guy. I was in the right place, at the right time. I happened to be in Port Elizabeth when Jean Tresfon, conservation photographer extraordinaire, resident of the lucky city, rang Rainer Schimpf (my local fixer for the pursuit of sardines, sharks and whales). Jean’s call was about a sighting of over 20 Southern Right whales hanging out on Table Bay.  While in-water interactions with Humpback whales are predictably found in Tonga, Blue whales off Sri Lanka and California, and Sperm whales off the Azores, Mauritius and Dominica, the only known place where I have been in the water with the Southern Right was at Valdez Peninsula, Argentina**. In my book, the Right whale is the Holy Grail of whales - mythical, mystical, and magical.  Giving my best impression of the ‘puppy eyes’ look, I asked Rainer if we could go shoot the whales. After all, Cape Town is only about 800 kilometres away.


Rainer readily obliged but there was just one problem. Like elsewhere in the world, we needed a permit to swim with the whales. A new application to the Department of Environmental Affairs in Cape Town would take at least two weeks. I did not have two weeks and seriously doubted the whales had either. Luckily, Ranier, quite atypical of a German, is a brilliant maverick; he simply made a request for an operational extension of his permit from Algoa Bay to Table Bay. Three days later, he moved his entire operation--car, staff and boat--to Cape Town. 

The planets were seemingly aligned on our first day out. We even brought Jean Tresfon on board as guide. It was a perfect halcyon morning with blue skies, a mirror-flat sea, and we found our first Right whales less than 300 metres offshore. Whales seemed to be popping up all over the bay and I thought this was simply too good to be true. After briefly psyching myself up to face a 50-tonne mammoth, I slid into the path of a whale less than 10 metres away and swam excitedly towards it. I swam and I swam. Where is that whale? I know Right whales are black, but still, how I could possibly miss a colossal 16-metre long giant just 10 metres in front of me? I stretched out my hand - I could hardly see my fingers! The water was dark, murky, green, cold and visibility was barely 12 inches!


By now I am sure you can feel our frustration: blue sky, flat sea, whales everywhere but we just could not see them underwater, even though they may be right in front of us. For the next hour, we scouted around the bay for clearer waters. As I looked back towards the city skyline, I saw whales frolicking against a backdrop of high-rise office towers and apartments nestled at the base of Signal Hill (a flat-topped hill in shape of a lion's rump) and Table Mountain. I also spotted several colourful paragliders taking off from the mountain to descend upon a 21st century megalopolis. That is when I said to myself, what a wonderful lucky city!  Jean interrupted my thoughts, pointing out a cloudy white patch in the sea. He explained the patch is the outfall from the Green Point sewage outlet just 1.7 kilometres from shore; the supposed “deep water” outlet is only 30 metres deep, releasing 30 – 40 million litres of untreated sewage into the bay per day. Indeed, it smelt like sewage. That was when I thought to myself, “This lucky city is not so lucky after all… especially when the westerly wind blows.” The scent of this sewage gets blown right back into the city. Ah…the fragrance of Table Bay!

Story & photographs by Michael AW  (see OG Issue 33)

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