by Jess Grieveson-Smith

The whale’s world

Through the Knysna Heads into the ocean

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Whales are majestic animals, with much mythology attached to them. Stories of whales come from all over the world, travelling through history to the present day. The strangest facts surround them. If a dead whale is found on a British beach, the head belongs to the King and the tail to the Queen. Many people find themselves drawn to the whale through the melodic sound it produces, known as a whale song. These can last up to thirty minutes, with all the males in a pod singing the same song at the same time.

As I step onto Ocean Odyssey’s boat, my mind wanders to the stories and mythical tales that all surround this animal. African legend tells of a whale teaching a king a lesson in humility. The King had prayed for the ability to feed all created beings on Earth. God wished to show the king that human enterprise is limited in size and scope and so sent the whale to be fed. Bigger than any fish the King had seen before, it roared for more and more food. The King begged for forgiveness from his presumption. How could he feed an animal that size? He certainly couldn’t feed all of creation. With the legend in my mind, I find myself questioning the inspiration of the tale. Can the whales that I am about to witness really be as big as that?

As the boat begins its venture from the harbour, I soon stop wondering. It’s not because I’ve seen the whales, but I’ve seen the waves that we must pass to reach them. No wonder the mammal has created such tales. The waves that they hide under remind me of how small humanity really is. The section of Knysna where Ocean Odyssey is based is secluded and quaint in its look. The people here are welcoming, and happy to chat. The souvenirs sold here are unique, hinting at what customers can experience out on the Indian Ocean. It’s a miniscule slice of the world, but such a significant one as from here you find yourself directly on the whale migration route as they make their way South to the feeding grounds.

Passing through the gateway created by the Knysna Heads, I am awe-struck. I have a sense of leaving human troubles behind. From the boat, I can witness the destruction created by the Knysna fires. It has cost the locals here a lot but what can never be taken from them is the allure of the surroundings. The pure beauty of nature brings tourists back here, and along with that, hope as Knysna rebuilds.

The Knysna Heads stand guard over the lagoon, separating it from the might of the ocean. Two impressive cliff faces stand almost parallel to each other. Although the opening is 370m wide, the safest passage is on the far right hand side, only 70m of which is navigable.Our skipper, Johannes shouts as he sees marine life everywhere. Speaking to the staff left back on shore, Johannes is the man with the gold tooth who can attract the whales. It seems they’re not wrong.

Within minutes, we are surrounded. Initially spotting only the footprint of the whale, Johannes is quite calm as he points out the patch of still, clear water. Like looking into glass, the whale’s print opens a window into the hidden trove below. In moments we see the whales surface. Three, then five, then eight whales are spotted. The excitement in the air is palatable, and when an African penguin is spotted amongst the whales, it feels almost humorous.

This is their part of the universe and the humans are tourists. As we shudder from seasickness and gasp as the waves rock the boat, the whales play.

I learnt to never underestimate the grace of any animal. Despite the fact the whales are almost double the length of the boat these animals are elegant. Size doesn’t matter. We watch for an hour and a half, witnessing even a breach, which I consider nothing short of miraculous. Lifting itself clear of the water, the sheer strength of the humpbacks we see, the sight leaves me agape.

I could watch the marine life all day but seeing them so free in the wild leaves me sure of one thing. They have their own day ahead, their own songs to sing. Whales and the like aren’t here for our entertainment, and I’m grateful to hear Johannes say as much. He doesn’t want to go too close to the breaching whale because he knows the established boundaries. The ocean is their world. We are their guests.

Jess Grieveson-Smith

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