As the world’s ocean giants swim up the Garden Route coast this season, Ocean Odyssey, the first Blue Flag nature-based boat excursion in the Greater Knysna area, takes me up close and personal with these majestic creatures of the deep.

WORDS Athane Scholtz PHOTOGRAPHS Lisa Greyling, supplied (Ocean Odyssey)

It’s a beautiful day on the Garden Route as I board a boat to go whale watching. The air is crisp but bearable and the excitement on the vessel is tangible. A group of children, each manned with a disposable camera their grandmother bought from the Ocean Odyssey shop, are eagerly snapping away at everything – long before we cast off from the Thesen Islands jetty.

Our skipper is Marlon Baartman. He grins mischievously when a passenger asks if he really is named after a deep-sea fish. “Yes, I’m the only coloured marlin out here,” he jokes.

Another indispensable person to the whale watching service is Grant Pietersen, Ocean Odyssey’s official whale spotter. He is in radio contact with Marlon and is heading to the cliffs at Brenton-on-Sea from where he can direct the boat towards the giant creatures that swim amazingly close to the coast here. “We are the only operators in the region that uses a spotter, probably because few other places have the ideal combination of high vantage points and good visibility,” says Evelyn Pepler, the dynamic owner of Ocean Odyssey.

Well-known in the local hospitality and boating community, Evelyn and husband Steff have been operating the popular Springtide Sailing Charters at the Knysna Waterfront for some years. Evelyn bought Ocean Odyssey in 2012 to complement their ocean-going services and she hasn’t looked back. “Ocean Odyssey had its close encounter permit for several years before I bought it, but it had been a relatively low-key operation and many people did not realise that Knysna’s waters were teeming with so many whales, perhaps because one has to leave the Heads in order to see them.”

The operator’s profile has significantly risen since Evelyn obtained it and a feather in her cap is Ocean Odyssey’s recent Blue Flag, which she achieved in October last year, meeting strict standards of excellence in among others environmental education and management as well as safety and security. This 100% female owned operation is now firmly on South Africa’s whale watching map.

Ocean Odyssey’s permit covers the relatively untouched coastline between the western side of the Robberg peninsula and Gericke’s Point at Sedgefield, an area that includes the Goukamma Nature Reserve and Marine Protected Area. “The service really sells itself because our permit area forms an integral part of the route followed by whales on their way from Antarctica to the warmer tropical waters. Not all whales require the protection of bays and would not necessarily swim there and hence operators whose permits are limited to bays may miss out on the kind of action that we get in the open water outside the Heads.”

While the humpback and southern right whales are the main attraction in whale season, several other ocean species are often spotted. These include treasures like giant sunfish and leather back turtles, as well as large schools of bottlenose dolphins, common dolphins, the rare Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin, Bryde’s whales, Minke whales, hammerhead sharks, penguins, otters and more. Among the pelagic (deep sea) birds spotted are the shy albatross, petrels, sub Antarctic skuas and gannets. “In December last year we even had killer whales come to visit,” says Evelyn.

As our boat nears the lagoon mouth at The Heads, a slinky cape fur seal, dubbed Nelson by the Ocean Odyssey crew, slips off his sunny spot on the rocks and swims closer. The children rush to take his picture as he pops out next to the vessel. “Nelson comes and says ‘hi’ most of the time,” says Marlon, an endless source of marine information as he answers a constant barrage of questions from young and old. Known for his intuitive sense of where the whales are, Marlon spots a spurt of water from a whale’s blowhole not long after we enter open water.

“As Knysna’s only close encounter whale watching permit holder, we are allowed to approach whales to within 50 metres, but if whales approach us we are allowed to stay and observe. Some whales are naturally more inquisitive than others. But, it’s like being in a shop filled with expensive gifts – you are only allowed to look and not touch. Our engines remain on at all times so that the whales can orientate themselves, and if they remain close we will gently move off.”

A humpback whale suddenly breaches no more than 100 metres from the vessel, taking my breath away. Everyone whoops and cheers, and points their cameras in the mammal’s general direction. Some are rewarded when he resurfaces with another magnificent lift out of the water. The sound from their blowholes travels over the water. Their immense size and relative elegance is beyond my understanding. I look – and look again – enthralled by their indescribable, enigmatic presence.

When it’s time to leave I can’t believe ninety minutes have passed. I am sorry to go but happy to have left these beautiful creatures in peace. It’s hard to imagine that a whale hunting station once operated just up the coast in Plett, or that others at the time failed to recognise their majesty and splendour.

As I find my ‘land legs’, I make a quick stop at the Ocean Odyssey shop for a few sea-life themed souvenirs to remind me of my experience – one I am determined to repeat in the near future.

Close Encounter Whale Watching (May/June to October/November)
Maximum 12 people per trip
Duration: 90 minutes to two hours
Scheduled trips at 10am, 12pm and 3pm (alternative times can be arranged)
Cost: R750 per person (2015)

Marine Eco Tours (outside of whale watching season)
Maximum 36 people per trip (12 per boat)
Duration: 90 minutes to two hours
Scheduled trips at 10am, 12pm and 3pm (alternative times can be arranged)
Cost: R550 per person (2015)

Ocean Odyssey
TH, 24B Saffron Lane, Thesen Island Harbour Town
044 382 0321 or 082 852 9402