Whales are hurling themselves on to the rocks at the Grotto (a beach in Hermanus off the south coast of SA) - hundreds of them" a local farmer explained to Mr G.W. Rayner, a marine biologist working on a whaling research ship. It was a determined dash. The whales were leaping over the rocks.
They threw themselves on and on until they reached the sand.. Not one tried to return to open sea. It was as if something drew them onto shore.
These whales proved to be False Killer Whales. Despite their name, they are nevertheless true whales. They suckle their young and are classed within the dolphin group. The Killer is conspicuously marked with creamy patches over the eye and along the flank. The False Killer is black all over. Both species have formidable teeth. In spite of this, the False Killer feeds on squid and cuttle-fish only. The killer whale attacks larger whales, tearing away the blubber for food.
The first appearance of the False Killer in South Africa was on Cristmas Eve, 1928. A school of about a hundred flung themselves on to the beach at Kommetjie, near the Cape of Good Hope. Kindly people tried to save some by carrying and guiding them back towards deeper water. As soon as they regained their strength, they would simply leap on to the beach once more. Since then, False Killer whales have been racing to death on beaches as far apart as Zanzibar and Tasmania.
There are several theories explaining the mystery of the strandings.
Most obvious is the possibility of the leader of the school finding itself in surf or shallow water, losing its head, and leading a flurried rush in the wrong direction.
An interesting idea, linking the two South African strandings was this: the sea once covered large areas of the Cape Peninsula, including both the narrow neck of land at Kommetjie and the low coast where Grotto beach lies. Were the leaders of the two lost schools seeking an old passage, an ancient sea route followed by the schools of long ago? Whales can live up to over a hundred years. During this time they learn, and they pass on their knowledge as an instinct to their young. They not no find their way around the world by chance.
It has been suggested that an earthquake or disturbance might have thrown the whales on shore. At Kommetjie, and again at Grotto, there were no signs of submarine disturbance and no rotting fish - usually present at such an occurrence.
Disease as an explanation has also been ruled out. Mr Rayner, at the Grotto beach stranding, opened up many whales. No illness or any signs of starvation was revealed.
One more mysterious question surrounding the False Killer remains unanswered. Why is it that these whales, almost unknown a few years ago, have suddenly forced themselves into such prominence. Abnormal breeding may have something to do with it. Also, whales once lived on land; the finner whale still displays rudimentary knuckles and finger bones. Were they returning to the land where their ancestors once wallowed? No one knows.