Cry the beloved whales

Thursday, 12 August, 2004
Lesley Beake
Whale watching in two oceans.

Once, when I was sitting in a seafront restaurant in Hermanus, the cry went up. 'Whales!' To a man the diners rose to their feet and charged out into the sunlight (leaving a resigned set of waitrons in their wake, rather plaintively holding plates of steaming calamari and chips and bowls of salad). Some of us had the presence of mind to take our wine glasses with us.

We stood entranced as a Southern Right whale launched itself joyously from the water and crashed back in a cloud of spray. We followed, as if bewitched, as it swam a little further before breaching again. We sighed. We smiled. People touched each other gently, couples put their arms around each other. Some of us cried. That is what whales do. In some mysterious, connected way, they reach our souls and make us happy.

One man who is as connected as it is really possible to get, is Wilson T Salukazana who is the official Whale Crier of Hermanus - the only whale crier in the entire world. He is a man of commitment, a man of integrity ... and a man who loves whales.

His job is to act as a portable information office, patrolling the town of Hermanus (now acknowledged worldwide as the site of the best possible land-based whale watching) and crying out the whales. 'I blow the old, traditional kelp horn that used to be used by Cape fishermen to call out their catch - and I make them myself,' Wilson says. 'The horns are quite difficult to blow because the kelp is so salty - it's a skill that takes time to learn!' So is making the horns. 'You cut the kelp fresh from the water and allow it to dry slowly in the sun. Then you can work on it with a saw or a hacksaw and sandpaper and varnish - and then you can make music!'

Well ... music to some ears; more of a signal to others. But signals have meaning and Wilson has a system of seven different blows for the seven most whale-friendly bays where the great mammals can be seen disporting themselves, calving, nursing their babies, or what Wilson gently refers to as 'honeymooning'.

'This is where they come to play,' he says, 'where the water is the perfect temperature for them in our winter. They are safe here and they know that now. They like to play for the people.'

The whales come in so close that, although boat-based viewing is an option, most people just stand on the cliffs (right in the middle of town) and gaze at them right there on the other side of the breakers. The additional height makes it possible to look down on them and see the individual patterns of white on the whale's skin formed by callosities (dense colonies of creatures that travel with the whales, but do them no harm)  - something that makes them much loved by researchers too, because individuals can be identified and recorded year after year.

Does Wilson have his own favourites? And does he have names for them? He looks away. 'Well, yes ... maybe ... sometimes. There is one I call Seaweed, because he likes to play in the kelp.' And Wilson smiles, the secret smile that only a whale whisperer can have - the smile of the man who cries up the whales.

Wilson T Salukazana is a SATOUR registered tour guide, who also takes visitor to experience the hospitality of nearby Zwelihle township, and who, in his private capacity, does a great deal of community and educational work. He can be contacted through the Hermanus Tourism Office    telephone 028-3122629 - and, in whale season (from July to October) can be seen walking the streets of the town.

Wilson the Whalecrier
Wilson the Whalecrier

more news