FOR THE NEXT FIVE DAYS, we found the whales every day in perfect weather conditions, but always in atrocious near-zero water visibility.
However, I felt very lucky to be in the ocean with the mysterious southern rights, and even luckier to have encountered the playful rare white juvenile, but I am not done yet, and plan to return.
After being hunted almost to extinction, right whales, though protected worldwide since 1935, remain the rarest of whale species. They are recovering, but very slowly.
In the whaling era, whalers named them the “right” whale to kill, because they’re slow swimmers and, because of the bulk of their blubber, float when dead.
They were also the preferred species because each whale provided huge amounts of valuable products – particularly oil for lights and lubrication.
Scientists classified two Northern Hemisphere species – the North Pacific (Eubalaena japonica) and North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis).
The southern right whale is a single species (Eubalaena australis) found throughout the entire southern region of the Southern Hemisphere.
Commercial whaling began in the early 1800s, almost taking out the entire southern right population between 1835 and 1845. Even when the industry collapsed, it took another 90 years before official protection was provided.
There are now an estimated 12,000 southern right whales, but only 300 E glacialis and 450 E japonica remain. These are the rarest whales on Earth.
All right whales are identified by their colossal heads, which account for up to a third of their body length.
They are easily distinguished because they have no dorsal fin, broad pectoral fins, a long arching mouth that begins above the eye, and small rough patches of skin (callosities) on their heads.
They have dark grey or black skin, sometimes with white patches on their bellies. Their two separate blowholes produce a distinguishing V-shaped blow.
Right whales use a comb-like strainer of baleen plates and bristles to ensnare tiny morsels of food as they feed.
Like other whales, southern rights migrate twice a year. The feeding migration in December is to the krill-rich region near the Antarctic Convergence, and the reproductive migration in June is towards coastal temperate waters that provide a calm refuge for newborns.
The two main havens are the Valdés Peninsula in Argentina and South Africa’s west coast. They have well-defined areas for their autumn and summer migrations, on which they travel thousands of miles. They are also often spotted in Australia and New Zealand, and some very small groups can occasionally be seen along the coasts of Brazil, Mozambique, and Madagascar.
While it might seem as if wildlife professional photographers always manage to get that “lucky shot”, our trade secret is that what looks like luck is actually a combination of optimal timing, perfectly planned encounters and shooting at the best locations.
Behind each successful picture are a thousand unseen frames of failures. When I next tried to capture southern right whales under water two years later, it was clear that I needed to select either Argentina with its 2000 animals or the South African whale territories, which extend from Doringbaai, south of Cape Town, all the way east along as far north as Durban and are visited by up to 4000 whales a year – 30% of the entire population. My choice was a no-brainer!
To increase our chances of good pictures, I organised two groups of shooters with Rainer for 16 days out at sea. And to escape the sewage-polluted water of Cape Town, we opted to operate from the quaint little seaside town of Hermanus in Walker Bay, promoted as the whale-watching capital of the world!
The sheltered breeding ground hosts hundreds of these majestic animals, which spend up to five months a year there. I read that even from shore we could watch them courting and nursing newborn calves. In my simple mind, and with so many elements on our side, what could go possibly go wrong?