19 August 2011 by Julienne du Toit

Permission to approach, Sir

I remember the first time I saw a whale. Well, who could ever forget such a thing? I was on a rubber duck boat, travelling near the Wild Coast.

We weren’t specifically looking for marine wildlife. Boats are sometimes just the fastest way of getting between destinations along the Wild Coast, where the roads are notoriously dodgy.

The skipper suddenly said “There’s a whale here. Probably a humpback.”

How did he know? I hadn’t seen a thing. He pointed to a piece of ocean that was mysteriously flat and calm amid the choppy waves. That’s where the whale was. I was awed. A whale can actually calm the waves.

We slowed to a halt. The skipper lifted the engines and we waited for more whale sign. Eerily, a calm patch appeared on the other side of the boat. It had silently swum right under us. That massive bulk, with a tail that could upturn us in an instant.

We waited, bobbing like a cork on the waves. And then we were rewarded. About 300 metres away, the whale surfaced and breathed, flipped its massive tail briefly up and disappeared.  I didn’t get a picture.

The skipper, I am happy to say, did not follow the whale or try to get us closer because he had no permit for whale watching. This is a highly regulated activity in South Africa, and even those with permits have strict rules for getting closer to whales. You must go dead slow, and if the whale becomes agitated, you move away.

Often, though, whales are curious and approach the boat. Those with permits may stay, those without may go.

Under no circumstances, whether you have a permit or not, may you approach a cow with her calf.

I have seen many whales since that first time, and I can only say that seeing a whale (from land, or respectfully, with a permitted operator on a boat) should be on every person’s bucket list. There is nothing like that feeling. It’s like glimpsing an underwater angel.

Category: Responsible Tourism, Wildlife

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