South Africa is one of the best destinations worldwide for watching marine mammals, whether from land or from boats, with spectacular annual visits from southern right and humpback whales and enormous pods of dolphins year-round.
Every year, southern right whales migrate from their icy feeding grounds off Antarctica to warmer climates, reaching South Africa in June. The country’s coastal waters teem with the giant animals, mating, calving and rearing their young – and giving whale-watchers spectacular displays of raw power and elegant water acrobatics.
Watch out for:
- Blowing – the sound the whale makes when expelling air through its blowhole, which is accompanied by a spout of condensed water vapour; this is the normal breathing pattern of the mammal.
- Breaching – the whale leaps out of the water and falls back in with a large splash; whales can breach three to eight times in succession and the behavior is believed to be a means of communication, exercise or possibly to scratch the parasites off that live on them.
- Lobtailing – the whale slaps its fluke or tail on the water, causing a loud sound; again, it is believed to be a means of communication.
- Spy hopping – the whale lifts its head and body vertically, as far as the flippers, above the surface, which allows it to see what is happening around it above water.
When is the best time?
The best time for watching the southern right whale in South African waters is from June to November along the Cape south coast, although some will already be as far north as KwaZulu-Natal. Peak calving season is July and August, but whales can be seen through September and October.
The curious humpback whale can be seen between May to December, moving up along the coast from Hermanus to St Lucia in KwaZulu-Natal.
The medium-sized Bryde’s whale can be spotted all year round, and while rare, orcas can also be seen.
In terms of the Marine Living Resources Act of 1998, it is an offence to approach any whale closer than 300m without a permit, so if you book a whale- watching cruise, make sure the company has a permit before you get on board.
Where are the best spots?
South African whale-watching territory runs from Doringbaai, far up the Cape West Coast, around the Cape Peninsula and as far up the East Coast as St Lucia, near the Mozambique border. They can be viewed from cliffs and beaches, while boat operators offer trips out to sea for close encounters. The route includes several famous protected areas, such as Table Mountain National Park, Garden Route, Tsitsikamma National Park, Transkei National Park and iSimangaliso Wetland Park.
At least 37 species of whales and dolphins are found in South Africa’s oceans, although they are most famous for encounters with southern right whales, humpback whales, and several coastal dolphin species. Keep an eye open for African penguins, Cape fur seals, black oystercatcher birds and a variety of other marine life.
The southern right’s breeding ground is the sheltered bays of the Western Cape coast, with the majestic animals spending up to five months a year here. They pass their time playing, courting, and nursing their newborn calves, providing spectacular land-based viewing.
On the Cape West Coast, excellent sightings of southern rights can be enjoyed all the way from Strandfontein to Lambert’s Bay, Elands Bay, St Helena, Saldanha and Ysterfontein, just north of Cape Town.
Whales can also be seen all around the Cape Peninsula.
In Cape Town itself, you can see them from the road along the False Bay coast, and they’re distinctly visible on the western seaboard if you get high enough on the scenic coastal Victoria Road.
Further south, the town of Hermanus in Walker Bay on the Cape south coast offers possibly the best land-based whale-watching in the world. The animals can be clearly seen from a scenic cliff-top walk, and the town holds a whale-watching festival every September. The Whale Crier informs the townsfolk and visitors of whale sightings and where the whales have come into the old harbour to calve.
For the more adventurous, there is also aerial whale watching.
Follow the coast to Cape Agulhas, the southernmost tip of Africa where two mighty oceans meet. It is particularly rewarding, with great views of southern right cows and calves at play – up to 50 pairs at a time.
Mossel Bay, Plettenberg Bay and the Garden Route
The whale-watching season in Mossel Bay runs from June to November, when four species are seen. The southern right is the most commonly sighted, coming into the bay to calve, but look for humpback, Bryde’s and orcas as well.
Either drive along the coast, where there are informative whale interpretation boards at view points, or take a boat based whale-watching trip, or hike the St Blaize trail. Schools of up to 500 dolphins add to the spectacle. The most common dolphins found all year are heaviside’s, common, dusky and bottlenose.
Southern rights visit Plettenberg Bay, further east, on the Western Cape Garden Route, from about June to November. Migratory humpback whales can also be briefly seen from May and June and then, on their return trip, from about November to January.
Bryde’s whales or orcas are occasionally seen, and bottlenose and humpback dolphins are in residence all year. A breeding colony of Cape fur seals completes Plettenberg Bays’ impressive array of marine mammals.
It is in Plett that the dolphin and whale-watching industry is most organised, with trips in boats, kayaks and aircraft on offer. Viewing, distances and time spent with each animal are strictly monitored so that there is minimal interference.
The Garden Route generally, from Stilbaai through Mossel Bay and on to George, Wilderness, Knysna and Tsitsikamma, is a magnificent stretch of coastline hosting southern rights in their season, humpbacks between May and December, Bryde’s whales all year round – and, occasionally, killer whales.
Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal
From Cape St Francis to the rugged Eastern Cape Wild Coast are numerous vantage points to see humpbacks, Bryde’s, minke and killer whales and quite often southern rights, especially in Algoa Bay, while sperm and beaked whales approach close to shore off Port St Johns.
Humpback whales, and sometimes southern rights, can be spotted almost daily off the KwaZulu-Natal coast, occasionally being spotted as far north as Cape Vidal. From mid-May to mid-September, the whales are moving north on their way to their breeding grounds off the Mozambique coast, and from September to December they return, heading for the nutrient-rich waters of Antarctica.
There are boat-based tours, but for land-based viewing there is a whale-watching tower at Cape Vidal and Mpenjati. Throughout the year pods of bottlenose dolphins of 30 to 50 strong routinely patrol up and down the coast just beyond the breakers.
Brand South Africa reporter
Updated December 2015
Would you like to use this article in your publication or on your website? See Using Brand South Africa material