Mossel Bay’s whale season well under way

Confirmed sightings and scientific observations show that Mossel Bay’s 2011 whale season is well under way.

A southern right whale displays its pectoral flipper off De Bakke, Mossel Bay. Photo by J Kok

“Mossel Bay hasn’t been known as a whale watching destination until recently, but the Mossel Bay Cetacean Project – which is now in its second year – has shown that the Bay, and it’s neighbour to the west, Vlees Bay, are indeed important whaling destinations,” said Mossel Bay Tourism’s Marcia Holm.

She said that M.Sc. student Bridget James is managing the project on behalf of locally based Oceans Research, and the Mammal Research Institute of the Department of Zoology and Entomology at the University of Pretoria. Ms. James has been working in the field since the beginning of March.

“The study has continued the work started in January 2010 by Edith Mertz (also an M.Sc. candidate at the University of Pretoria), investigating the behaviour and distribution of whales and dolphins in the Mossel Bay area,” said Ms. James.

“This second study will focus on collecting data to determine the influence of human impacts on movements, space use and behaviours of the whales and dolphins between Mossel Bay, which has many human factors including ships, boats and industrial impacts, and Vlees Bay, which has virtually no human impacts. 

“Humpback dolphins (listed as near threatened on the IUCN Red Data List) and bottlenose dolphins will be the focal species of this study because both are found in nearshore areas and are the most likely to be impacted by human activities.

“Whales species, such as the southern right and humpback whales, that pass through Mossel Bay and Vlees Bay during their migrations, are also monitored during the study.

“Thus far this season a number of socialising groups of southern right whales have been observed and mother-calf groups have also been seen from the observation sites in both Mossel Bay and in Vlees Bay.

“The whales have been observed at various locations, and they appear to utilise large portions of the Bay for their activities.

“A small number of humpback whales have also been observed passing through the Bay and they should appear more regularly later in the year,” she said.   

Data on the movements and habitat of the animals are collected from six shore-based field stations that have been set up in the Mossel Bay area. The whales and dolphins are tracked using a surveyor’s theodolite which allows for precise recordings of the animals’ locations.

Ms. James said that the business community of Mossel Bay has contributed handsomely to the Cetaceans Project. “The Cape St Blaize Lighthouse, the ATKV Hartenbos Resort, the Garden Route Boutique Hotel and Spa and several private home owners have very kindly allowed us to work from their properties; Fred Orban of the Oystercatcher Trail, Lennis Van Schalkwyk, and Dion and Ina Swanepoel have provided continuous support, as have the Springer Bay Eco Estate and the Fransmanshoek Conservancy; various materials and surveying data were provided by Maracon Civil contractors and Mr. van Schalkwyk; and Moss Cars sponsored a car for a year.

“We would especially like to thank the Garden Route Casino Trust for providing the project with the money necessary to secure a permanent vehicle for the project, which allows us to get to and from the observation sites.”

Ms. Holm said that a visit by a cow-calf pair to De Bakke last week caused particular excitement in the town. “They were literally 50 metres off shore, and you could clearly see their callosities – the growths on their heads which allow the scientists to identify individual animals.”

She said that the Cape St. Blaize Cave – an ancient Khoisan midden – is one of the town’s favourite (and most easily accessible) land-based whale watching sites.

“But, of course, any slightly elevated point along Mossel Bay’s coastline could provide sightings, especially at this time of year.”

Ms. James said that the Cetaceans Project welcomes questions and interaction with the public.

“Members of the public are always welcome to talk to us in the field as we value the opportunity to tell people about our work and the need to protect whales and dolphins in South African waters.”

Contacts:
Bridget James bsjames@zoology.up.ac.za
Katie Cummings K.cummings@oceans–initiative.com

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