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Marine Conservation Photographer - Jean Tresfon's Southern Right Whale Sightings Report
"I’ve been waiting for the right weather to fly the first official aerial southern right whale survey of the 2021 season for the Mammal Research Institute Whale Unit. The southern Cape weather is notoriously fickle during Winter and finding a gap between frontal systems with calm seas, sunny weather and light winds can be a challenge. And when the right conditions finally do come along, the hotter days combined with the cold water often leads to a heavy advection fog forming over the coast. The forecast looked really good for Tuesday this week and arriving at Morningstar Flying Club there was no sign of fog, so we were good to go!
Take-off was just after sunrise with a load of spare fuel and a plan to fetch whale scientist Dr. Els Vermeulen in Hermanus. The early morning light falling over the Durbanville farmlands looked amazing and I couldn’t help taking a few photos only minutes after getting airborne. I routed over Stellenbosch, through the Lourensford saddle in the Helderberg and up and over Sir Lowry’s Pass to find the Grabouw/Elgin valley shrouded in a light mist. From my high vantage point I could see that the coast at Hawston in the distance was clear and it was only a quick pitstop in Hermanus to top off the fuel tanks and collect Els.
Our first hotspot area was Walker Bay which yielded 3 cow/calf pairs and 29 unaccompanied adults for a total of 35 southern right whales, most of which were in the sanctuary area close to the Klein River mouth. It is probable that some of the unaccompanied adults are pregnant females which have yet to give birth. Just off Danger Point we found another group of whales with a couple more around the corner near Kleinbaai. No whales were spotted at Pearly Beach which was a little surprising, then at Buffelsjags we encountered a solid wall of fog, stretching from the beach to the horizon.
Both the ATC in the tower at AFB Overberg and another light aircraft reported gaps in the fog near our main target area at Koppie Alleen in the De Hoop Nature Reserve, so we decided to carry on with the survey. The fog finally moved a little way offshore at Arniston and by some small miracle the main whale nursery ground was in the clear! We counted 132 cow/calf pairs and 16 unaccompanied adults at De Hoop for a total of 280 southern right whales, and spotted several big shoals of leervis swimming on the surface amongst the whales. Some of the whale calves were truly tiny, probably only days old. This truly is the whale hotspot of South Africa!
Just after Koppie Alleen the fog was once again thick along the shoreline until we passed the eastern boundary of the De Hoop MPA and then we counted a few more southern rights in St Sebastian Bay, along the backline of the Breede River mouth, before landing nearby to refuel both the pilot and the plane. After a short break we took to the skies again, hoping to find that the fog had burned off as the day progressed. Unfortunately, the wind had switched to fresh onshore and in fact the opposite was true, the fog was pushing over the land. Back at De Hoop we had a brief window to get some photos before the whales disappeared under the fog and then continued along the fog line to Struisbaai where we found another gap and more whales, including a breaching southern right that repeated her performance several times with her calf doing a very poor imitation alongside.
Our last leg was back to Hermanus into a stiff headwind, only to find that our landing strip, together with my spare fuel, was completely fogged in. We diverted to Grabouw and landed at Oak Valley airfield. With low fuel reserves, the day getting late, the temperature dropping ever closer to the dewpoint and fog starting to form all around, and some reported wind shear over the mountains, the holes in the cheese were all starting to line up and I called it a day, parked my plane in a friend’s hangar and organized a lift back to town.
Our total count for the day was 158 cow/calf pairs and 52 unaccompanied adults for a total of 368 southern right whales. While this number is higher than the August counts for 2019 and 2020, it is still much lower than hoped for and indicative of the feeding challenges these animals are facing in the southern oceans. Hopefully we will do another count in early September around the peak of the season and possibly record a higher number.
As always these surveys are a team effort with plenty of operational and logistical considerations requiring help from many people along the way. A massive thank you to William Stephens from the De Hoop Collection, Michael Raimondo, Oliver Sedgwick and especially to Lt Colonel Erwin Kotze in the tower at AFB Overberg as always for being so accommodating. And lastly not forgetting a big thank you to Ian Corder and Crispin Russell for the impromptu hangarage and taxi services!"