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Passion for whales takes Cape Town residents to citizen science

XINHUA – On a regular morning in July, messages of sighting whales along Cape Peninsula, southwestern end of the African continent, started coming in Alex Vogel’s phone.

“2 HB passing FH at speed. Heading Muizenberg,” read a message in his 600-member Telegram group for whale and dolphins sighting in Cape Town, informing others that two humpback whales are close to the shore of Fish Hoek, heading Muizenberg, a popular surfing spot.

“Whale will spend time underwater, for instance, humpback whales we see here will stay underwater for 45 minutes, so if you start spotting, looking for animals, don’t just look and give up.

“You need to spend a few minutes, half an hour to get an idea if there is something around,” the 50-year-old told Xinhua, standing alongside Boyes Drive road overlooking Muizenberg Beach and False Bay, searching for whales with binoculars like what he had been doing in the past dozens of years.

He recalled his first memory of whales in the late 1970s and the beginning of his passion for whales, when a southern right whale came up behind the surf. After he became older and had his own car, he started driving along Boyes Drive or to other places to spot whales.

A Bryde’s whale is seen in Cape Town, South Africa. PHOTO: XINHUA

Alex in 2020 took ownership of the Telegram group, which brings together local whale lovers, domestic and international visitors who are interested in whales, professional researchers and people who just want to keep in contact with whale sightings.

Whale lovers in the group not only enjoy watching whales but have been contributing to scientific research in different ways as well.

There are several local residents in the group who are dedicated to watching whales every day, rain or shine, due to their passion for whales, said Alex.

As for him, he would go to look for whales in both the eastern and western sides of the peninsula after flying back from overseas. “I’ll go whenever I have time because that’s my main passion,” he said.

According to him, group members report whale sightings in Cape Town every month of the year.

“If the weather is good, there is a 95 per cent of chance to see a whale on the day that I go to look for whales,” he said.

As southern right whales have migrated from icy feeding grounds off Antarctica to warmer South African water since around June, thousands of international and domestic tourists are preparing to have an unforgettable whale watching experience in the popular whale watching town Hermanus.

However, Cape Town’s unique location on the southern tip of the continent enables the whale lovers here to spot whales all year round, more excitingly, from the land.

This brings the city with very high intensity of whale and dolphin species, including whale species visiting its shores to calve, migrating past or residing in the area, referring to southern right whales, humpback whales and Bryde’s whales, respectively, according to Director of Sea Search Research Simon Elwen.

Unlike Hermanus, Cape Town has whales feeding in summer off its west coast in the Benguela upwelling ecosystem, leading to a “strong presence” of whales during that period and whales of different species year-round in Cape Town.

Elwen, who is also a research associate at Stellenbosch University, told Xinhua, added that Hermanus and other whale watching areas eastward are much more tied to the migration stream.

David Hurwitz, who has been operating Simon’s Town Boat Company in Cape Town since 1998, said from an operational point of view, the company regards whale watching season as from June to November because it is confident that there is over 80 per cent of chance to find whales on a tour during this period.

However, there are also whales outside the season and tourists may see whales on other boat trips, said Hurwitz sitting in his boat.

His company, in general, has about 98 per cent success rate of spotting a whale in the whale watching trip and this year the rate so far has been 100 per cent.

Last summer from mid-December to around January 20, after a normal whale watching season, there were “enormous amounts” of humpback whales around the Cape Point area, southern end of the peninsula, with over 200 whales in one group on two occasions, he said.

Hurwitz also said besides the three whale species, the area has inshore sightings of killer whales since around 2015, which he hasn’t seen before.

“The interest (in whales) started very young as a fascination. And I think that fascination developed into obsession over the years. We are always hungry to learn, and we learn every day,” Hurwitz explained his rich knowledge about whales.

The 65-year-old member of the Telegram group has co-authored a number of scientific papers.

Hurwitz, who is obsessed with Killer whales, together with his boat company, is very supportive of the scientific industry, hosting scientists for scientific activities and sharing information with them.

They have cooperated with scientists to take biopsy samples of animals, take a killer whale with a satellite tag, observe certain behaviors of whales and take photo identification of flukes, or tails, of humpback whales.

One day before the interview, he saw a killer whale and shared the information within the scientific community through a certain network. Alex used his own pocket money to develop the Seafari App for his whale spotting diary, but the public can also use it for free to log their sightings.

Many group members have been uploading their sightings to this app, whose data have been sent to researchers and scientific organisations, for them to use the records to do research.

Researchers have been using the information shared in the Telegram group as well.
Group members also take photos and upload them to a website which match whale photos to track them globally.

It is hard to capture changes in whale numbers by scientific means alone as researchers are limited in where and when they can survey, Elwen explained.

“This is why efforts involving citizen scientists that really allow us to get more eyes on the water over a large area, are really valuable. It’s allowing us to pick up these trends, picking them up very early,” said Simon, noting that citizen science networks even help him get whale data in other countries like Mozambique, Namibia and Madagascar.

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