Each year southern right whales visit the waters of South Africa to mate and calf. The small village of Hermanus, about 100 km's from Cape Town, is particularly popular for whale watchers. Here whales often come to within a few metres of the rocky coast and it has been said that this is the only place in the world where you can watch whales with their calves from the comfort of your hotel bed! Hermanus also boasts a small whale museum, an annual whale festival and a "whale crier" who blows a piece of dried kelp to alert the tourists to the whereabouts of the whales. About 50 km's past Hermanus is the holiday village of De Kelders, another excellent place for whale watching. A short distance further around the coast is Dyer Island with its white sharks and colony of Cape fur seals.
During the shooting of documentaries on Southern right whales for the BBC and other production companies, I was privileged to be able to swim with these animals. This unique experience is both stimulating and, at times terrifying. Sometimes I am unlucky with the diving conditions and am forced to work in water visibility of as little as two metres. To be on your own in water of that visibility was unnerving (the boat would move off to avoid unnecessary irritation to the whales) as you never knew where or when a whale might surface.
On the first day of a shoot I was floating on the surface, video camera in hand, when an unbelievably loud sound immediately behind me made my heart skip a beat. A huge southern right whale had silently surfaced not more than five metres behind me without my knowledge and had exhaled. Another unnerving habit of the southern right is to swim fast on the surface straight towards a diver, only to gracefully dive at the last second. The sight of a huge "bonnet" (the callosity located on the top of the southern right whale's head) bearing down on you when you are in the water, is an experience never to be forgotten.
Besides southern right whales, humpback and bryde's whales are regular visitors to our shores. In the deeper water off Cape Point, even sperm whales have been spotted. In the Cape waters, dusky and common dolphins are found and sometimes huge schools are seen feeding off shoals of sardines. The larger bottle nose are found in the warmer waters from Plettenberg Bay and are abundant off the Kwa-Zulu Natal coast where spectacular footage can be obtained as they patrol a few miles offshore.
Many underwater encounters have been exciting and sometimes frightening such as a southern right whale charging me and then trying to pin me to the seabed, finding two sleeping humpback whales off the Transkei coast and filming them before they woke up and slowly swam off. In 2004 I found a place near Cape Town where southern right whales, once finished with calving and mating, relax in a sandy bay near Cape Point. Here I was able to spend a long time alone with a whale as it hovered, almost motionless, just above the seabed in only a few metres of water.
In 2002 while filming a baitball under attack by sharks and dolphins, a Brydes whale swam perfectly into frame, mouth open wide as it scooped up a feast of sardines. I was unaware of its presence until I saw it in my camera monitor.