Think “wildlife in South Africa” and images of the fabled Big Five migrating across rugged open plains are sure to be the first and probably the only that come to mind. Whale, whale, whale, I’ve got news for you!
There is so much more to this beautiful country than epic game viewing at the Kruger Park. Beneath the surface of the region’s sheltered oceans live some of the world’s most majestic marine wildlife.
From dapperly coated penguins to exuberant dolphins, awww-inspiring seals and, of course, the misunderstood great white shark, there’s plenty of wildlife lurking in our deep blue seas. But, no marine safari would be complete without spotting a whale!
South Africa is one of the best destinations for whale watching. Every year, without fail, the country’s tropical waters abound with these gentle giants of the sea, giving whale-watchers displays of raw power and elegant acrobatics.
Whether it’s the mysterious tales of Moby Dick that call to you or you just want to spice up your South African overland tour, witnessing these majestic animals in their natural habitat will leave you awestruck.
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What you can expect to see
Each year, at least 37 species of whales and dolphins can be found playing in South Africa’s tropical waters. The sheer beauty of the experience can be over-whale-ming, so it helps to know what type of whale you can expect to spot here.
1. Southern right whale
If you wish to see the benefits of conservation in the flesh, then be sure to keep your eyes peeled for the Southern right whale.
Distinguished by the bumpy callosities on their heads, long arching mouths and double blowholes, these majestic animals were extensively hunted in the early 17th century due to their slow speeds.
Today, their conservation status rests comfortably on “least concerned”. Their slow speed makes them the easiest whale to capture – through a camera lens.
Migratory route: The whales migrate annually from Antarctica to the coast around Cape Town to calve their offspring.
When to spot them: June – November
2. Humpback whale
These knobby-headed whales are a favorite among the South African coastline and are well known for their haunting songs and dazzling acrobatic skills.
Being the most friendly whales of the lot, they’re often spotted breaching, spy-hopping and lobtailing playfully with other marine life, but don’t rely on the name to be able to identify them.
Contrary to popular belief, humpbacks don’t have a hump on their backs. The name comes from the large hump that forms as they arch their backs before making a deep dive into the ocean.
Migratory route: These friendly giants migrate from the Polar regions to South Africa’s coastline, en-route to their breeding grounds in Mozambique and Angola.
When to spot them: May – November
3. Bryde’s whale
Although they are the only species of whale that can be found in South African waters all year round, the Bryde’s whale is the most difficult to spot.
While being closely related to the more sociable humpback whale, this elusive species has a much longer diving time (up to 20 minutes at 300meters) and only occasionally pops up for a spectacular feeding routine, which involves lunging through schools of fish and krill.
Migratory route: Unlike the humpback and the southern right whale, Bryde’s whales are the residents of South Africa’s oceans.
When to spot them: With a lot of patience, they can be spotted all year round.
Best places to go whale watching
South Africa’s coastline is enormous! So, unless you’re planning on a 2,500 km road trip, it helps to know where you’re most likely to spot one of these enormous animals.
What this quaint seaside town lacks in size is more than made up for with an ocean teeming with whales! Ranked in the top 12 whale watching locations in the world by the WWF, Hermanus is the go-to destination for land-based whale spotting in the country.
Just two hours away from Cape Town, this sleepy fisherman’s haven beckons maritime lovers with glittering oceans, pristine beaches, fresh seafood and, of course, the annual whale festival!
The best whale spotting can be had from Gearing Point. In another life, this scenic viewpoint served as a lookout for families to spot their husbands and fathers coming home from long fishing expeditions. Today, it is the whales that draw our attention out to sea.
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The elevated position of this spot makes it much easier to pick up movement in the ocean and there is a conveniently placed telescope for those who need it.
If you’re still a little unsure, then consult the whale crier. Like an all-knowing orca… I mean, Oracle, the whale crier will be able to indicate hotspots along the coastline and the number of whales spotted, just with the blow of his signature kelp horn. Alternatively, you can read the info board he wears around his neck or just ask him.
Look out for the man with a bright grin, sporting a feather in his cap and oddly shaped horn. If that’s not enough, he usually wears a giant ‘whale crier’ sign.
Best for: Southern right whale
Alternative watching spots: Old Harbor, Gansbaai, Grootbos Nature Reserve, Siever’s Point, and Grotto beaches.
Local Tip: Gearing Point is quite touristy and can get super packed! Get there as early as possible and, if you’re still jostling for a position then meander down to the rocky outcrops (be careful though) and take a seat on one of the benches.
The Garden Route
Full disclosure; it is the AMAZING local wines that keep me coming back to the Garden Route, but the superb whale watching, from June to October, is the cherry on top of this beautiful destination.
Unlike the small town of Hermanus, the Garden Route is a scenic 300km stretch of the southern coastline, framed by rugged mountains and lush forests and filled with several small towns providing breathtaking whale watching locations.
You’ll be spoiled for choice when it comes to this area, but of all the towns dotted along this part of the coast, amazing whale viewing can be had in Wilderness. This seaside destination oozes small-town charm and is a firm favorite on the whale watching route, with spots such as Dolphins Point, Map of Africa viewpoint and Wilderness Beach that are primed for whale spotting.
Best for: Southern right, humpback whales and dolphins.
Alternative watching spots: The Heads in Knysna.
Local Tip: Check out the Knysna Oyster Festival in June.
If you’re feeling adventurous, then tick two items off your bucket-list by going whale watching at the southernmost tip of Africa, where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet.
Although the town of L’Agulhas is not as picturesque as the Garden Route, this hidden gem is the place to go to spot southern right whales with their newborn calves.
For the die-hard whale spotter and nature lover, there is an option of booking a five-day Whale Trail hike, which winds through the De Hoop Nature Reserve and Marine Reserve, one of the region’s most unspoiled coastlines.
The downside to this is that it needs to be booked about one year in advance, so if you’re itching to catch a glimpse of these whales sooner, you’re better off packing a picnic and heading out to Struisbaai, a little fishing village next to Cape Agulhas.
Best for: Southern right whale watching.
Alternative watching spots: Arniston, a nearby coastal village.
Local Tip: Be sure to climb to the top of the iconic Cape Agulhas Lighthouse.
False Bay, Cape Town
Let’s face it, a trip to South Africa would be incomplete without stopping over in Cape Town. Luckily, this jaw-dropping city is one of the best places to go whale watching too!
Wedged between rugged mountains and glittering oceans, with many roads hugging the coastline, False Bay is the best place to spot a whale while in Cape Town.
If you’re an independent traveler, then you’re in luck! This scenic hotspot boasts plenty of winding roads that are perfect for slow, self-drives. Hire a car and take a Sunday drive along the city’s most idyllic roads, such as Boyes Drive and Chapman’s Peak.
Not up for the drive? How about kicking back with a cocktail and catching great views of the whales while sitting at the area’s coastline restaurants?
Best for: All whales, dolphins, and surfing.
Alternative watching spots: If you’ve got sea legs, then there are plenty of boat services around Cape Town that bring intrepid adventurer’s almost face to face with these gentle giants.
Local Tip: Cape Town is small enough to get a lot done within a few days. So increase your chances of spotting a whale by going on a boat tour and then meandering through False Bay.
Whale watching FAQs: Tips for first-timers
Now that you know what whales you can see and where you can see them, here are a few tips to enhance your whale watching experience.
(Q) How to spot a whale?
(A) Keep an eye out for white patches of water out to sea. These are usually indicative of waves breaking over the whales.
(Q) What is the best weather for whale watching?
(A) If the winds are high or the sea is rough then give it a skip as visibility will be limited. Opt for clear, calm days.
(Q) What should I wear?
(A) We South Africans love boasting about our amazingly warm weather, even in the winters (peak whale watching season), but it does get cold. If you’re whale watching on the sea, then be sure to take a warm jacket and wear non-slip shoes. But, even if you prefer dry land wearing a wind breaking is strongly recommended.
(Q) What should I pack?
(A) Binoculars, a sun hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, water, motion sickness pills (if you’re on a boat tour) and plenty of patience.
(Q) Is there a better time of day to see the whales, or when are they more active?
(A) Unfortunately not. No two days are the same and sightings are not guaranteed. This is nature after all. It’s best to choose your trip based on the weather rather than the time of day.
Learn to speak whale
Unlike Dory in Finding Nemo, we’ve yet to master the dialect of Humpback or Orca. But, there are a few whale terms you should know before you go on your whale watching adventure.
Breaching: When a whale leaps out of the water.
Spouting: The exhaling of air through their blowhole at the water surface.
Lobtailing: When a whale slaps its tail on the water’s surface.
Spyhopping: When the whale brings an eye out of the water.
Logging: Revealing a dorsal fin.
No matter where you are in the country or how to plan on spotting these majestic animals, you’re guaranteed to have a whale of a time (You saw that one coming).
So strap on your adventure boots, pack all of your patience and strike this once in a lifetime opportunity off your bucket list. Oh, and don’t forget your towel.