whales on the open sea

Lisa and myself were heading for Sette Cama by 7:30 on Sunday morning, with Heiko driving, behind the wheel of his Toyota. A rendezvous was organized for a 9:30 departure from Shell Hut on Zuzu, a 2X150HP, 23-foot Gulfstream piloted by Daniel Hooft. Our plan was to maneuver through the N’Dougou breakthrough out into open sea to look for Humpback whales.

Dorsal fin of a Humpback whale breaks the surface. A commercial fishing trawler in the distance.

Generally, these whales arrive and congregate in Gabonese coastal waters, often within 20 kilometers of beach, in June, following the Namibian and Angolan coastline from subantarctic feeding grounds. Humpback whales tend to remain until September, mating and calving in the shallow tropical waters of the continental plateau. When migration resumes, some return south to the Antarctic region, while others continue on to the islands of São Tome, Principe and Bioko. In the late 1990’s, the International Whaling Commission reported the population in the Southern Hemisphere to be around 40,000 to 60,000 individuals. Gianna Minton cites data from 2001-2005 that indicates approximately 8000 whales migrate along the coast of Gabon.

Racing dolphins surface alongside Zuzu.

A whale pokes its head out of water, showing a white-striped chin with beard of barnacles. The bumps on the tip are mostly hair follicles.

By 10:30 we were joined by a few pods of dolphins, some zipping alongside the boat, others coming up from below to leap out front as we rocked and rolled on the swells several kilometers offshore. A trip such as this is not kind to those susceptible to seasickness. On the distant horizon, we could occasionally see a plume of white spray, good indication of a whale breathing at the surface. Several appeared to be within a few kilometers, and we headed in for a closer look. This area of the Atlantic is a wide shelf of mostly sand bottom, varying in depth between 8 and 40 meters. It is full of life. Often enough, we could see a fin suddenly slice above the waves, mostly dolphins, but also others I did not recognize. Such a mystery, what is happening below.

A whale rolls on the surface of the sea some 10 kilometers off the coast of Loango National Park. According to Gianna Minton, in her Report on Gamba Area Marine Surveys, the whales recorded in the survey were most often in waters between 9 and 38 meters depth.

The whales we encountered were in small family groups. The groups would mostly roll in the waves, stretching a flipper skyward before slapping it to sea. Occasionally a head would bob out of the surface, as if having a look at our boat. We saw a few whales further out near the continental shelf leaping above the horizon, resulting in an enormous splash, but this behavior seems to be less common at the end of migration season.

A Humpback whale dives beneath the waves.

Dan lands a carangue with Heiko ready to assist, in the sea before the N’Dougou breakthrough.

We were able to spend perhaps 90 minutes with the whales before returning to lagoon. It was approximately midway between high and low tides. Because it is the end of dry season, water levels in the lagoon are especially low, making the return through the breakthrough an increased risk for hitting sandbars or rocks. We took time for some trolling as we headed back, hooking into a powerful mystery-fish that made a beeline course for Brazil, hardly stopping before breaking the line at reel end. Dan managed to land a modest carangue before we entered the lagoon. A few runs in and out of the lagoon breakthrough for Heiko and myself provided some experience negotiating waves and sandbars. It is hoped that next season we will have an additional vessel, “L’Etoile de la Nyanga”, a 24-foot Boston Whaler, repaired and ready for more whale-watching experiences.

Bottlenose dolphin bids farewell to Zuzu as we re-enter the lagoon.

The generosity of Lucy and Daniel Hooft, who give so unselfishly of their time and resources, make opportunities like this possible. Might we all learn by their example and become better explorers and stewards of this paradise we are privileged to call home.

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