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TRAVEL: The greatest show on earth

From: CountryClubuk Magazine.
The greatest show on earth: whales in the ocean & flowers in the hills

IF your idea of bliss is to wake up in a luxurious sunlit room to the glorious sight of a whale breeching in a violet-blue ocean, then we have the perfect experience. Hermanus, a seaside village in the Western Cape of South Africa, is the best place in the world to watch whales from land.

Whales are far from the only reason to come here: you can sit for hours in the early summer sunshine, walk the scenic pathways along the beautiful Cape coast, and feast your eyes on wild life and fields filled with flowers. The food is delicious, the wines good, and you can visit their vineyards, receive a Swedish massage, swim in a tidal pool, play a round of golf by the sea, climb Table Mountain, or shop for clothes and gifts. If you have little time to spare, all this can be experienced in less than six days.

Hermanus stands on the shores of Walker Bay, near the southernmost tip of Africa, where two of the world’s great oceans converge. Each year the southern right whales migrate into the coastal waters of the Western Cape to calve and nurse their young, providing unsurpassed whale-watching between June and November. At least 37 species of whales and dolphins are found in the waters here—including humpback whales and coastal dolphins—but the region is most famous for southern right whales, some of which swim into the old harbour to calve.

The northern right whale is endangered—but the southern species seem to be doing well. Scientists believe there to be about 6,000, with numbers growing at a population expansion rate of 6-7% a year. The right whales are enormous creatures—up to 59ft long, black, with white patches on their chins and bellies, giving them the look of gigantic Friesian dairy cows. They swim slowly, and wear ‘bonnets’, on their heads, which makes them seem even more endearing. Most calves are born in August and September, with the whale population at its peak in October.

Daily sightings at Hermanus can almost be guaranteed in season—from August until they depart in November—but do not worry if you are relaxing out of sight of the ocean, because the amphibian version of a town crier—a whale crier—is on hand to tell you when they are in view.

It is wonderful to walk the 12-kilometre stretch of cliff paths around Hermanus, from where you can enjoy the scenic beauty of the village while being entertained by the whales in the giant theatre in front of you. Sometimes they swim as close as five metres to the rocky cliffs.

You can go whale viewing by boat, too. Strict regulations prevent operators from venturing closer than 50 metres to the whales, but often they make unannounced appearances near the boats. For the fearlessly intrepid, there are shark-watching cages, but for the rest of us, who like our entertainments to be less heart-stopping, we can go riding among the flower-filled fields beyond the village, or play golf, or swim, or take a wine-tasting tour. This is an experience not to be missed.

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