11 Jul 2021
A splash of water suddenly rises, followed by loud snorting. As if out of nowhere, a large grey body rises out of the waves, turns in the air and hits the water surface. The humpback whale shows its white fluke, then swims past the bow of the boat, pushes air and water through its blowhole again, then dives into the water.
“My first experience with a whale - and that in Africa,” whispers a tourist, still completely amazed by the overwhelming experience. "A goose bump moment," her husband sums up.
The whale was not alone, a whole group passed nearby. The cameras clicked, the group of tourists couldn't stop watching. The crew was delighted to be able to offer this special experience.
Old routes are used again
For a few years now, whales have been sighted off the Namibian coast again, mainly humpback whales. Whale watching has become an “insider tip” for tourists who book excursions with boats and catamarans. Along with dolphins, seals and pelicans that can be seen up close, and are sometimes fed with fish heads, whales also pass by occasionally.
Until around 70 years ago, whales were still hunted with harpoons at Walvis Bay and Swakopmund, until they were almost exterminated. An iron harpoon from back then still stands as a souvenir in front of the Swakopmund Museum. Today’s harbour town, Walvis Bay, once was the ‘bay of whales’ over 250 years ago. They became nearly extinct.
Internationally, commercial whaling has been banned since 1986, and some countries still hunt whales for "scientific purposes".
The return of the ocean giants
After more than seven decades of absence, from around 2012, isolated whales were seen again, 40 to 50 km off the coast. This was reported from time to time by crews of fish-trawlers and hobby anglers who go out to sea with rented boats during the day “to fish”, as they say in Namibia. Every year there were more.
But 2021 seems to be the year of the whales in Namibia's coastal areas.
“In the first half of this year we have already seen a lot of whales during our boat tours, all of them humpback whales,” says Theunis Keulder, who has been offering catamaran trips from Walvis Bay for almost six years. “We sail out every day and have been sighting between 12 to 15 whales since the end of June - unbelievable,” he enthuses.
The whales swim back from Antarctica towards the equator between June and September, where they give birth to their young. Sometimes they can still be seen moving north until November. In the first few months of each year, they swim south towards the South Pole to feed on the rich plankton in Antarctica.
According to Keulder, the first humpback whales were sighted this year as early as April in the vicinity of Pelican Point – the tip of a long sandbank near Walvis Bay - heading north. Is climate change perhaps the cause of this?
“That needs to be researched more closely,” says Keulder. According to him, the whales like to use the northern direction of the cold Benguela Current on their journey to the equator.
Research and protection
Scientists have been researching dolphins in Walvis Bay for several years. The "Dolphin Project" now also collects information about whales. A southern right whale was last seen four years ago.
A blue whale was washed up at Dolphin Beach south of Swakopmund in April 2021. The almost 18 meter long mammal was unfortunately already dead, it had a huge cut across its body, probably the result of a collision – also called a ship strike - with a ship's propeller.
A few weeks later, in June, a humpback whale was rescued at Sandwich Harbour south of Walvis Bay, which was stranded there. The employees of the Dolphin Project, members of the organisation Ocean Conservation Namibia and volunteers were able to manoeuvre the huge whale back into the water after three hours with the incoming tide and were happy that it could swim away.
A grey whale made international headlines in June 2021 because it also appeared off of Namibia's coast on its 27,000 km journey. Even the Spiegel and the renowned magazine National Geographic reported about it. While it was first seen at Walvis Bay by Dolphin Project staff back in 2013, which was a sensation, the genetic evidence for its long trip has only just been released.
Scientist from the English University of Durham, Professor Rus Hoelzel and the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa, Dr. Simon Elwen published details in the Biology Letters magazine. They were amazed to find media coverage about this around the world.
The grey whale, about 12 meters long, stayed in the waters of Walvis Bay for about two months in 2013. Elwen and the zoologist Tess Gridley, managed to get close enough to it to scrape off some skin for a DNA sample. They compared the genomes of the whale with other grey whale genomes on file at the US National Centre for Biotechnology Information. The centre stores the genomes of over a thousand organisms. The result was exciting: the genes of the whale sighted in Namibia in 2013 match those of the North Pacific grey whales. Surprisingly, the closest match was with the critically endangered Western population, the researchers said.
The question remains, why did a whale move so far from “home” and travel 27,000 kilometres?
The scientists suspect that the rapid decline in ice masses in the Arctic due to climate change allows grey whales new routes to explore other habitats.
From time to time, the smaller killer whales (Orcas) swim to the Namibian coast. They have been observed around four times a year since 2018. Killer whales also target dolphins and so the first Orca sighting in Walvis Bay in 2018 was the killing of a dolphin.
Whale watching as a new niche for tourism
So far, whales have only been observed on the South African coast in southern Africa, where a new niche in the tourism industry has now developed.
The return of the whales to Namibia is still so new that a niche market for observing these gentle giants is still in its infancy. Small businesses that offer half-day and full-day excursions at sea along the coast, are already flirting with adding whale-sighting to their offer.
“It is a gift from nature that the whales can be sighted here again. If we can expand this niche market after the Covid-19 pandemic, that will be good for tourism,”says Theunis Keulder.
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