Great joy at Ampersand the whale’s arrival


A humpback whale cow that caused great excitement in February last year when she was identified as the same whale as the one in a photo taken in 1988 was spotted again on the West Coast in December.

This famous whale, dubbed Ampersand because she has an “&”-like scar on her tail fin, was spotted for the first time on 15 January 1988 by a small group of whale scientists at St. Helena Bay observed and photographed. It was a time when humpback whales were still “recovering from the whaling years” and according to experts “were hardly seen”.

A total of 35 years later, in February last year, a team from Whale Expedition SA saw the majestic whale and identified her as Ampersand. This time she was spotted next to Dassen Island, north of Cape Town.

Barely ten months later, the same team surpassed their own record when they spotted Ampersand again.

Ash Appleby, spokesperson for Whale Expedition SA, says Ampersand has been of great interest to whale experts and enthusiasts for many years, especially because she previously gave birth to three calves for three consecutive years.

“This is very unique and certainly the first case recorded for the Southern Hemisphere’s humpback whales. Humpback whale cows generally give birth to one calf every two to three years,” he says.

Members of Whale Expedition SA say they noticed that Ampersand is an “incredibly large animal”, but when the same team saw her on the West Coast ten months later, she was “with good reason significantly smaller” and again with a calf attached to her his.

“This is probably the most prolific humpback whale that South African waters have ever seen,” jokes Appleby.

He described the latest sighting of Ampersand as “the best sighting by a million”.

“What a day… What a sight. They make you work hard, but the reward when you first see them is undoubtedly worth it.”

He says that because Ampersand fascinates so many people, photos of whale sightings are often re-examined to make sure they may not have missed one of her sightings.

“A photo recently surfaced which proved that Ampersand was also seen near Saldanha in November 2022. It was reported on the SeaSearch groups.

“Although it has only now come to light, it is interesting and shows that she was in the area for at least three months,” says Appleby.

The whale and her calf are presumably now on their way to feeding grounds further south.

What is whale watching and identification?

According to Appleby, various methods are used to identify different whales. A humpback whale is identified by the underside of its tail fin.

“By taking a photo of the whale’s tail fin and uploading it to platforms like HappyWhale, we can quickly see if the whale is new or has been observed before.”

He says platforms like HappyWhale’s algorithms have gained momentum in the last three decades and that “interest and the ability to photograph the giants of the ocean” has increased significantly.

“This interest goes hand in hand with technological improvements, where almost everyone with a mobile phone these days can take a reasonably good photo.

“The number of recorded humpback whales has increased from 50 humpback whales in 2018 to around 2,500 in 2023 – and the number is still growing,” says Appleby.

He says it is important to note that the information gathered over the years is a joint effort that includes various research, scientific and expeditionary components.

“The University of Pretoria’s whale unit at the Mammal Research Institute, as well as Happy Whale, Seafari, SeaSearch and the Department of Environmental Affairs, all play a significant role in the welfare of South Africa’s humpback whales.”