Hermanus is South Africa's whale-watching capital. By Guy Perry
It's not often you take notice of sandwich boards - unless your interests lie in golf sales, leather jacket offers or predictions of when the world's going to end. But in the small coastal resort of Hermanus - an hour's drive east of Cape Town - Peter Claesen is stopped by passers- by and actually quizzed about his sandwich board.

The world's first and only known whale crier, Peter has one mission - to publicise the day's early sightings of winter breeding whales so that watchers know where to head for the best viewing. While generally dispensing information on his mobile phone, he often reverts to tooting on a horn which he has fashioned from the kelp lying in tangled mounds on the seashore near his fishing cottage: "I blow on my horn in morse code - it's a great way of attracting attention, but no one seems to understand the messages!"

Hermanus, once famous for being the country's first leper colony, has now become the whale-watching capital of South Africa, and holds its owns arts jamboree, the Whale Festival, every September. Because of its excellent cliff-top viewing, the town has become the focal point for the MTN Cape Whale Route, a small but influential promotional and educational body launched in February. It has already established dozens of information boards at viewing points - the first established in the sleepy but charming resort of Still Bay - and has set up a Whale Hotline to give hourly updates on where whales can be spotted. The body boasts that South Africa possesses "the world's best land-based whale watching". Few would dispute the claim, least of all between June and January when huge groups (known as "pods") of whales can often be observed swimming only metres away from the shore, and "breaching" spectacularly as they surge up and crash down like thunder into the sea. Most of the time, however, they loll around on the surface "spouting" (blowing unpleasantly smelly water vapour into the air) and "spy-hopping" (poking their heads out of the water to look around) or, more impressively, "fluking" (lifting their tails into the air before diving).

Whereas boat-based whale watching has become highly organised in centres like Kaikoura in New Zealand, South Africa is taking the opposite approach. Laws forbid boats from getting within 300 metres of whales. Transgressors face jail sentences of six years, though the government's Sea Fisheries Office admits that it lacks the manpower to patrol the coastline adequately. One of its officers at Still Bay, Cunny Jones, is worried: "We try our best to protect the whales but if you get idiots going up to them in rubber `ducks' (dinghies) when our backs are turned, there's very little we can do."

Southern Right whales were the first of the large whales to be protected in South Africa, in 1935, and conservation bodies are anxious that the 37 species of whales and dolphins found in Southern African waters are not exploited. Greg Vogt, the charismatic chairman of the MTN Cape Whale Route, argues: "You've got to remember that Southern Rights were hunted to virtual extinction, and they're only slowly making a comeback."

Many whale watchers support moves to add whales to the country's "Big Five" top game animals (currently lions, elephants, rhino, leopards and buffalo). Charlie Apples, a visitor from London, was bitten by the whale- watching bug: "The Kruger Park is very impressive and very commercialised, but it's so much nicer to get close to the whales here. You feel that you can sometimes reach out and touch them."

Whale Ways

There is plenty of choice for flights to South Africa from Virgin Atlantic to Britannia charters that start next month.

Useful numbers: Whale Hotline (in South Africa) 0800 228 222; Whale Crier 083 212 1074; Greg Vogt, MTN Cape Whale Route 083 212 1270 or at Brenton on Sea Hotel 0445 810081; Western Cape Tourism Board, 021 418 3705; e-mail wctbcape@iafrica.com