Whale Watching and Whale Species – South Africa is one of the best destinations worldwide for watching whales and dolphins. Annual visits from southern right and humpback whales and the presence of enormous pods of dolphins all year-round provide amazing viewing opportunities both from land and from boats. Boat-based whale and dolphin watching started in the early 1980s and regulated commercial operations stretch across 28 designated areas along the coastline and sheltered bays from Port Nolloth on the west coast to Sodwana Bay on the east coast. Although at least 37 species of whales and dolphins can be found in the waters of South Africa, whale watching has traditionally focused on the migratory routes of spectacular species such as humpback and southern right whales.
It’s not often you can see and hear whales from your bedroom, and this is what makes the tranquil village of De Kelders, Gansbaai South Africa’s premier whale watching destination. From De Kelders this is more than possible with many luxury guesthouses and B&B’s which overlook Walker Bay. Along the cliffs of De Kelders and the shallow sandy beaches of “Die Plaat” in Walker Bay Nature Reserve the majestic southern right whales come to mate, calve and socialise during their annual migration.
Southern right whales are large, rotund and bulky baleen whales filter feeding mainly on zooplankton and when in the colder waters of the Southern Ocean on krill. These whales annually visit the sheltered bays of the Western Cape from Antarctica mainly for calving, mating and socialising. These animals can be spotted frolicking in the shallows from May / June to around November each year, with numbers peaking in August and September. Despite the fact that these are fairly slow-moving whales they are acrobatic and agile, whales can often be seen breaching, lobtailing (slapping their tail on the water surface) and flipper slapping from shore.
Southern right whales are easily identifiable by their uniformly black colouration, white / yellow callosities on the head and lack of dorsal fin on the back. Some variations in colour do occur, they quite often have beautiful white bellies and some calves are born almost completely white with some black spots, giving them a dalmatian like appearance. We refer to these calves as “brindle” due to their colouration and as they grow older, they will darken in colour to a more brownish colour, never becoming fully black. This genetic mutation is quite rare and more than 90% of fully brindle whales are males. Females are slightly larger than males measuring up to about 18m and the males coming in at around 15m. These whales can weigh up to about 80 tonnes! Calves measure about 4m at birth and can weigh up to a tonne.
Named the “right” whale as its long baleen plates were superior to that of other baleen whales and therefore the preferred species to hunt. It also didn’t hurt that these whales produced high oil yields, were fairly slow moving, showed site fidelity to coastal calving grounds and floated once dead. These whales also rarely show fear towards boat, but are instead intensely curious and will investigate boats, pieces of kelp floating on the water surface and even birds! While this ease of hunting led to near-extinction, their protection since 1937 has seen a significant revival in numbers and today they are the “right” whales to view.
Humpback whales are found along the east coast between June and October. These whales also migrate from Antarctica to their breeding grounds in the warmer water of Mozambique, Tanzania and Madagascar. Over recent years since 2011 between October and December, super-groups of humpback whales ranging from 20 to 200 have been observed in the coastal region of the Southern Benguela current between St Helena Bay and Cape Point on the west coast of South Africa. This occurrence is unique as while humpback whales in the Southern Hemisphere are well known for their annual migrations between the summer Southern Ocean feeding grounds and the winter mating and calving grounds in tropical and coastal waters, the feeding strategy of such densely packed feeding individuals is unprecedented in this region.
Humpback whales are easily identified by their long pectoral flippers and synchronised swimming with their love of showing some tail as they dive while travelling. They also have a reputation for being the most acrobatic of all whale species, breaching often and gracefully. Just like southern rights, humpbacks are intensely curious when it come to boats. You’re likely to see them alone or in small pods. Humpack whales are also part of your rorqual family, they have distinctive throat grooves which help them to feed. Humpback whales are found in every ocean in the world. Their Latin name, Megaptera novaeangliae, means “big wing of New England.” It refers to their giant pectoral fins and their appearance off the coast of New England, where European whalers first encountered them.
Closely related to minke, fin, blue and sei whales, Bryde’s (pronounced ‘broo-dess’) whales are our only resident baleen species, staying around the South African coastline all year long. Just like humpback whales, Bryde’s whales are part of the rorqual family and the grooves below their throats allow their mouth to expand when feeding on schools of fish, krill and plankton. At an estimated 600 individuals, the inshore population of Bryde’s whales has the smallest population size of any large whale species occurring in South African waters, with its current international conservation status is listed as “Data Deficient” and nationally as “Vulnerable” under the IUCN criteria.
Bryde’s whales are named for Johan Bryde, a Norwegian who built the first whaling stations in South Africa in the early 20th century. Bryde’s whales have three prominent ridges on their rostrum in front of their blowhole. Their bodies are sleek and their flippers are slender and pointed. They are fast moving whales and spend most of their time below the surface of the water. These whales are built for speed and we fondly refer to them as the “Ferrari’s of the ocean”.
Just a couple of hours southeast of Cape Town you will find the fishing village of Gansbaai overlooking Walker Bay. De Kelders is a small seaside suburb of Gansbaai and is renowned for being one of the best places in the world to see whales, both from land and on sea. The surrounding waters remain deep close to the cliffs, and migratory southern right whales, along with resident Bryde’s whales, swim right into the bay, visible even from the beaches and clifftops. The shallow sandy beaches are also ideal for mothers and their very young calves. Caves, hiking trails, one of the few surviving indigenous forests in South Africa and un-spoilt beaches makes Gansbaai a nature lovers dream.
Dolphins, seals, penguins and many other marine animals move through Walker Bay and just on the other side of the Danger Point peninsula you will find Dyer Island and Geyser Rock. Dyer Island is a seemingly bland stretch of low-lying rock, but is a protected bird sanctuary, home to hundreds of pairs of African penguins as well as roosting Antarctic terns and several different species of cormorants and gulls. Adjacent to Dyer Island is the smaller island of Geyser Rock. Geyser Rock is the home of a massive colony of Cape fur seals, about 60 000 strong. The stretch of water between these two islands is known as Shark Alley due to the population of great white sharks that move through the area and around the coastline.
Hermanus has used the whales to their advantage and although the town attracts large numbers of visitors during whale season (typically June to October) the town still has a friendly, small-town feel. There are several art galleries to browse, waterfront cafés and restaurants serving fresh seafood, and a country market takes place every Saturday selling locally produced cheeses, sausages, pies and craft beer. There’s no mistaking the town’s main attraction, though. Guesthouses face the ocean, their large windows designed to give you the best views possible of nearby whales. You can learn interesting facts about these annual visitors at Hermanus’s Whale House Museum as well as see a full skeleton of a southern right whale suspended from the ceiling. And there’s even a town ‘whale crier’ who keeps a lookout for passing whales and blows on a kelp horn to alert the public.
The annual Hermanus Whale Festival is held at the end of September. The event features interactive exhibits educating people about the local marine life and local conservation efforts, as well as live music, food trucks, art and craft stalls and a lively street parade.
There’s no better way to see whales up close than by joining a two-hour boat trip out along the coast. Departing up to 4 times a day during whale season, the boats hold 25 passengers along with a professional crew who tell you all about the area’s whales throughout the trip. While sightings are never guaranteed, during peak season it is rare to not spot whales frolicking in the bay and interacting with the boat. It is highly recommended to attach a strap to your camera so you don’t lose it overboard in your haste to capture the whales’ brief but majestic foray into the open air.
Light refreshments are available on board, and a full safety briefing is given at the start of the trip, with life jackets provided for children and anyone else who’d prefer to wear one. On some occasions whale-watching trips can’t go ahead due to inclement weather or choppy waters. If this happens, you’d be entitled to a full refund or can rearrange the trip for the next day if you’re still in the area. Plenty of warm layers and a waterproof jacket is a necessity as the main whale-watching season is during the colder months.
This 12 km coastal path winds along the clifftops between Hermanus’s New Harbour in the west and Piet-se-Bos in the east. Stretching along the entire length of the town, it gives you uninterrupted views over the ocean and its inhabitants, including southern right whales, dolphins and seals. Benches are set at regular intervals so you can stop and look out for marine life or just take a break and appreciate the view. While binoculars are always handy, they often aren’t necessary because whales are often close enough to see in detail with the naked eye. Listen carefully and you might even be able to hear their mating calls. The best places to see whales along the path are the stretches between Gearing’s Point and Roman Rock, from Sievers Punt to Kwaaiwater, and between Mickey and Kraal Rock. Some parts of the path are wheelchair-friendly, including the stretch along Westcliff and the village seafront, and there are interpretation signs that tell you more about the whales and other wildlife found in the area.
Part of the Fernkloof Nature Reserve, the path also immerses you in the rare fynbos flora that’s endemic to parts of South Africa. On land you can look out for “dassies” (rock hyrax) – particularly around Fick’s Pool, striped mice and small grey mongooses, as well as birds like African black oystercatchers, sunbirds, swallows and sandwich terns.
If you’d rather base yourself in a quieter location but still have access to whale-watching opportunities, we would highly recommend staying in the small village of De Kelders. Situated on the opposite side of Walker Bay from Hermanus.
Other Places to See Whales in South Africa
Around two hours east of Hermanus, De Hoop Nature Reserve is a large conservation area that stretches along the wild, sandy coast and lies next to the De Hoop Marine Protected Area. From the tall dunes at Koppie Alleen you can watch for southern right whales, around 120 of which breed and calve in the surrounding waters between June and November. Seals and dolphins are also regularly seen offshore. Meanwhile, on land you have a chance of encountering 86 mammal species, including Cape Mountain zebra, bontebok, baboons and eland, as well as more than 260 bird species, including the last colony of Cape vultures. No boat based whale watching is allowed within the marine protected area, but De Hoop is by far the number one location for land based whale watching.
The beautiful coastal towns of Struisbaai and L’Agulhas are about an hours drive east of Gansbaai. L’Agulhas being the most southern town in Africa and also where the most southern tip of Africa is located. Home to the L’Agulhas national park, excellent restaurants, a stunning lighthouse and a shipwreck, it is well worth a day visit if you have some extra time in the area. Even though it is not the whale watching mecca like Hermanus and Gansbaai, you might get lucky and catch a glimpse or the resident sting rays that live in Struisbaai harbour.
A popular stop along the Garden Route, Plettenberg Bay’s swirling estuaries, wide, empty beaches and steep, wave-lashed cliffs make it a visually striking destination. But it’s also an excellent spot for seeing marine life. From its hills and clifftops, you can potentially see humpback, southern right and Bryde’s whales, as well as Cape fur seals and bottlenose dolphins riding the waves. The best viewpoints are Signal Hill, the Robberg Peninsula and Beachy Head. Alternatively, boat trips regularly head out to give you closer encounters, with kayaking also an option. The Plettenberg has the best location of any hotel in Plett, set right on the clifftops, so you can watch for whales as you relax by the two pools or from your room or suite, some of which have private balconies.
Knysna is a natural paradise of lush, indigenous forests, tranquil lakes and golden beaches. Kilometres of exciting single cycling tracks through indigenous forests and Cape fynbos has made Knysna one of the mountain biking destinations. The forests, coastal routes, rolling hills and mountains are criss-crossed with hiking and running trails. Trail runners will be challenged and families will enjoy easy hikes. Enjoy a safari experience or animal adventure at one of the many sanctuaries nearby. Meet the elephants at the Knysna Elephant Park, marvel at some of the big cats at Jukani Wildlife Sanctuary or Tenikwa Wildlife Awareness Centre, wonder at the beauty of birds at Birds of Eden and catch up with distant family members as you come face to face with friendly and curious primates at Monkeyland Primate Sanctuary. A trip to Knysna is not complete without a cruise on the pristine Knysna Lagoon, home to the world famous Knysna Heads and many species of bird and marine life.
In northeast South Africa, the Elephant Coast offers untouched beaches where turtles come to nest (watch them laying their eggs and hatching between November and March), tangled forest where monkeys howl, and wetlands filled with birdlife, from flamingos and pelicans to lesser jacanas. The waters here act as a corridor for humpback whales, which make their way toward the coasts of Mozambique, Tanzania and Madagascar to breed between June and early December. You can take licensed boat trips out to see them and other marine life, including the occasional southern right whale, dolphins and whale sharks.
To see migratory southern right or humpback whales, visit between June and October. The best months are August and September, with the Hermanus Whale Festival taking place in late September or early October. As the whales are around during South Africa’s winter, it can be cold and rainy at times. As with most wildlife experiences, whale watching success is never guaranteed, with some years seeing more whales migrating to South Africa’s coast than others.