Finally it happens. A large puddle of light blue water floats among the normal large waves. A grey back appear at the surface and everyone gasps. Cameras focus. And the mass is gone. Once again, a large blow of water shoots up from the ocean and sprays the air. This time, two grey masses can be seen below the surface. The boat holds its breath. Slowly, with all the time in the world, the Humpback Whale comes out of the water, throwing his bumpy head into the cool breeze and letting his tail fly. It is the most majestic, mesmerizing thing I’ve ever seen. Videos are taken, exclamations exchanged, and the whale is gone.
Ocean’s Odyssey has succeeded once again in connecting people to the nature they so lovingly share a home with. Located on the coast of Knysna, South Africa, the marine adventures company takes people out every day on an exhilarating ride to see the ocean’s largest and most spectacular creatures.
I joined one of the exhibitions one afternoon to chase my dream of finally seeing one of these marine mammals in the wild. I had too many ‘oh you just missed it’ moments to get my hopes up but I still had faith it was my day. Whales have always fascinated me, but Humpback Whales have some truly incredible characteristics.
Despite their bumpy heads that they get their name from, humpback whales are known for their complex and beautiful songs. Male humpback’s calls can go on for hours and reach hundreds of miles away. Scientists are studying the calls to determine how they are communicating or how they are attracting mates. They also migrate annually from the cold poles in the summer to where we are in winter.
The ride started off with a scenic view from one of Knysna’s most impressive attractions, the Knysna Heads. Picture the jutted rocky caves which hold boundless treasure from Pirates of the Caribbean. We got through the cavernous rocky opening after many ‘oohs and ahs’ and we were finally on the open ocean. It was a pretty choppy day so I held on, screaming like I was on a hilly rollercoaster. Waves ten feet high lifted us above the water before throwing us back down.
We had a few things to look for. The humpback whale, like any mammal, needs air to breathe. So usually every ten minutes, they come up for a breath which involves blowing a spray of water into the air from their blowhole. They also leave ‘footprints’ which are still patches of water among the choppy waves that are caused from the whale’s downward stroke.
Everyone clambers to attention as far ahead of us, there’s a dark spot. My heart begins to race as I realize I’m finally going to see a whale. When we get closer it happens. The dark spot, the spray, and then the unbelievable feat of an animal the size of a school bus throwing itself into the air just to land soundly with a determined crack. I turn to Johannes our skipper and ask him why the whale breaches. Is it intimidation, showing off, or just having some fun?
Turns out, like most marine animals, there’s still so much scientists don’t know. All those theories plus others are hypothesized for this animal’s behavior. One scientist hypothesized that they throw and slap their body to get parasites off their skin. Another thought it was a way to communicate when the seas are rough and loud. This could also help young call to their mothers. Or, like dolphins, the whale could just be amusing itself. It must be thrilling to be out of the ocean and soaring through the air just for a few seconds.
As we headed back to the port I marveled at the gentle giants I had just seen and at the distance I know they will be traveling in a few short months. Ocean Odyssey and the Humpback Whale gave me an experience I will never forget and a thrill I will forever chase.
(Picture by Ocean Odyssey)