The Humps are Back!

205 years ago, the whale ship “Essex” set sail from the Port of Nantucket.

Filled with hardened seaman, she sailed for months in search of liquid gold, the highly viscous Sperm Whale oil.

By 1818 these whales had already been locally extirpated and were incredibly hard to find. A voyage in search of them required thousands of miles of sailing, such was the slaughter on the open seas.

A hundred years hence and it wasn’t just the sperm whale that had seen huge population declines, with the whaling fleet now turning their attention to the Southern latitudes and Antarctic and sub Antarctic regions.

With the advent of motorized vessels, other species of whale now had no escape. At the South Georgia Island port of Gritviken, more than 176 000 great whales were reduced to oil and bone on the flensing plan.

It was said, for the first few years of whaling in this area, humpback whales and others had been so numerous that the fleet did not even need to leave Cumberland Bay in order to hunt them.

As the fleet and sophistication thereof grew, the whale populations shrank. When this land-based fleet could no longer keep up with the demand for whale oil of rapidly industrializing nations, a new and even more destructive fleet took over. These were ocean based super ships, some the size of present-day cruise ships.

These vessels needn’t return to shore for weeks or months. They would have their ‘catcher’ vessels bring whales to them, and they has the ability to process these aboard the vessel.

Whales now had nowhere to swim or to hide.

By the late 1960’s and early ‘70’s Humpback whales were so depleted that less than five thousand survived in the Southern Hemisphere, down from somewhere near half a million.

Something had to be done, and finally with many species just about extinct, a moratorium was placed on whaling by all but the most environmentally arrogant and destructive of nations.

In the mid 1980’s, and into the early nineties, when I first began taking an interest in and photographing marine life, I never saw Humpback whales.

When eventually in the 90’s we did, it was cause for great excitement. These whales appropriately called the ballerinas of the sea were spectacular, performing incredible twisting breaches and having wonderfully distinctive flukes.

Quite simply they were a joy to behold on those infrequent occasions we saw them.

Slowly but surely over the years their sightings increased, particularly on the South African East coast and we would most often sight them during their Eastward migration during the same time as we were photographing the sardine run.

Suddenly we would see groups of threes and fours, and on occasion even more. Every year as they headed to the equatorial regions to calve, they were slowly but surely rebuilding the damage we had done to their populations.

At the same time visionary scientists and researchers were photographing their flukes. Each one having a unique pattern and whilst technology lagged in terms of being able to identify them, a visual data base was being collated that scientists could use as a means of quickly identifying whales with obvious patterns.

Of Sea and Signature

By the early twenty teens, Monique and I were undertaking regular expeditions on both our East and West coasts and heading far offshore in search of cetaceans of all sorts.

Not only did we find populations of Sperm whales in areas that were formally hunting grounds for whalers, but we also noticed the rapid increase in aggregations of Humpbacks.

Around about 2014 or so we got a call from a good friend and outstanding naturalist, the late Barrie Rose, to say he had seen over fifty humpback whales together off the Atlantic seaboard of Cape Town.

We were gob smacked and quickly headed off to see this for ourselves.

Unbelievably there they were dozens upon dozens of tell tale plumes of spray hung specter-like against a moody Atlantic sky.

For three days the whales remained in this area, apparently feeding.

The next year we would be ready for them, and so we were. Roll around 12 months and we had our boat based on the Atlantic seaboard. With the first report of the whales further up our West coast we headed out and smelt, rather than saw the whales.

They were everywhere …

Diving, surfacing, breaching, jeepers it was a wonderful sight.

And suddenly we were surrounded by them, at least fifty or sixty. Huge 15 meter long submarines swimming under and around us, some so close I could have touched them with a fishing rod.

Yet, not once did they touch our drifting boat, which was half their size. And not once did they do anything that was in any way aggressive towards us.

Quite simply it was the most exhilarating yet calm experience.

A Tale in a Sea of Stars – 2022

From being great white shark fanatics, we were now too under the spell of the humpbacks and for close to the next decade, we would go out during their annual visit to search for them.

Over that time their populations grew and grew and on rare occasions up to 200 humpbacks would be seen together in an area the size of a few football fields feeding on tiny shrimps.

From a photographic perspective, this collection of whales together in a small area gave me incredible photographic opportunities, probably never afforded to anyone with modern photographic technology.

I could push boundaries and never be afraid of failure, as I knew by just the sheer number of whales, I would have another chance.

Monique and I spent nights sleeping at sea along the west coast, following the whales as they went. Waking up each morning was so exciting, especially when a weather forecast showed the likelihood of moody weather that would add to the dramatic scenes of these huge animals engaged in all manner of activities all around us.

Apart from my fine art photographs, I also started shooting the undersides of flukes for a local fisheries scientist Mdu Seamakela, as well as for Alex Vogel, two passionate people trying to learn more about them.

Both individuals submit their imagery to Happy Whale, an online platform using AI pattern recognition technology started by Ted Cheeseman, the renowned cetacean expert.

What we found from these submissions was amazing. Suddenly Mdu, Alex and Ted, by using their photographs, along with mine and others were showing the South African population numbering well into the thousands.

These were mostly sub adult whales and it appeared that for many of these younger whales, they were not heading down to Antarctica to feed, but were rather spending the bulk of their year right here off Africa’s west coast.

It also appeared that many of the whales were travelling in the same groups and whilst there were areas of overlap, particularly if they did go down South to sub Antarctic regions, the whales did not join other groups. It appeared that there well defined cultural or social differences with different groups having their own calls and vocabulary.

What Mdu, Ted and Alex found by taking all these fluke photos and entering them into the happy whale data base, is that some of these whales had been seen here over thirty years ago as could be determined by comparing them to those taken by the early scientists who had the foresight to collect fluke shots way back then.

These survivors were the breeding stock that had led the recovery of the population and with them, they carried the information of migration paths, preferred feeding areas and their cultural heritage.

Quite simply this was an incredible example of non-invasive research combining image recognition software and solid base line data to plot the recovery of a species.

In late 2022 and early 2023, we headed out again spending many days at sea between Cape Town and about 150km North of the city. We found the whales, but interestingly never in the huge numbers we had seen the years before.

We saw groups of 50-60 whereas the previous years it had been north of a hundred.

The reason for this could be as a result of many things.

The most likely being food availability, as upwelling conditions this year had not been nearly as good as in previous years early in the season, and with the absence of this convenient food stop, some or many of the whales may have headed down to Antarctica.

Another reason could have been a bad breeding year in the tropics that saw a dip in numbers that would be reflected a few years later in our area as the adolescent populations come to feed here.

In our local waters, the whales do not have any targeted threat but do face the very real chance of entanglement in the hundreds of lobster traps that are allowed to be set directly in the path of the feeding super pods of whales.

Whilst the recovery of the species is such a positive story in an overall sea of gloom, it is tragic that the South African fisheries department does not see fit to create an area or season whereby fishermen set their traps elsewhere.

If this fisheries management is not possible, then I am sure in an age where we are looking to send people to mars, and we sit on the cusp of major changes with AI, that we cannot find a better way to fish for lobsters than leaving hundreds of meters of ropes and floats trailing on the sea surface destined to entrap and kill whales as collateral damage.

It is rare with the iconic species that I photograph to be able to reflect on the growth rather than the disappearance of a species, and the success of the Humpback whale population should be seen as what can be possible in our world.

Photographically, my aim with the Humpbacks is not only to create world-class investment grade fine art works whose owners get pleasure from these works, but also to use the imagery to contribute positively towards the efforts of others in order to learn more about the whales in a non-invasive way, so that we may even better protect them in the future.

Copyrighted by Chris Fallows @2020