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Monstrously massive mammals in the murk!

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#1 jtresfon


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Posted 28 November 2011 - 01:20 AM

St. Sebastian Bay, at the mouth of the Breede River, 300km east of Cape Town, is a unique piece of coastline. The entire area is a nursery for Southern Right Whales, being the breeding ground for 40% of the world’s population of Southern Right whales. During the months of June and July the bay contains 70-80% of cow and calf pairs on the South African coast, and is probably the most important nursery area for Southern Right whales in the world. Armed with a permit from the SA Department of Environmental Affairs I ventured there last month with fellow Wetpixel member Mark Van Coller.

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I arrived at the adjacent village of Cape Infanta on Thursday 13th October in preparation for the whale shoot. I originally applied for the 14th to the 23rd October and had not yet heard whether or not the permit application had been successful. The rest of the team was on standby in Cape Town waiting for an answer. The weather at Infanta on the day of arrival was good, with reasonable visibility and not much wind. On Friday 14th I contacted the DEA for an answer and they sent the permit through via email, approved dates being the Sunday 16th to Friday 21st October. I immediately notified the team and also contacted the local Parks Control Officer for the Cape Infanta Area to inform him that the Underwater Images crew would be working with the whales and that they could possibly expect phone calls from the public to report a boat in proximity to the whales.

The boat and crew could only arrive on Monday the 17th and I had a frustrating weekend watching the weather deteriorate and the water going slowly brown. Steve Benjamin (Animal Ocean) arrived with the boat on Monday at lunchtime but the SE wind was 30kts plus and there was no possibility of going to sea. Tuesday the 18th dawned slightly calmer and we launched the boat and headed out, but could not dive due to the very rough and very dirty water. I did however manage several reasonable topside shots.

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We found approximately 40 southern right whales in St Sebastian Bay, mostly mother and calf pairs, and they where situated very close to shore (in some instances right in the waves) between the Witsands side of the Breede River mouth and the mouth of the Duiwenhoks River. By the afternoon the wind has come up again and we beat a hasty retreat back to shore.

Wednesday 19th saw the wind swing to the SW and reach gale force. Although we were forced to sit out for the day, we did notice two things: 1. The water looked like it was starting to clean up. 2. Every afternoon at around 3pm a group of whales would pass just offshore from the Infanta slipway on the way to St Sebastian Point where they would spend the afternoon/evening, before heading back. Thursday saw the wind drop off completely and we had our first calm day at sea. The "clean" water turned out to be a patch of 5m visibility that was about 100m across and was located just at the Infanta slipway. Everywhere else was pea-soup. What we did not know at the time but subsequently learned was that the entire SA coast had was subjected to a huge plankton bloom and the chocolate brown water was moving down from Mozambique towards Cape Point.

We found a large adult whale near St Sebastian Point and I slipped into the water and started to cover the almost 100m swim to the whale. (Prior to this trip my normal black long fins had snapped a blade and on this trip I was forced to use a pair of neon yellow short fins. I was more than a little nervous about this since yellow fins have been proven time and again to attract sharks and the waters in the area are noted for the abundant shark population. This time however the fins proved to be a bonus.) I approached the whale from the side at the level of its eye. I did not want to frighten the whale and given the dirty water I knew it could not see me until I was very close. At 2m away I could see the whale on the surface, but putting my face underwater I still could not see the whale. At 1m away I could see the whale underwater and noted its eye was closed.

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I took a few shots and then coughed gently to alert the whale to my presence. It opened its eye, and moved gently out of sight. About 30 seconds later the whale approached me from behind and passed very close to my fins for a closer look. (Throughout the expedition this happened time and again, the yellow fins were a big drawcard to the curious whales). The whale then swam about 100m away and remained stationery.

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We decided that this whale had been disturbed enough and ran the boat down to the Duiwenhoks River Mouth to see if the conditions were any better. I really liked the approach of alerting the whale to my presence and then letting it make the approach. I thought that forcing an encounter in dirty water might be asking for big trouble. Even being in a boat close to a whale gives no impression of its true size, but being in the water right next to them was hugely intimidating.

Our second encounter was less than successful. We had stopped the boat around 200m offshore with around 15 whales in sight. After drifting for around 30 minutes a mother and calf surfaced right next to the boat. The calf was very curious and gave the boat a thorough inspection before moving off again. We decided against starting the motors and just stayed put. About 15 minutes later I saw a single adult about 150m from the boat and moving slowly in our direction. I slipped into the water and swam almost 200m to the whale which had now turned and swam off a little distance.

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Appoaching the whale the water was noticeably more dirty and I could not see much. At 2m from the whale I could still not see anything and when the whale swiped its tail in my direction I made the decision that the water was too dirty to be safe and called it a day for diving. The afternoon was spent once again on topside shots and we were privileged to see a playful white calf spy hopping and performing actively around its mother.

Friday the 21st was also a calm day and Graham Fenwick had arrived the night before and was on the boat to assist. We decided that the dirty water was too risky and we opted to anchor the boat in a cleanish patch of water just offshore from the Infanta slip. We had noticed whales passing this point every single day and adopted a waiting game. After several hours some whales were spotted approaching from the direction of the Breede River mouth and Graham and I slipped into the water and swam about 100m from the boat. The first set of whales passed between us and the boat but the second set of 2 mother and calf pairs swam right up to us. What follows has to rank as one of the most amazing underwater encounters of my 20 years diving experience. The mother made 3 passes right in front of me to check me out. Initially I thought this might be a single whale as I could see no calf. However this mother had simply been shielding her fairly large calf from what might be a threat, and once she determined that we presented no danger she brought the calf out from behind her and right up to me for a look. The calf was noticeably more curious and swam right up to my fins to see what this strange yellow creature was.

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After several more passes where the whales seemed genuinely curious for an interaction of sorts they continued on their way to the Point. We decided to give the same approach another try and hopped back on the boat. Almost an hour later more whales were spotted and we hopped back in the water for another attempt. This time it it turned out to be a well grown white calf and grey mother, but since the whales had sounded over 80m from us we were not sure what to expect. The first sighting we had was when the white calf appeared right under my fins. (Score another point to the bright yellow fins). The calf made a turn to inspect me and the mother stayed below the calf for the entire encouter. The pass turned out to be a single inspection and then the pair moved off towards the point.

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Shortly after this encounter the visibility started to drop again and after an attempt to photograph an adult whale in the soup we gave up on diving.As the evening drew nearer we moved towards the Point for some topside shots. The whales were playing in front of the houses on the rocks at Cape Infanta which made a nice backdrop for the human element of whale interactions so we spent some time composing a suitable shot.

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That was that and we headed back to shore with what could have been the last shots of the expedition. I had earlier asked for an extension to the permit to cover the days lost due to the weather but we had not yet heard anything. On Saturday 22nd we packed up and returned to Cape Town where we heard that the visibility was around 20m in False Bay. I modified the extension request to include False Bay and we waited. The reports on Sunday were also for good visibility and we sat hoping for a positive answer on the 2nd permit application. On Monday 24th I went for a shore dive in False Bay and found the visiblity dramatically reduced. The plankton bloom had moved down the coast and now intruded into False Bay. We made the decision to go back to Infanta where we knew there were whales (logic dictated that whales in dirty water were better than no whales in dirty water) and I decided to go via Hermanus to check the local conditions there. On Wednesday 26th we drove up the coast and I found Hermanus to have dirty water and only one or two whales visible from the clifftop lookout points. We carried on to Infanta and launched for an afternoon session but the wind was very strong and we decided against diving.

On Thursday 27th I was joined by photographer Mark Van Coller and we launched early in calm conditions. If anything the water was even more filthy than the previous week and we found that the whale population had been radically reduced. There were now only around 8 pairs that we could see, all just offshore from Witsands. In the few days that we had been away, many of the whales with bigger more robust calves had started the journey south. We went to the Point and found a patch of slightly cleaner water but no whales. We decided to snorkel along the rocks in the area to pass the time.

I swam about 300m to the Point itself and was on my way back to the boat in the dirty water when Steve signalled that there was a whale in the vicinity. After a minute or two a young whale swam right up to me. This whale was extremely curious, gently bumping and pushing me around. There was no parent in the vicinity and the whale seemed pretty fearless. It swam close by several times and I had to be really careful to avoid the tail... even this young whale was big enough to do some damage.

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Suddenly the whale disppeared and swam off around the Point in the direction of the De Hoop Reserve. Several minutes later we spotted a mother and calf pair in the area which could have been the same animal, but by that time I was out of the water and back in the boat. We then headed along the coast into the De Hoop Reserve and travelled as far as Mosselbank, but the water just became more and more discoloured. I had hoped for a scuba dive at Kaisersgat (a local reef noted for ragged tooth sharks), but given the conditions it was out of the question. We went back to the Witsands side and Mark entered the water on his own and took several shots of an adult whale. Mark had to leave that evening and on Friday 28th I found myself alone on the boat with Steve skippering as usual. Even more whales had departed, the water had not improved and we decided to call the expedition at an end.

While it was a fantastic experience and the topside shots were better that had been hoped for, the dirty water meant that the underwater shots, even after a lot of post-processing were not quite up to the standard we required. I will make an application for another permit again next year and hope for cleaner water.

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#2 Alex_Mustard


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Posted 28 November 2011 - 01:49 AM

That's so cool. That white calf is beautiful.


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    Sting Ray

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Posted 28 November 2011 - 02:05 AM

I must agree with Alex. It is very cool

#4 loftus


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Posted 28 November 2011 - 03:26 AM

Wow Jean!!!!!
Absolutely spectacular.
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#5 elbuzo


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Posted 28 November 2011 - 07:14 AM

Great experience , thanks for posting it !

The white calf shot is stunning !!

Four years ago i tried some shots with pole cam at De Kelders but the boat platform was quite high from the sea surface making the position of the camara really difficult , although the whales came really close to the boat ( sometimes scary close !) in my pics i only had some black shadows in the water because water was really green and i had the sun in front . Also lost my sunglasses !

The experience from the boat was great so i can imagine how cool must be from the water but not sure i will do it with all those GWS around and that poor vis !!!

Regards to Steve , i spent great time with him and the black tips at Aliwal Shoals .

Jose Alejandro

#6 Stephen H.

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Posted 28 November 2011 - 07:45 AM

The White Calf is quite incredible!

Looks like an amazing set of days out on the water.
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#7 uwxplorer


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Posted 28 November 2011 - 08:43 AM

Great post! I find the photos really nice considering the conditions you depict. I am just wondering how good a video of all these encounters could have been. When you say the whales "sounded", what do you mean exactly. How do Southern Right Whales communicate? Any singing?

#8 MikeVeitch


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Posted 28 November 2011 - 08:52 AM

great story Jean, tough luck on the weather but good on you for persevering!

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#9 seadweller


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Posted 28 November 2011 - 02:08 PM

Wow! What an incredible experience! Great shots given the conditions. Is it difficult to obtain a permit?

#10 Travy


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Posted 28 November 2011 - 11:57 PM

Very nice post,thanks for sharing Jean.
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#11 adamhanlon


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Posted 29 November 2011 - 12:00 AM

Great post and write up ;)

Thanks for sharing it.


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#12 sasdasdaf


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Posted 30 November 2011 - 06:37 AM

Thank you for sharing the story and pics. What a fantastic experience. Really love the white calf. It is so beautiful.

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#13 yahsemtough


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Posted 30 November 2011 - 01:48 PM

Fantastic encounters and I agree that white calf is beautiful.

Cheers and thanks for sharing.

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#14 AMW


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Posted 30 November 2011 - 01:50 PM

Unbelievable images!!!! Thanks for sharing...

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Posted 30 November 2011 - 02:34 PM

Really Beautiful work!!!! Thanks for sharing. The white calf is stunning!!! Keep up the great work!!!!

#16 Matt Sullivan

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Posted 03 December 2011 - 12:21 PM

that is incredible! the white calf is beautiful and i love the shots above the water with the little town in the background. awesome encounter and photos

Matthew Sullivan