We all know that the Overstrand is a region subjected to a wide range of weather conditions. One day might be sunny, calm and tranquil, while a raging south-east or north-west wind might be blowing the next day with equally wild sea conditions. To venture into the sea on a small paddle-craft therefore needs some skill and foresight.
I have been a paddling enthusiast all my life and Helene and I have canoed many of South Africa’s most beautiful rivers. Surfing with a paddle-ski has been a passion for close on 30 years, while kayaking at sea has provided endless pleasure, spiritual upliftment and yes, excitement. It is therefore a privilege to own a number of paddle-skis, kayaks and canoes in Betty’s Bay. Let me share a few experiences in which I was able to make direct contact with dolphins and whales in our waters:
As in Natal, the most frequently occurring dolphin in the Overstrand region is the Bottlenose Dolphin, Tursiops truncatus. I got to know these sleek and friendly animals well, while heading the South African Association for Marine Biological Research in Durban, which also runs the Durban Aquarium and Dolphinarium (now uShaka). It is therefore always a special experience for me to meet up with these animals when paddling in Betty’s Bay waters. They are inquisitive, will come right up to your paddle-ski and play around you with the typical sound of their sharp exhalations. Under calm conditions, without the danger of the paddle-ski or kayak being blown away, I have often jumped overboard and swum with the dolphins. In the water, they tend to make body contact, but they will never allow you to touch them while you are on a paddle-ski, kayak or boat. What they do enjoy is to surf. To catch a wave with a paddle-ski surrounded by frolicking dolphins, is an indescribable experience. But it is also humbling, because however good a swimmer or surfer you may be, you remain slow and clumsy compared with these wonderful marine mammals.
Occasionally, Killer Whales, Orcinus orca, appear in Overstrand waters. In the 1970s, I was leading a national research programme on marine line fish and was therefore always interested in the catches of line-fishing boats. Frequently, I paddled out to check on what they may have caught. This happened in Betty’s Bay on a calm and sunny morning, when a boat was fishing on the outer fringe of the kelp-bed. I had barely reached the boat when the fishermen told me to go back because two killer whales were around. The next moment they shouted ‘Get on board, get on board here they are’. I told them to be calm and started paddling just as I do with dolphins. Killer whales are, in fact, large toothed dolphins and they behaved exactly as other dolphins do. This resulted in the unbelievable experience of paddling for about quarter of an hour with a killer whale on either side with no sign of aggression, only of curiosity. The dorsal fins of these animals are about 1m high, perhaps more. If someone had taken a photograph, this would have become a treasured possession for me.
My greatest experience with marine mammals was shared by my son, Martin, in September 1982. I had been attending a four-day workshop on Coastal Processes at the Sandown Hotel in Kleinmond. During this whole period, two Southern Right Whales, Eubalaena australis, were swimming within and just beyond the breaker zone. When I got home on Friday evening, Martin and I loaded two paddle-skis onto the roof of our Kombi. Early on Saturday morning we were at Kleinmond, equipped with a Nikonos underwater camera. Using a rip current next to the rocks we were quickly behind the breaker zone with the whales closer to the shore. To our utter amazement, the whales came straight for us, not aggressively but, again, inquisitively. I got some great shots of Martin paddling with two whales in pursuit. Then, to my horror, one of them came vertically out of the water and looked down on my young son with a beady eye. I never even thought of taking a picture. Moments later, the same thing happened to me and again I was too paralyzed to even think of taking a photo. Then the whale slipped back into the water and I got two incredible photographs of it lying head-on to me, like a submarine at the surface. Suddenly it disappeared and the sea under me turned black - the whale was just beneath me. Very gently, it rubbed its back against the skegs of the ski, until suddenly, it picked me up, ski and all, on its gigantic tail fluke. Somehow, I kept my balance until it lowered me, equally gently, back into the sea.
Martin was quick to paddle up to me and said: ‘Pa, dis tyd dat ons ‘n brander wal toe vang’. I was in total agreement. We were lucky that a perfect wave appeared and we surfed to the beach next to each other in grand style. Only when we reached the shore did we notice that there was a crowd of people who had watched the whole episode and in the middle of them was my dear wife, Helene, with tears streaming down her face.
Neither Martin nor I will recommend this kind of adventure to anyone, but neither he nor I will ever forget this highlight in our lives.
Allan Heydorn 15 July 2008