Southern Right Whales
According to Roger Payne, president of the Massachusetts-based Whale Conservation Institute, a southern right whale migrates far enough over its lifetime to circle the globe seven timesthough because the exact migratory routes remain a mystery, he can't be sure it's not even farther. Random sightings in the South Atlantic Ocean suggest that these 80-ton elephants of the sea spend part of the year hovering around plankton blooms near the Antarctic Circle. What is certain is where they go each austral winter: In July, hundreds of right whales surface along the coast of South Africa. Spend a few hours on the five-mile clifftop trail above Hermanus, 75 miles east of Cape Town on Walker Bay, and you'll spot up to 70 of the hulking mammals, their shadowy, 60-foot silhouettes so close that you can see the huge white calluses on their foreheads. Mothers hug the shoreline with their one-ton infants to avoid the marauding killer whales; the more carefree members of the species breach, float on their backs, and use their 12-foot-wide flukes to catch the wind and sail hundreds of feet across the harbor. When the Antarctic storms subside, in December, the whales follow the cold currents back south.
See for Yourself: Stay at the Nelshof Blue Beach House in Hermanus and you can watch the whales right from your veranda ($43 per person per night; 011-27-28-3140201; www.hermanus.co.za/accom). Or call Ocean Blue Adventures for a two-hour or half-day land- or boat-based whale-watching trip ($20$60; 011-27-44-5335083).
Late February is avian spring break on an 80-mile stretch of the Platte Riverat least for some 500,000 sandhill cranes on their 3,500-mile migration from Mexico and Texas to their summer nesting grounds in Siberia, Alaska, and Arctic Canada. This six-week-long party in the marshlands of central Nebraska draws nearly 90 percent of the world's sandhill crane population, eager to gorge on snails, insects, and leftover grain littering the surrounding farmland as they bulk up (by as much as 25 percent) for the remainder of the arduous journey north. In the mornings, flocks of cranes with crimson foreheads and long, knobby legs wheel out of the riverbed, skimming above the heads of spectators as they fan out to forage for food and engage in nine-million-year-old courtship rituals: bowing, leaping, and displaying six-foot wingspans. The real studs saucily toss sticks and corncobs with their beaks. At night the massive birds wing their way back to the Platte, announcing their arrival with sharp, guttural crows before splashing down in droves (up to 12,000 birds per half-mile) and s ettling in for the night.
See for Yourself: The Crane Meadows Nature Center in Wood River, Nebraska (308-382-1820), and the National Audubon Society's Lillian Annette Rowe Bird Sanctuary in Gibbon (308-468-5282) offer crane-watching walks on the Platte in March and early April ($15, two hours).Or sign on for a five-day bird-watching trip along the Platte and Missouri Rivers with Victor Emanuel Nature Tours ($795 per person; 800-328-8368; www.ventbird.com).
Written and reported by Philip D. Armour, Jason Daley, Kevin Fedarko, Eric Hansen, and Chris Keyes
Southern Right Whales