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Plettenberg Bay

 

The third Whale Heritage Area in South Africa

Plettenberg Bay’s Whale Heritage Area lies within two Marine Protected Areas which form part of the broader Garden Route National Park and Garden Route Biosphere Reserve. The latter was recognised by UNESCO as South Africa’s 9th Biosphere Reserve in 2017, a testament to its ecological importance.

Plettenberg Bay also falls within the proposed Tsitsikamma – Robberg Ecologically and Biologically Significant Area, thanks to its critical role in harbouring essential inshore reefs, vulnerable and delicate species, and a wealth of top predators such as sharks, cetaceans, and marine mammals.

With such a diverse array of natural wonders, it comes as no surprise that Plettenberg Bay is a hub of activity for ecotourism and marine research.

Plettenberg Bay plays an important role within the larger ecosystem, boasting a breath-taking blend of pristine beaches, winding rivers, serene lagoons, ancient indigenous forests, and the vast expanse of the sea. The Marine Protected Area serves as a crucial feeding and nursery ground for a wide variety of resident and migratory cetacean species, with the Southern right whale being one of the most notable and representative inhabitants.

Plettenberg Bay is not only a captivating destination along the world-famous Garden Route, but it also stands as a vital component of the region’s delicate ecosystem. It provides a sanctuary for diverse marine life, making it a haven for conservation efforts and a paradise for nature enthusiasts seeking to witness the wonders of the natural world.

Plettenberg Bay became a designated Whale Heritage Area in May 2023.

KEY FACTS

Location

    • Region – Africa
    • Country – South Africa
    • Area/State – Western Cape Province

Cetacean species

      • Bryde’s whale
      • Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin
      • Indian-Ocean humpback dolphin
      • Common dolphin
      • Humpback whale
      • Southern right whale

    The Destination

    Location

    Plettenberg Bay Whale Heritage Area is located in the Western Cape Province of South Africa, within the Indian Ocean marine system. It falls within the South East African Coastal Migration Corridor of Important Marine Mammal Areas and is part of The Garden Route Biosphere Reserve, accredited by UNESCO. The area is bordered by the Eerste River and includes the Tsitsikamma Marine Protection Area. Multiple rivers and estuaries flow into the Indian Ocean within the site, including the Piesang River, Keurbooms River, Salt River and Eerste River.

    Cetaceans regularly seen

    Throughout the year, a variety of cetaceans can be encountered in the waters of Plettenberg Bay. The Marine Protected Area serves as a crucial feeding and nursery ground for a wide variety of resident and migratory cetacean species. Among the species present year-round are the inshore Bryde’s whales (with a peak occurrence from March to May), Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins, endangered Indian Ocean humpback dolphins, and common dolphins.

    Migratory species also visit these waters during specific periods. Humpback whales can be observed from approximately May to December as they undertake their north and southward migrations to breeding grounds off Mozambique and feeding grounds in the southern ocean. Between June and October, Southern right whales appear off the South African coast to breed and calve.

    There are also rare and opportunistic encounters with species such as killer whales, false killer whales, common bottlenose dolphins, sei whales, dwarf minke whales, minke whales, and dwarf/pygmy sperm whales.

    Cetacean Heritage

    Plettenberg Bay holds historical significance as the location of a whaling station that operated on Beacon Island from 1834 to 1916. Today, descendants of the whalers continue to reside in the area, but, the perception and value of whales have undergone a significant transformation. They are no longer viewed solely as a commodity to be exploited and hunted for economic gain – instead, there is a renewed emphasis on appreciating and preserving these majestic creatures within the pristine marine environment of Plettenberg Bay.

    Things to do

     

    • Embark on a whale watching excursion with one of the two authorised operators in Plettenberg Bay.
    • Marvel at the many marine mammal sculptures in the area.
    • Explore the Nelson Bay Cave, an archaeological site situated on the Robberg Peninsula. This cave bears evidence of human occupation dating back as far as 125,000 years ago, and is affiliated with the Cradle of Human Culture.
    • Immerse yourself in the artworks showcasing whales and dolphins exhibited in all the local art galleries.
    • Plan your visit to coincide with the Plett Ocean Festival and Marine Science Symposium, where you can indulge in fascinating talks, exhilarating excursions, and engaging marine-themed activities suitable for all ages.

    Achieving Whale Heritage Area status

    Each Whale Heritage Area has a unique route to meeting the Wildlife Heritage Area criteria. Check out some of the highlights from Plettenberg Bay Whale Heritage Area:

    Encouraging Respectful Human-Cetacean Coexistence

    Two boat-based whale watching (BBWW) operators have permits from the South African Department of Forestry, Fisheries, and the Environment (DFFE) to conduct whale and dolphin watching activities. These operators are obligated to comply with DFFE permit regulations, which encompass various aspects such as vessel-cetacean interactions, passenger and crew safety, fair labour practices, environmental awareness and protection, and overall marine conservation efforts.

    South Africa’s robust legislation for BBWW operations are considered among the best globally. The regulations were initially established in 1998 to protect the severely depleted Southern Right Whale population, which has since shown a positive recovery rate of approximately 7% per year, monitored through annual aerial surveys conducted by the Mammal Research Institute Whale Unit at the University of Pretoria.

    South Africa has a national association, the South African Boat-based Whale Watching Association (SABBWWA), to which both boat-based operators in Plettenberg Bay Whale Heritage Area belong. This association was established during the formalisation of the industry as a means to promote self-regulation, knowledge sharing, and increased exposure to the international tourism market.

    Celebrating Cetaceans

    Whales, dolphins, and the diverse marine environment of Plettenberg Bay provides endless inspiration for residents and visitors alike. For those strolling along Main Street and the Marine Drive traffic circle, a captivating bronze sculpture entitled, “The Dolphins” awaits. Created by local artist Robert Leggat, “The Dolphins” serves as a visual representation of the connection between art, nature, and the community in Plettenberg Bay. In recent years, a prominent billboard, featuring a painting of a mother and calf humpback whale by local artist Gayle Harris, on the local national highway (N2) warmly welcomed visitors to Plettenberg Bay, serving as a striking introduction to the area.

    Adding to the community’s celebration of cetaceans is the remarkable “Wanda the whale”, a larger-than-life puppet brought to life by local performing arts NPO, Lunchbox Theatre. Wanda serves as an educational tool, captivating audiences during performances at schools and other venues, while imparting valuable knowledge about whale conservation and the importance of protecting these magnificent creatures.

    Each year, the Plett Ocean Festival, organized by the Plett Tourism Association, takes place, providing a platform for the community to come together and celebrate the wonders of the ocean.

    Working Towards Sustainability

    The community of Plettenberg Bay has taken various initiatives to preserve the natural beauty of the area and protect its marine ecosystem. The Bitou Municipality ran a volunteer beach cleaning activities to collect washed-up nurdles while campaigns, such as Keep Plett Clean and “The Sea Starts Here” are both designed to increase anti-littering awareness and action.

    Whale watching businesses also commit to their environmental practices by not providing single-use plastic water bottles to their guests and ensuring responsible disposal of biohazardous materials such as motor oil and grease.

    A unique feature of Plettenberg Bay’s Central Beach is the innovative whale replica which serves as a litter receptacle. Constructed from recycled metal and other materials by local artist Derek Saul, the whale was named “Sindi” (derived from the Isixhosa word “umsindisi,” meaning “saviour”) by local school children. The launch of the attraction serves to promote conservation and marine eco preservation, with relevant signage at the site.

    Plettenberg Bay has gained recognition for its commitment to environmental stewardship. In November 2022, six beaches and two marine tourism boats were granted Blue Flag status, symbolising the town’s adherence to high water quality standards and sustainable practices. Plettenberg Bay was also declared a Mission Blue Hope Spot in 2014 and, in 2023, 10 internationally accredited Green Flag Trails were designated in the area.

    Developing Research, Education and Awareness Programmes

    Plettenberg Bay has a strong research culture, with long-standing partnerships between whale watching operators and marine researchers, established by the founding of the Centre for Dolphin Studies by marine scientist Dr. Vic Cockcroft in the 1990s. Current research projects in the area focus on photo-identification of humpback and bottlenose dolphins, as well as Bryde’s whales and humpback whales. Marine scientists contributions have been instrumental in the South African Government’s cetacean management strategy and studies on human impacts on cetaceans.

    A prime example of research bringing about real, practical benefits for cetaceans is the study led by local marine scientist Dr. Gwenith Penry, addressing the issue of fatal entanglements of Bryde’s whales in coastal fishing gear. The project utilised suction-cup attached data loggers to inform gear changes and revise fishing permit regulations. These changes, enforced at a ministerial level, have successfully reduced entanglements, with no further incidents reported to date.

    The community at large is encouraged to actively engage in monitoring their marine environments through citizen science initiatives. These include reporting wildlife sightings through the Seafari App and participating in beach cleans, such as the notable Strandloper project aimed at clearing washed-up nurdles from the shore.

    Equally important to the research efforts are the education and awareness programs in the area. A local whale-watching company runs the Adopt a Swimmer Programme, providing opportunities for young people to experience the sea first-hand. Local NGO, Natures Valley Trust, takes the lead in ongoing educational programs focused on marine and environmental preservation for children in the Plettenberg Bay/Bitou communities. A highlight of the year is the annual Plett Ocean Festival and Marine Science Symposium which caters to a wide audience, offering talks on the latest research findings, marine film screenings, educational activities and much more. The event also features a marine career exposition, providing young individuals with valuable exposure to potential career paths in the marine industry.

    Key Information

    Who is leading the process locally?

    The Steering Committee members are:

    • Rob Smith
    • Brett Ferguson
    • Cindy Wilson-Trollip (Plett Tourism)
    • Pierre de Villiers (CapeNature)
    • Dr. Gwen Penry (Marine Scientist)
    • Marlon Baartman (Ocean Safaris)
    • Dave Swart (Mayor of Plettenberg Bay – Bitou Council)
    • Hendri Coetzee (Natures Valley Trust)
    • Victor Mokoena (Park Manager – Garden Route National Park)
    • Barend Olivier (Beacon Island Hotel)
    • Danielle Conry

    Find out more about the Plettenberg Bay Whale Heritage Area here.

    Actions and Recommendations

     As part of the designation process, the Independent Review Panel (IRP) set out a series of actions and recommendations for the area to complete before or by the end of Year 1 of WHA designated status.

    Recommendation 1

    Education and Awareness

    The educational programmes that focus on cetaceans and are delivered to local communities are very good. The judges suggest a way of further enhancing them would be to get in touch with the EcoSchools programme in SA for collaboration.

    While there are currently some events, including the Plett Ocean Festival, most are focused on science. The judges suggest it would be good to include other activities that involve the community in celebrating cetaceans in particular. It was noted that there are several sculptures of cetaceans around the area, but it would be good if the community could find some additional ways to celebrate cetaceans in, for example, music, dance, theatre, the visual arts, and literature.

    This could be extended further by engaging in educational and community outreach events that promote the WHA itself and the reasons for its existence.

    Recommendation 2

    Research

    In regard to updating South Africa’s regulations, the judges were encouraged by the research project and the forthcoming outputs in publications and journals. They would like to see examples continuing studies and research on population estimations, distribution etc. in order to ensure regulations and conservation efforts remain current.

    Recommendation 3

    Governance

    The judges requested a management plan identifying key objectives, activities and timelines, and measurements of progress.

    Recommendation 4

    Enforcement

    In relation to the limited funding for personnel and equipment available to patrol at-sea, the judges suggest that exploring ways to address this could be included as part of the management plan. Perhaps finding ways of encouraging the organisations and authorities involved to collaborate/coordinate in order to secure additional funding and resources.

    Images credits: First header (Rob Smith); Second header (Gwen Penry); “Things to do” image (Brendon Morris​); Third header (Rob Smith​); Fourth header (Rob Smith​); “Who is leading the process locally” image (University of Pretoria’s Mammal Research Institute Whale Unit).  Gallery: First (Southern right whales, Barry Skinstad​); Second (rainbow over Plett, Rob Smith); Third (Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins, Gwen Penry); Fourth (Tsitsikamma Mountains, Rob Smith); Fifth (orca, Raoul Ripmeester, Ocean Safaris); Sixth (stars over Robberg Beach, Rob Smith).