Which Whale is Which?

Whales are large, magnificent, intelligent aquatic mammals. Whales have sleek, streamlined bodies that move easily through water and are the only mammals (other than manatees) that live their entire lives in the water and the only mammals that have adapted to life in the open oceans.

South Africa has become known for its’ great whale watching over the years, mostly due to the warm and nutrient rich waters along the South African coastline. The whales that visit our shores like to feed and give birth to their young whilst migrating. Whale watching is seasonal and whales start arriving in Cape Town as early as the end of May, until the end of November. The peak months are September and October.

Boat based Whale Watching

These giants of the sea can easily be viewed from land, but are best seen from the water by taking a whale watching boat trip. The 3 most common whales found off the Cape Point Route coastline are Southern Right whales, Bryde’s whales and humpback whales although you can sometimes see orcas (killer whales) and it is not uncommon to spot dolphins as a bonus sighting!

But which whale is which? Here is a mini low down to help with your whale spotting and identification.

SOUTHERN RIGHT WHALE – Eubalaena australis

Southern Rights have a uniformly dark (mostly black) colour and often have big warty looking growths on their heads called callosities, which helps to identify them.

Southern Right Callosities (D. Hurwitz)

They body is very plump and round and Southern Right Whales have very big heads (about a third of their size)! They average about16 metres in length and weigh about 65 tonnes – although that information won’t help you identify a Southern Right in the water.

Southern Righ Whale Breaching (D. Hurwitz)

A distinguishing feature of Southern Right Whales is that they have no dorsal fin (no fin on its back). Their flippers are short and wide but the easiest way to spot a Southern Right is the V-shaped spout from their blow hole. So look for the warts and the V-shaped blow!

Surface characteristics of Southern Right Whales

HUMPBACK WHALE – Megaptera novaeangliae

Humpback whales are blue-black in colour with a pale/white underbelly and under their flippers. This is one of the easiest ways to identify the humpback whale as the contrast of the long white fins with the black body make them look beautiful. The markings on their flukes (tails) are unique – just like a human fingerprint.

Humpback Whale Tail (Dave Hurwitz)

Their flippers are enormous (they can be a third of their body length which is around 18 metres in length). Humpback whales also have knobbly heads which are covered with raised lumps and barnacles. They have a small dorsal fin about two thirds of the way down their backs and 2 blowholes and can spray a broad bushy balloon of spray about 3 metres into the air. Humpback whales have between 20 – 50 throat grooves.

Humpback Whale Spray (Jacques Marais)

Humpback whales are very acrobatic and perform rolling dives, arching their backs, which is how they got their names! They can also be spotted swimming on their backs with both flippers in the air or using their flippers to slap the water which all help to identify them.

Surface characteristics of Humpback Whales

Humpback whales are perhaps the most famous for their “singing” They sing long complex songs, each one can be about 15 minutes long and is repeated over and over for hours.  On a still evening on the Cape Point Route you can easily hear them singing. Their songs can range from high pitched whistles to low resonating rumbles and grunts but each one is hauntingly beautiful (apparently they produce the longest and most varied songs in the animal world!). so if you hear a whale singing – it is likely to be a Humpback Whale!

BRYDE’S WHALE – Balaenoptera edeni

Bryde’s whales tend to be slightly smaller whales and have a sleek body is sleek which is dark-grey to mottled in colour with a lighter underbelly. They have a prominent erect and hooked dorsal fin about three quarters of the way down the body.

Brydes Whale head with 3 ridges (Google Images)

They can be difficult to distinguish from the surface, however they have three distinct ridges along the top jaw which are not found in the other species. They have small , slender flippers and the tail fluke is also small with a notch in the centre but the fluke rarely break the surface – which makes it one of the ways to differentiate from our other whales. They are also usually found alone or as a mother-calf pair.

Dorsal Fin of a Bryde's Whale

So look out for lonely whales that aren’t diving about acrobatically and keep an eye open for the hook on their back to identify the Bryde’s Whales in our waters.

Surface characteristics of Bryde's Whales

And just for interest sake:

Compare the size of the whales with the elephant in the chart below! So a Southern Right Whale breaching is about 5 elephants propelling themselves out the water! Impressive stuff!

You can view the whales from land (see our blog post on best land based whale watching spots) or try a boat based whale watching trip.

Whale Watching Boat Trip Details:

Daily departures (weather dependent): 10h30 0r 14h00
Cost: R800 adults; R550 children
Duration: 2 hours
Departs: Simon’s Town
Bookings: 021 782 9356
Email: info@capepointroute.co.za

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