A number of things make whales fascinating: their size, their mammoth migrations, their inscrutability… South Africa’s south-western coast is a good place to catch up with them – and with Katja Vinding Petersen as she studies them. Philippa Ehrlich spoke to Katja about the fascination southern right whales hold for her.
Originally from Denmark, Katja Vinding Petersen has lived in South Africa for almost six years studying the country’s population of southern right whales. These enormous cetaceans were almost hunted to extinction in the first half of the 20th century, but today they are thriving along the coast between Cape Town and Mossel Bay.
How did you come to study whales in South Africa?
In 2006 I was privileged to be on the Danish Galathea 3 expedition, an around-the-world scientific and educational project. My biggest passion has always been marine mammals, and cetaceans in particular. One of my good friends was on the ship as well, working on acoustics, so we decided to see if we could record some of the southern right whales in South Africa. We left the expedition in Cape Town and went out to the Overberg – and I fell in love with the area. It was like coming home. My soul felt at home in Gansbaai, of all places. We didn’t get any recordings because the animals were silent, as cow–calf pairs are most of the time. But I definitely got my connection to the area.
What is it about marine mammals that fascinates you?
There’s something intriguing about them. You see them, but you don’t really see them. And all their adaptations are so fascinating. They’re mammals, but they can survive in the ocean. They’ve got no legs. They’ve got thick blubber to protect them in that cold, cold environment. And they use sound to find their way around and locate each other.
Did you ever manage to record the sounds of the whales?
That’s one of my biggest research passions: the acoustic part. I have loggers in the ocean recording the whales and I have been going through those recordings for most of this year. It’s incredible to finally be eavesdropping on southern right whales communicating.
What is it about the Overberg coastline that the whales like so much?
They like gently sloping bay areas protected from the wind. Especially the cow–calf pairs because they want to spend as little energy as possible fighting waves. Also this seems to provide protection against killer whales. The southern rights can move into water as shallow as four metres, where a pod of killer whales cannot hunt them from underneath or breach out of the water and separate the calf from the cow.