Diary of an Accidental Naturalist

April 10, 2016

Something people always seem to do on the way home from holiday is to work out what was the best bit.  I won’t bore you with my holiday reminiscences— except for the one memory turned out to be the ‘signature’ moment.  It was an unscheduled animal encounter.

We did all the tourist bits.  We had to visit Kruger Park; one of the few unsullied and un-repopulated wild animal domains that at least approximated the original habitat and animal populations.  The animals mostly carried off their roles competently:  the solitary bull elephants were irritable old men, who barely acknowledged our presence in Land Rovers two hundred meters away; the white rhinos peered at us myopically from between the scrubby bushes and baobab trees; the giraffe affected the unconcern of elegant old ladies waiting for their turn at a tea-dance.

What happened to us on the morning of the last day was undoubtedly the high-spot and the keynote of our ‘extended family’ holiday.  One automatically reaches for superlatives when trying to describe what it’s like to come into close contact with whales, but I’ll attempt to resist the temptation.

We were lucky to be given hotel accommodation right on the shoreline of Table Bay, between Sea Point and Bantry Bay, for those who know the area. The emerald expanse of the South Atlantic stretched from almost below our balcony to a crystal sharp horizon several miles distant.

Earlier that morning

Earlier that morning

Patches of giant kelp carpet the sea floor and the white sand beneath is visible to depths of forty meters and more. So, we were packing up to return to England, yesterday morning, and something caught my eye just twenty or thirty meters off-shore. A glistening jet of water was propelled into the air by something just below the surface.  Then I saw the great dark shape outlined around it, silhouetted in the clear, sparkling water.  Then I saw another, then another.  I shouted to my family in the apartment: ‘Whales here! Now!’  The family cascaded onto the balcony area, tripping over the ankle- level recliners.  I focussed my camera on the nearest one: a large male, over twenty meters long and with a nose encrusted with orange barnacles.

Whales engender the strangest emotions.  A kind of fusion of sadness and joy.  A feeling of a spiritual connection that perhaps has its origins in a shared primal ancestry and common purpose: to stay alive in spite of everything. The whales, Southern Right-Whales, shouldn’t have been there. They are supposed to be viewable in the bay during mating season, from October onwards.  But then, thanks to our elevated location, we saw something that several other casual onlookers on the shore may not have noticed.  A long black, wavering ribbon wove a path parallel to the shoreline, about a hundred meters out.  At first, I thought it was kelp.  Then I noticed it was moving almost imperceptibly slowly from left to right across the shoreline.  It was a large pod of those massive creatures, apparently migrating, before our eyes.  Nose to tail, line astern, big and small they followed one another in what must have been a seasonal migration.  A large shadow at the front of the ribbon indicated the head of the procession and then smaller black shadows followed, many only a meter or so long in the middle of the order.

Part of the pod

Part of the pod

Perhaps it was the juxtaposition of our luxury and comfort alongside an ancient and timeworn ritual.  We were awe-struck in the face of these many giant creatures enacting a rite that evolution commanded them to fulfil, and felt uniquely privileged that only we of all the residents of Cape Town seemed to have noticed the stately progress of the giant black ribbon up the coast.  We, as a species, have a presumed arrogance.  Whether it is benign, as in the case of environmentalist concerns, where we try to wind-back the depredations of civilisation and restore a life and dignity to the creatures we share the planet with, or, the unthinking and ill-considered policy edicts of a president that puts populist short-term financial issues above all else; these creatures will keep on doing what they have done for millions of years.

I took photographs of course, just to prove to myself that I was not imagining it. But photographs are the reflection of a memory, and the experience itself buoyed us up as we regretfully left our holiday accommodation behind.

The watchman

The watchman


The Airbus that flew us out of Cape Town that morning flew over the sunlit bay and there, below us, were two distinct dark shapes, presumably still shepherding their brood past the Great Whites that ring Robben Island hunting for seal.  Sometimes holiday memories fade quite quickly, but we won’t be forgetting this one in a hurry.



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