DANTA Blogger Cruises with Hippos
Once I learned that there was such a thing as a Hippo Cruise, I knew I would be cruising in South Africa. One of the first presentations I did at university was on hippo simultaneous amphibious sound and I learned how amazing hippos are. Although it’s been longer than a decade I still remember many aspects of the speech and hippo vocalizations. I earned a 100 on the ten-minute speech, which boosted my confidence in public speaking.
Heritage Tours and Safaris offer many things in addition to tours and safaris including a two-hour long hippo and crocodile cruise.
Boarding the vessel at Siyabonga Jetty in St. Lucia, South Africa, I met Dennis the captain. He was well-versed in all things hippopotamus and crocodilian. As I was boarding the quiet waters of the St. Lucia Estuary I thought I overheard hippos grunting.
Within minutes of the Shoreline vessel leaving we approached our first pod. There were around two dozen individuals including adorable calves and adult males, with intimidating tusks. Dennis was quick to disseminate hippo facts.
“There used to be five species. Today there are only two left,” Dennis said. “One thousand years ago Malagasy hippos went extinct. These are Hippopotamus amphibius and then there’s the pygmy hippo which is found in central Africa.”
The large hippos that I was encountering are protected and their numbers are increasing, unlike the pygmy.
“Pygmy hippos are facing extinction, they are basically extinct where they are found in equatorial Africa,” Dennis said. Habitat destruction is one factor. Wars, no money, and no food lead local people to source the pygmy hippo as bush meat.
There used to be thousands and thousands of hippos. Then Europeans hunted them for their meat, thick skins, and large canine teeth. Their teeth are like ivory, but not as expensive or valuable as elephant ivory, and were used for jewelry, ornaments, and piano keys. Hippo teeth are enamel just like our teeth and were carved to make false human teeth. Dennis said George Washington and Winston Churchill are just two famous examples of people whose dentures were carved out of hippopotamus teeth.
Travelling up river, we past the first pod and visited a second. Hippos are very territorial and head bob and yawn to show aggression. They can open their mouths 150 degrees wide. Dennis says that books will say pod sizes are between 12-17 but the pod we just passed had 22 individuals. He explains that pod size depends on the environment. The pods number changes throughout the year as young animals leave and join other groups.
Hippo Quick Facts
- Can hold breath 6-7 minutes when standing still
- Rest and sleep in the water
- ½ of brain is active like whales and dolphins, while sleeping
- More active when the sun goes down
- 3 chambered stomach
- Not hungry, hungry. Eat only 1-1.5 percent of body weight a day.
- 40-50 years lifespan
- Adult males can weigh up to 3,300 – 4,000 lbs
- Adult females can weigh up to 2,900 – 3,300 lbs
- In St. Lucia, will travel 3-7 kilometers per night to feed on vegetation
The Shoreline vessel offered amazing views and its shallow draft allowed for minimal impact on the environment. Dennis was able to take us right up to crocodiles reclining in the sun on the river bank.
The Nile Crocodiles I saw are the second largest crocodilian in the world, averaging 4-4.5 meters in length. Dennis explained that how much food they eat, determines how big and fast they are going to grow.
“In the summer they will gorge themselves on food,” Dennis said. “In summer we don’t see crocodiles because they are busy swimming and hunting in the water. In the winter we see more because they are out on the banks.” Another reason traveling in the off season is great.
Nile crocodiles are threatened. They are poached for meat. There are also strong regional beliefs regarding the power of their internal organs and fat.
“My father was bitten by a puff adder,” Dennis recalls. “An old guy working on the farm gave my father a mixture to put on the wound and some of it was crocodile fat.” Dennis said his father recovered from the snake’s venom.
In South Africa and other countries around the world, people breed crocodiles for meat and leather, which has reduced the amount of poaching. Consumers prefer their leather from younger tender animals, which can be produced easily in captivity.
Dennis then transitioned to an interesting story regarding a desert crocodile.
“In the Southern part of the Sahara Desert, in a country called Mauritania, scientists thought they discovered a new species called the desert crocodile. There are swamps in the area during the rainy season, where the crocodiles come out of hibernation and out of caves and rocks and things like that. When the water dries up they go back to hibernation. Scientists did DNA analysis and found out that they are in fact Nile crocodiles, even though they are considerably smaller.”
As we leave the bask of crocodiles, we see another pod of hippos.
“This one is going to yawn” Dennis warns us of a photo opportunity.
In this region the calving season is from December to April and I am finding it to be a perfect time to see youngsters playing.
Dennis explains that the easiest way to sex a hippo is to look at their skin.
“Males will clash and bite each other. Their teeth are curved and very sharp. Males are going to have bite marks and scares. Females do show a little bit of scaring, but they only fight to protect their young males.”
Comparing the size and shape of adult hippos’ heads will also help you identify sexes.
And while they are usually content living in a herd, females will leave the safety of the pod to give birth. If their baby is female, they will return to the pod immediately.
“She will stay away from the pod for a month or sometimes longer if it is a baby male, so the other males became accustomed to him and not attack,” Dennis says.
The area we are cruising in, used to be an estuarine system and now is basically a lake. Lack of rain for 11 years and tidal currents caused a blockage between the river and the ocean. Now, instead of brackish water the ecosystem is pretty much fresh water.
Dennis said that in the past several years he has seen a huge change in the ecosystem. The reeds, which are enclosing the river, naturally occur only further north. Due to the waters current nutrient rich characteristic, these reeds are chocking out other plants. Hippos eat some of the reeds, but not much of it.
As we return to the jetty, captain Dennis tells us of the vehemence in St. Lucia.
“The northern pod and southern pod fight on land at night. In the morning people wake up to see fences and gates damaged. We have a problem with gang violence in St. Lucia,” Dennis seriously jokes.
The wildlife on this adventure was very memorable. I can still hear the grunts from those oversized vegetarians. Hippos are native to 29 African countries and I hope we can protect their environment and the people they share it with.
To view more Heritage Tour and Safari Hippo Cruise photos that are synced up to music, click here.
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