AdventureAfricaSouth Africa

6/23: Humpback Whales

I swam with humpback whales today.

I’ve never seen one in the wild, and they are abundant along the Wild Coast this time of year. We spotted the first from the zodiac and rode along its side watching as it arched powerfully through the water, its huge back and fins emerging for a deep breath of air. Hundreds of dolphins leaped about it and played through our wake as we circled and took pictures. François quickly positioned SEAL 2 in the general area of the humpback’s path, telling us to put on our snorkel gear and to quietly slip into the water. Evelyn, Ulrich and I floated together on the surface and then – through the blue – emerged this massive, beautiful whale. Ten feet from us. It looked at us with a large eye before diving deep, deep, deep where it could dive in peace.

Evelyn took this amazing picture seconds before it dove. This is how close we were.

Moments of poetry. If I had the words, I’d put them into stanzas and verses. Suffice it to say that these are memories that will live forever.

An hour later we found three humpbacks and François dropped us in again. The visibility was rough underwater, but this didn’t dissipate the heart-stopping moment when the three large whales passed beneath us and gracefully disappeared in the blue. I doubt I’ll ever have an experience like this in my entire life. This trip has already paid for itself tenfold.

Once today, we were surrounded by thousands of dolphins that surfed the waves and leaped in groups of three or four at a time.

To end our four-hour excursion, we trailed a pod of five humpbacks as they crested the waves and spouted their monstrous breaths. François likes to get up close to them, egging on their actions with his South African humor, “Come on, Big Girl!” Or… “What’s the plan here, Chaps? You going to breathe? Where you going?” The regulations in South Africa normally prevent this close proximity, but those rules are relaxed for Sardine Runners. I suppose that once the industry gains momentum and popularity the regulations will be enforced again. For now I’ll take full advantage of my two snorkel trips with the whales as well as the dozens of pictures I took while we coasted next to the beauties.

Whale Wave

Microlight Flight with Crash

The pilot of our microlight plane is named Crash – a testament to the South African dive staff’s sharp sense of humor since his name is really Kai, but it’s much more fun to call him “Crash”. So we do. Since the sun was out and I was having such a lovely day, I asked François to radio Crash so I could take my microlight ride today. Moments later, Crash landed on the beach together we took a brilliant twenty-minute flight above the Wild Coast.

Takeoff of Microlight with Crash
The Wild Coast of South Africa

It reminded me of the last microlight flight I took over Victoria Falls in 2001, when I was too tense to do more than hold on. With Crash, though, I had my camera out and snapped multiple pictures of the gorgeous coastline. Before we landed Crash did a few roller coaster air tricks and spiraled the microlight down to the beach for a smooth landing.


We had “Sundowner” (South Africa’s version of “après ski”) at nearby Frasier Falls. The staff packed two coolers full of beverages and we wandered around various paths, snapping pictures of the fading light. They say that “Africa gets in your blood”, and I’d forgotten how true that is. I find myself romanticized by this place and the people here. The stars alone make it worthwhile. One of the two buses left early, but a small group of us elected to stay and drink wine in the tall grass while John Cougar Mellencamp played from Nic’s truck. We located the Southern Cross but had no idea how to interpret the southern direction from its corners. Someone else pointed toward the Milky Way and noticed that the stars are so bright here that we can actually see molecular clouds where the stars are blacked out. Amazing.

After two hours in the African winter night, my toes were frigid and my attempt at warmth-through-wine-consumption wasn’t working as successfully as I’d hoped. Nic put me into his truck and turned on the floor heater. “For your foot fingers.” He joked. When it was time to leave, he climbed into the driver’s side and Ulrich and Brad (one of the DMs) got into the back, and we four-wheeled our way back to Mobyti to the sounds of Johnny Cash, John Cougar, and my uncontrollable laughter. I can’t recall the last time I’ve laughed so freely and joyfully.

At dinner Evelyn and I amused ourselves with François (henceforth to be called “çois”), who had consumed a ridiculous amount of brandy after docking the boat. He sat at the head of table between Brad and Chris – two of the newest DMs whom çois refers to as “The Puppies” – and made us laugh with hysterical jokes and phrases. This trip is already full of tidbits I need to write down – most of which will mean nothing to anyone but me, Evelyn, and whoever was there at the time, but I’m noting them here for my own enjoyment:

  • Foot Fingers – because why should they be called just “toes”?
  • Candy Jammies – the ridiculously pink tank pj set I bought in Durban when my luggage was lost. No one but Evelyn will ever see them since they’re borderline obscene, and she has dubbed them “the candy jammies”
  • Pancake Sleeping – Evelyn’s phrase for the flopping back and forth in bed when we can’t sleep
  • Why NOT?çois’s question for… well… just about everything
  • Hobos – Afrikan for “lots and lots”

My night finished with Neville, a 49-year old skipper from northern South Africa who has a wife and a nine-year old daughter named Jamie. He has a sharp wit but a very warm heart and a deep, complex voice. He runs a dive shop in Sidwana Bay up north, where he teaches “Reef Teach” classes to educate people about life underwater, but he came down for the Sardine Run because it’s good money and because “Nic runs a good operation”. I have to agree. I’m already in love with this whole experience.