Down on the beach I listened with half an ear as Clive from Mokkoran Dive Charters gave his safety briefing. Behind him, his large blue duck lay beached on the sand, waiting patiently to take us through the rough waves and into the ocean beyond.
Happy we all understood the plan, Clive instructed us to take our place on the side of the boat. The first job was to turn the bulky hard bottomed boat around and drag it into the sea. Once floating the ladies were invited to climb aboard. Standing at the front of the boat I hung onto the safety ropes while the waves bashed me against the boat waiting for the call. With the motors running Clive hurriedly called for us to jump on. Clumsily I hurled myself onto the boat, stuck my feet into the foot straps and took a firm grip of the rope behind me, ready for the bombardment of foamy waves.
I have done a few of these beach launches before in my life and know how rough they can get. But this one was different. Clive has been skippering dive boats for as long as he can remember and his experience showed. Cruising up and down the small stretch of coast we navigated our way through the surf without a hitch.
This was my first official whale watching excursion and I could barely contain myself. I’d spent the month doing relief management at Rocktail Beach Camp on the Maputuland Coast. It was the peak of the whale watching season (between July and November) and our guests were having the most amazing experiences with the whales from the boat. As a parting gift, Clive and Michelle invited me to join them their morning ocean excursion on my last day at the camp.
Once beyond the breakers we began scanning the ocean surface for the whales. I’d come prepared with my DSLR camera and 400mm lens. While I had all the necessary equipment, I had no idea how I was going to hold the camera steady, peer through the viewfinder and photograph the whales with the boat rocking beneath me.
Before I’d had a chance to formulate my plan a massive pectoral fin surfaced next to the boat. The sheer size of the whales fin took me by surprise and I could only imagine how colossal the rest of the whale was as it quickly disappeared below the surface. I missed the first chance to photograph the whales but was ready and waiting for the next. Using my knees to lean against the side of the boat and relying on Clive’s firm grip on my jacket I stood steady waiting for them to appear.
“There you go” Clive shouted pointing to the front of the boat. This time we were in the perfect position as the whale swam across the front of the boat, lifting its beautifully white pectoral fin high into the air for a moment before once again disappearing below the surface. As quickly as the first whale vanished more appeared, repeating their playful behaviour.I was eager photograph a breech but the whales seemed content to tease me with their fin displays and the odd tail flick as they dived deep below the boat.
This was my first time seeing whales from a boat and the closest I’ve been to a whale. I must be honest and say its almost frighting standing on a boat easily half the size of the whale as it breaks the surface of the water in front of you. But its also a magical experience to witness the grace and beauty of these oceanic giants as they elegantly move through the water.
The hour I spent out on the water with the whales was the highlight of my entire month at Rocktail Beach Camp. Its an experience I’ll never forget and it most certainly wont be the last. Come July this year I will be back on a boat searching for humpback whales.
Rocktail Beach Camp is one of only two lodges along the Mabibi coast (Thonga Beach Lodge being the other). They are inside the iSimangaliso Wetland Park and operate within a marine protected area know as the Maputaland Marine Reserve. With only two dive operations in the area the diving and ocean experiences are carefully managed. This is a pristine section of our precious coastline and it was a privilege to spend a month in the reserve working with the Clive, Michelle and the Rocktail Beach Camp team.
Words and pictures: Stuart Parker