Whale Watching in Knysna

Whale watching: Knysna delivers the goods

Sea Fever – both the yearning itself, and the poem of that name by John Masefield (“I must go down to the sea again,/ to the lonely sea and the sky”) – strikes me often. I need the sea – although it’s probably true that my life’s more like Spike Milligan’s version of the piece:

“I must go down to the sea again,

to the lonely sea and the sky;

I left my shoes and socks there –

I wonder if they’re dry?”

So when Stef Pepler of Ocean Odyssey http://oceanodyssey.co.za/whale-watching/ invited me to go on one of his licensed whale watching trips through the Knysna Heads last Monday – well, I had deadlines and such, but they could wait. The conditions were perfect; how could I refuse?

Whale watching in Knysna

Ocean Odyssey holds the only boat-based whale watching permit in Knysna – and, as Stef told me, this is the ideal place for the activity because, while The Heads (the Knysna Estuary’s mouth) do pose their challenges, they’re usually passable, and, because he departs from a walk-on jetty in Thesen Harbour Town (the shopping precinct on Thesen Island), access to the boat is easy and comfortable for his guests. This is important for me, because, having reached the middle age, I’m starting to be held together with bits of steel, so I need a certain level of comfort – even when I’m going on an adventure like this.

But you want to know about the good stuff: did we see anything?

Indeed we did. Almost as soon as we left the jetty, the Estuary supplied its first surprise: a family of dabchiks or dobbertjies (also known as the little grebe https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_grebe – a surprise because it’s a species I’ve never seen in my 32 years on the Estuary), and a magnificent sighting of an African fish eagle https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/African_fish_eagle. The trip would also give us a sighting of a sub-Antarctic skua   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brown_skua – which, as far as I know, doesn’t come ashore on the Garden Route coast – so, from a birding perspective, I’d say I enjoyed a satisfying two hours.

And whales and dolphins? Of course.

The interesting thing about the waters off the coast of Knysna is that this is a kind of intersection point on the migration paths of the southern right whales and the humpback whales. We saw our first southern rights within 20 minutes of launch – and because the boat has a permit, we were able to drift to within 50 metres of them.

In all we saw either 5 or 7 of them during our 90 minutes out at sea (it was difficult to tell whether we saw two cow-calf pairs, or perhaps one that had dived and resurfaced) – and we also saw a small pod of bottle nose dolphins. (Go here http://oceanodyssey.co.za/species-encountered/ for a list and description of the species commonly sited in the area).

But of the humpback whales – nothing. Sadly. Not on that day – although, as Stef said, they’re wild things, and there are no guarantees. Never mind though – it’s an excuse to go out again, and soon.

  • Whale watching season runs from May or June to about October or November – because that’s when the migratory whales come to the coast of South Africa to mate and calve.
  • The boat carries a maximum of 12 passengers, and the 90-minute to 2-hour tours depart at 10:00, 12:00, and 2:00 (or at other times by arrangement)
  • Contact Ocean Odyssey on 044 382 0321 or visit http://oceanodyssey.co.za/whale-watching/

p.s.: As a ferryboat skipper myself (I’ve spent literally thousands of hours driving boatloads of people on the Knysna Estuary), I was impressed with the quality of the boat and the equipment (best life vests I’ve ever seen – and everyone was required to keep them on throughout the entire trip). It might sound like I’m gushing – but you can’t over-gush when it comes to your passengers’ safety.