Say ‘African mammal’ and most people will immediately envisage elephants, lions and other celebrated beasts on terra firma. But the oceanic waters that wash the continent’s shores are also home to many marine species, including an impressive selection of whales and dolphins, many of which are easier to see than you might think. Mike Unwin reports
Imagine: you’re cruising the placid waters off Mozambique’s Bazaruto Archipelago when, without warning, 35 tonnes of humpback whale launches skyward beside your boat, crashing back down in an explosion of spray. Or, 5000km to the north, you’re finning with mask and snorkel through the warm Red Sea waters off Marsa Alam, Egypt, when a chorus of clicks announces a pod of spinner dolphins. The animals sweep past, twisting on lithe bodies to peer at your intrusion before vanishing into the blue.
With a coastline stretching for more than 30,500km, it’s small wonder that Africa’s offshore waters harbour a wealth of cetaceans (whales and dolphins). Indeed, at least 50 species have been recorded around the continent, from the colossal 30m blue whale, the largest animal ever known, to the diminutive 1.5m Heaviside’s dolphin, endemic to the south-west coast.
Location and season determine which species occur. Some, such as the Red Sea’s dolphins or the sperm whales off Mauritius, are permanent residents, finding what they need to sustain them year-round. Others arrive at particular times: the southern right whales that visit the Cape and the humpback whales that move up the Mozambique Channel, for instance, are both migrants, arriving during the Southern Hemisphere winter, having spent their summer feeding in the colder waters of the Southern Ocean and Antarctica.
Key ocean events also draw cetaceans. For instance, the ‘Sardine Run’ — a mass migration of countless millions of these tiny fish, which heads eastwards each June and July around South Africa’s Wild Coast — draws gatherings of common dolphins thousands strong, along with Bryde’s whales, dusky dolphins and numerous other marine predators, from sharks to sea lions.
It is easy to forget, however, that only relatively recently have whales and dolphins made the tourism agenda. Until just a few decades ago, these sophisticated, air-breathing sea mammals were more valued dead than alive, hunted ruthlessly around the world for their oil and blubber. Africa was no exception: the continent’s first whaling stations were established on the Cape and KwaZulu-Natal coasts during the mid-late 19th century, with six whaling companies operating out of Durban by 1912. By the mid-1960s, stocks of sperm, fin and other large whales captured off the South African coast were so depleted that the whalers had turned to smaller species, such as minke whales.
Today, a few bleached bones on the sands at Saldanha Bay and other abandoned whaling stations are all that remain of the slaughter. And numbers of many species have since recovered — so much so that a thriving whale-watching industry flourishes around much of Africa’s coast. South Africa has a designated ‘Whale Route’ walking trail stretching around the Cape, while the Indian Ocean coast is lined with hotspots, from Mozambique’s Ponta do Ouro to Kenya’s Watamu. Many islands — including Cape Verde and São Tomé in the Atlantic, and Zanzibar, Mauritius and Madagascar in the Indian Ocean — also offer excellent opportunities to watch these leviathans from a dedicated boat trip.
In short, whales are everywhere, even where you may not expect them. Regular migratory movements of fin whales, sperm whales and orcas pass through the Straits of Gibraltar, for example, and some 28 cetacean species have been recorded in the Gulf of Guinea. Scientists are constantly surprised: rarities, such as Cuvier’s beaked whales, wash up on beaches where they have never before been seen; while in March 2017 aerial reconnaissance spotted an unprecedented gathering of more than 200 humpback whales off the coast of South Africa. So, don’t take your eye from the horizon. You never know when that telltale fin, fluke or spout might appear.
Six of the best whale-watching hotspots
The following are six prime locations in Africa for whale watching. There are many others.
The Overberg, Western Cape, South Africa
Excellent shore-based whale watching, notably of southern right whales, which visit the warm, inshore bays from July to November; humpback and Bryde’s whales, common dolphins, orcas and others are also seen. De Hoop Nature Reserve, Plettenberg Bay and Hermanus are top spots.
Watamu Marine National Park, Kenya
Around 100km north of Mombasa, this protected coast is a haven for humpback whales from July to October. Transient species seen offshore at other times include sperm whales, Bryde’s whales and orcas.
Walvis Bay, Namibia
Boat tours offer close encounters with Heaviside’s dolphins, a locally endemic species, along with resident bottlenose dolphins. Southern right and humpback whales are also seen during migration.
Marsa Alam, Egypt
Halfway down the Red Sea coast this popular resort is known for the resident spinner dolphins that frequent nearby Samadai Reef. Other dolphins seen year-round in the Red Sea include Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin, pantropical spotted dolphin, long-beaked common dolphin and Risso’s dolphin.
Boa Vista, Cape Verde
Arguably the best whale-watching destination off West Africa, this Atlantic archipelago is an important breeding ground for humpback whales — not the Southern Hemisphere population that visits East Africa from the Antarctic but a Northern Hemisphere population that comes down from Iceland.
The Straits of Gibraltar, between Morocco and Spain, are rich in cetaceans. Resident species include striped and common dolphins and pilot whales. Orcas sometimes follow the tuna fishing boats, and both sperm whales and fin whales pass though the Straits en route to breeding grounds in the Mediterranean. Whale-watching cruises are organised from Tarifa, on the Spanish side.