Big fests for big beasts

An even more unusual sight: a
humpbacked whale frolicking in the waters
off Hermanus. The town’s harbour is
normally visited by southern right whales.
(Image: South African Tourism)

Hermanus has possibly the best
land-based whale-watching in the world,
as the southern right whiles come to mate
and calve in its harbour in June and
November, often approaching mere
metres to the shore.
(Image: South African Tourism)

During this year’s festival fishermen
landed their catch at the Hermanus Old
Harbour for the first time in 50 years.
(Image: Lianda Beyers-Cronje)

Jennifer Stern

Summer is almost here and the coastal regions of South Africa are bracing themselves for the long-awaited onslaught of tourists who come to soak up the sun, lie around on the sand and frolic in the sea. It’s a kind of crazy time, when it’s almost impossible to find a room in a hotel, parking near the beach, or a table at a restaurant. Crazy, but welcome, because that’s what keeps the tourism sector going.

High season is all very well, but the extremes of occupancy between peak and low season is a bit much. So most coastal towns dream up innovative ways of spreading the load by luring tourists to their towns in the off season.

Plettenberg Bay in the Western Cape tried to get in on the act by offering visitors the opportunity to leave their shoes behind and celebrate a Barefoot Festival, which seemed like a great idea but never really made it. Possibly because it coincided with the Hermanus Whale Festival. Bad idea.

Whales, penguins and oysters

The Hermanus Whale Festival is one of South Africa’s oldest seaside festivals, and the inspiration for many animal-based celebrations that have tried to follow in its wake. The Simons Town Penguin Festival in Cape Town seemed primed to be a winner but, despite flapping its wings vigorously, it never got off the ground.

More successfully, Knysna serves up a few million oysters in July at the annual Oyster Festival, which gets gourmets, cyclists, runners, music fans and art lovers pouring into the Garden Route town in the middle of winter.

In August, Hout Bay Harbour in Cape Town reverberates with the thrum of boat engines as gnarled fishermen compete with each other to land the biggest snoek during the Snoek Derby. The spectators are treated to a range of seafood – including snoek, of course. Up the West Coast, the annual Lamberts Bay Crayfish Festival, held in April, is a celebration of this tasty crustacean. But neither of these fests matches the success of the Knysna Oyster Festival.

Still on a fishy note, just on the other side of Walker Bay from Hermanus, the little town of Gansbaai is cashing in on its self-proclaimed (but well-founded) status as the shark cage diving capital of the world by holding a shark festival a few weeks after the whale festival. The Great White Shark Festival, which ran from 23 to 26 October, is an opportunity to showcase sharks’ essential place in the marine ecosystem, their vulnerable status, and – of course – to try to play down their exaggerated reputation as mindless killers.

Sharks, as anyone who paid attention at the festival could tell you, are superb predators, but they do not make a habit of munching on people. Of course, it’s also an opportunity to get lots of people to Gansbaai, to eat, drink and be merry. But it has a long way to go if it wants to compete with its neighbour’s whale festival.

In the Hermanus harbour

Hermanus is fortunate in having possibly the best land-based whale watching in the world. Southern right whales come in to Walker Bay to mate and calve between June and November, and they hang around in the calm waters incredibly close to the shore.

They are also surprisingly numerous. A half-hour stroll along the scenic cliff-top walk at the right time of year is virtually guaranteed to yield a dozen or more separate sightings, and whales often swim mere metres from the breakwater at the New Harbour.

So in 1992 when Neville Sheriff, Bruce van der Spuy and Basil Clarke-Browne decided to boost tourism to their town by holding a festival, its theme was a no-brainer. It started off relatively low key, with few people turning up for the inaugural celebration. Since then it’s gone from strength to strength, and the 17th festival, held on the weekend of 24 to 28 September 2008, was a runaway success.

It’s estimated that the town swelled from its low-season population of about 80 000 people to 122 000 – a figure comparable to the Christmas high of between 120 000 and 140 000.

“It’s the most successful festival we’ve had in many years,” says Annette Theron, one of the organisers. “And it brought millions of rands of revenue into the town.”

Chris von Ulmenstein, the owner of a guest house in Hermanus, agrees.

“The Whale Festival has gone from strength to strength over the 12 years Whale Cottage has been operating in Hermanus, as measured by our occupancy. We were fully booked not only for the four days of the Whale Festival, but also the days earlier in the week leading up to the festival.”

Art, music and sustainability

The fest included the usual art and music events, including the Whale of a Wine Festival at Hermanusietersfontein Wine Estate in the Hemel en Aarde Valley. An arts ramble attracted 32 artists and 19 galleries.

And there was music for young and old, with Karen Zoid, Cofield Mundi and others bringing in the crowds. On a more – well, mature – note, the Bats played to a full house, most of whom probably came just to see for themselves that all the band members really were still alive.

But there was a more serious side to the event. While the whales were far more fortunate than the Knysna oysters, the Hout Bay snoek or the Lamberts Bay crayfish, their fishy neighbours did end up in the pot. For the first time since 1958, fishing boats came in to the Old Harbour, which is now a museum, and offloaded their catch for the Slofish Fare.

Teams of four to six people competed to make the best fish dish on the day, using only fish on the South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative list. It was a celebration of heritage and food, but also a reminder that seafood harvesting is potentially devastating, and that it needs to be managed sustainably.

Sustainability was an important theme of the event. The Sustainable Lifestyle Expo, run by the Overstrand Conservation Foundation, took up most of Market Square, and was the focal point of the festival. Forty-five stalls ranging from tiny one-person sustainable endeavours to Woolworths and eco-friendly building companies, took the opportunity to show off their organic and environmentally friendly produce and products.

But it really is about whales. The Hermanus Whale Crier was out in full cry blowing out his coded messages informing festival-goers of the best whale-watching vantage points. Although that seemed almost superfluous, as the whales were to be seen almost everywhere.

“They know they must be on their best behaviour, breaching and swimming close to shore, to treat all the visitors to Hermanus,” Von Ulmenstein laughingly suggested.

Theron agreed, adding that the whales seemed to be coming earlier every year, and staying longer. And arriving in greater numbers – more than could be accounted for by simple population increase.

“Perhaps,” she mused, “they know that we don’t hunt whales any more, and they’re – I don’t know – saying thank you?”

“Or maybe,” a bystander added, “they’re training us. Training us to be more environmentally aware by rewarding us with closer and more frequent sightings as we start to behave more responsibly.”

Now there’s a thought. Let’s hope we learn the lesson well.

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