72 Southern right whales seems an impossible number to be viewing from one point and even more so knowing that I was not having to use binoculars! There were whales breeching, tail slapping, swimming fast with definite purpose and then there were those just lying lazily on the surface, rocking with the swells as their calves swam next to them. If this was not enough, a large pod of about 200 Bottlenosed Dolphins surfed the curling waves, weaving under and around their larger whale relatives.
Amazingly this is not a dream in some far flung corner of the world but takes place on an annual basis just three hours away from Cape Town at De Hoop Nature Reserve and Marine Protected Area. The point where I was watching all this activity was from the visitor interpretative centre at Koppie Alleen, which gives expansive views of this rugged yet extremely special coastline. The whales arrive from their southern feeding grounds during May and June each year and numbers peak around September and October. They choose the sheltered bays within the 48km long marine protected area to calve and then mate again, with the bulls fighting hard to gain access to the receptive cows. When I was still the manager of the reserve, we undertook regular aerial patrols and on one occasion we counted a total of 334 Southern right whales within the marine protected area boundary.
1 of 12. A Southern Right Whale calf lies in the shallow protected water of a sheltered bay.
The benefits of this protected coastline are truly seen from the air and we observed huge schools of shoaling fish, rays of various species, Mola Mola, rare Humpback dolphins and on occasion Bryde and Humpback whales. Early each year we witnessed large schools of Hammerhead shark pups passing through together with the mega-pods of Common dolphin and accompanying flocks of Cape Gannets. In the summer months when Yellowtail, Kob, Elf, Garrick and rays of various species are common, large concentrations of Great White Sharks can also be viewed from the tops of the white dunes just to the west of Koppie Alleen.
2 of 12. Intertidal platforms exposed at low tide and richly covered with seaweeds and invertebrates.
Getting back to the whales, I had to draw myself away from this amazing spectacle and wandered down to the beach. I had timed my visit to coincide with the outgoing tide so that I could access the rocky platforms that spread from the shoreline like huge tables that were occasionally covered with a white table cloth as waves smashed over them. Thick beds of mussels interspersed with barnacles and reef worm awaited me and a closer look revealed, three species of starfish, nudibranches, periwinkles, limpets and delicate flat-worms in the shallow pools where small klipvis darted for cover. The deeper rock pools showcased a kaleidoscope of color where large orange anemones were accompanied by smaller plum and red colored versions. Purple, reddish and orange sea-urchins bristled their spines and in one pool, an octopus quickly changed color to blend in with its surroundings.
3 of 12. African Black Oystercatcher pair feeding in the wave break zone on the beach.
With all this bounty on the rocks, African black oystercatchers were plentiful and time spent watching these birds revealed just how in tune with their environment they actually were. They fed on the edge of the tidal platforms where waves still smashed over their target food source, the mussels. The oystercatchers constantly kept a beady eye on the waves and timed their movements perfectly, knowing which wave-breaks they could stand into and which waves were just going to be too big and force them to fly briefly above them, before settling down again to feed.
4 of 12. Hammerhead Shark pups use the De Hoop Marine Protected Area as a congregating area.
Having walked all this distance, there was no way that I could not enter the water and I donned my wetsuit, mask and fins and entered the rather chilly sea at Koppies second beach. The bay was well sheltered from the crashing waves but was also deep enough to allow the larger fish good feeding grounds. I was scarcely in the water when I was joined by a large Spotted gulley shark. This species is totally harmless and to have its company was indeed a privilege. In un-protected waters these sharks are often the first to be caught by fishermen who usually just toss them wastefully up onto the beach to die. Another surprise, were the numerous Galjoen that fed amongst the turbulent water, again this is a species that is seldom seen out of protected areas. Under the rocky overhangs, Yellow-bellied Rock Cod drifted lazily and the Blacktail and Zebra were huge in comparison to other areas that I had dived. After a half hours diving, I had notched up over twenty species of fish, never minding the countless invertebrates and sea-weeds. It is only when seeing such abundance that you really begin to see the incredible value that no-take marine protected areas provide and we must really do our utmost to ensure that these assets continue to be protected.
5 of 12. Aerial view of the Hippo Pools snorkelling hotspot.
Exiting the water, the chilliness had me wishing for a large piping hot cappuccino and I headed back to the Opstal where my comfortable accommodation was and the Fig-Tree restaurant had a scrumptious and warming menu. After a quick shower, I walked across to the restaurants lounge, passing herds of grazing eland and Bontebok that scarcely took any notice of me as I passed several meters away from them. Hadedah’s and flocks of Helmeted guineafowl scratched and probed beneath the feet of the eland and Cattle egrets pecked at gorged ticks on the eland’s legs.
6 of 12. Bontebok running in the open fields near the Opstal.
At the restaurant and after ordering my cappuccino, I met with Sebastian Jones, the assistant manager of the De Hoop Collections. We moved across and sat relaxed in the comfy chairs of the lounge and he told me how De Hoop Collections is a public private partnership between the State and experts in the tourism field. He said that the first priority had been to improve the tourism facilities on the reserve in a manner that will also bring benefits to the local communities. He mentioned that the first phases of upgrading and restoring all of the accommodation facilities had been almost completed, adding that they were now focusing on setting up the activities that guests could expect to enjoy while visiting the reserve. He was careful to add that a full range of facilities were available from campsites tucked under ancient Milkwood trees that lay adjacent to the 16km long De Hoop vlei, through to the up-market accommodation at Koppie Alleen and Melkammer. He stated that “It is important that we are able to offer the best range of accommodation that will look after all of our various markets from local South Africans to the ever growing international market”.
7 of 12. Cattle Egret ruffling its feathers.
Sebastian then went on to explain their newest venture, the De Hoop Trail. Whereas the well known Whale Trail largely runs along the coastline, the purpose of this new trail is to follow the De Hoop vlei, which is an internationally recognised RAMSAR wetland that attracts thousands of waterbirds and to maximize the opportunity of walking through the magnificent dune field and along the expansive beaches of long beach. The trail is fully catered by the expert chef and you are accompanied by an experienced and knowledgeable guide over the three days.
8 of 12. Lachenalia dehoopensis - an endemic that is only found in only a few hectares of limestone fynbos.
After chatting further about the diversity of opportunities that the reserve can offer the guests, he suggested I join Dalfrenzo Lang the resident guide on a trail. Dalfrenzo is one of those good news stories as he left school without any opportunities and took on the challenge of completing a rigorous Marine Guide course run by FGASA. On completion of this, he was employed by De Hoop Collections and has been guiding at the reserve for two years, with high aspirations for the future. I was introduced to a broadly smiling Dalfrenzo and I was soon to see that this was his normal composure. I have seldom met such an enthusiastic guide who is constantly bursting to impart his knowledge.
9 of 12. Newly born eland calf.
We wandered alongside the edge of the vlei where he rattled off and pointed out long lists of the birds that we sighted. He was really keen to show me a sighting of Cape Clawless Otters that he had been monitoring for some time and when he first mentioned them, I was convinced there was a little exaggeration added for good measure. I was soon to be proven wrong when sure enough he pointed out nine of the otters that were lying together on a large rock and were squabbling over a juicy crab. On seeing us the otters slipped away into the water and without hesitation Dalfrenzo was then pointing out herds of Cape Mountain Zebra, Grey Rhebok, and more eland and Bontebok. With each identification he knowledgeably talked about the behaviour of each species, imparting interesting facts that could only be gathered through time in the field. After looking at all the “big stuff” we focused our attention to the other highlight of the reserve, namely the numerous plant species. Dalfrenzo said that De Hoop held over 1500 plant species of which at least 12 were found nowhere else in the world. He talked about the diminutive and rare Southern Adder and several other reptile species and closed off with the fully justifiable comment that “De Hoop is one of those special places where there are rare species to be seen around every corner and you could spend years on the reserve and still not know it all!’
10 of 12. The Melkammer Manor House.
Mulling over the days events at dinner in the restaurant, where the food is finely prepared and totally scrumptious, I realised how Dalfrenzo’s words rang true and immediately committed myself to numerous repeat visits to what has to be the jewel in the crown of nature reserves in the Western Cape.
11 of 12. Caspian Tern flying over the De Hoop Vlei.
12 of 12. Gladiolus bullatus flowers.