The Amazing Whales

Lesley Rochat Photography - Southern Right Whale
It’s the Southern Right Whale season in False Bay, South Africa and I am blessed to have one of the best vantage points to view them 24/7. All day at the AfriOceans office they entertain and delight us with breaching, tail slapping, their blowing so loud, or simply just cruising past the office. At night back at home I am forced to close my bedroom windows because the loud sounds of their blowing and tail slapping breaks the stillness of the silent nights and it wakes me…  Just right now my writing was interrupted by a huge explosion of water, a sound I know too well. I rushed out to behold a whale breaching repeatedly, normally up to six times, a magnificent sight!

When the stresses mount, which is common with a plate that overflows, I take a deep breath of the fresh Altantic Ocean air and watch these majestic, ancient animals, that evolved from four-legged land-dwelling ancestors sometime before 50 million years ago – they humble me and calm me. But with a mind saturated with environmental facts and harsh realities of our current course of self destruction, I cannot help but ponder upon the fact that we are currently undergoing the greatest mass extinction of species ever experienced on Earth, losing between 3000 – 30 000 species a year, and that these magnificent animals have little hope of surviving into the future. Imagine a world without any whales? A thought that cuts me deeply.

Lesley Rochat Photography - Southern Right Whale Tail
It’s hard to imagine that this bay was once the blood bath centre of Southern Right Whaling. At the time Simonstown prohibited whaling as residents complained about the smell of the burning blubber and rotting carcasses. During the whaling period, about 12 000 Southern Right Whales where killed, pushing them to the brink of extinction until they were wisely protected. It’s even harder to imagine in today’s times that certain countries are attempting to overturn the ban on whaling and resume the slaughter of such awesome animals. What possesses the minds of these individuals to murder a gentle, sentient being that has the most highly evolved mammalian brain on Earth and that lives beyond 70 years of age? Today there are only about 7 000 Southern Right Whales left, a small number compared to a human population of 6.8 billion and growing.

Lesley Rochat Photography - Fishing nets
The death trap Walter Bernardis and the team removed.Reality is, whales are at significant risk of extinction. The threats to them include hunting, poisoning them with toxic chemicals (nearly all cetaceans contain elevated levels of toxic chemicals in their blubber and milk), mass mortalities through the use of deafening, even deadly, high-intensity sounds, mainly from submarines. Consider this: low frequency active sonar (LFA sonar) of 215 decibels have been used, and no doubt continue to be used by the military, resulting in beachings and mass mortalities of whales. To put this into perspective, sound over dB 144 for 1 second will cause humans permanent hearing loss. As though this was not enough suffering and pain, we are destroying their habitat and food supplies through development, overfishing, pollution and climate change. And then there are the many mortalities by collisions with ships and drowning by entanglements with discarded fishing nets. While I was on the sardine run we came across a discarded fishing net directly in the path of the migrating whales, a murderous trap. We removed it. It was on that trip that I had some of the most spiritual and special close encounters with whales, memories I will forever treasure.

The pleasures the whales bring me continue throughout June to November every year when about 1500 Southern Rights visit South African shores to mate and to calf. After a gestation period of 12 months they give birth to one calf (sometimes twins are born, rarely white, turning grey after a few months), to a 4.5-5m calf that is born tail first and that consumes 600l of milk a day. All of this happens right in front of our offices! By around November they bid us farewell till next year as they head back for the Antarctic, covering an extraordinary +-4000 kilometre journey.

Lesley Rochat Photography - Southern Right Whale Breach
Humpback whale on the Sardine Run, South Africa.I know that these are some of the hardest times to be alive, what with the imminent environmental gloom that hangs over us and all it is bringing, but I also know these are some of the best times to be alive because the whales, and many other of the large magnificent animals are still with us, albeit precariously so, their days numbered since they will be some of the first to go. It gladdens my heart that the whales have arrived, bringing with them a feeling of joy and peace, of wisdom and timelessness, which reinforces the deep connection I feel to Nature and the oceans even more. How lucky we are to share this precious world with them now.

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