Whale watching South Africa has skyrocketed over the last few years. And with good reason! South Africa is one of the finest marine animal and whale watching destinations in the world. If you are planning your trip to South Africa and you’re not really sure about what you should do, definitely consider whale watching!
Whale watching in South Africa can be a thrilling experience. It is quite spectacular to see the stunning displays of sheer strength and graceful water acrobatics from these enormous creatures. It’s like an adventure on the water!
Whale watching South Africa - what to expect
South Africa’s waters are home to at least 37 species of whales and dolphins, but the most common whales in South Africa are the humpback whales and southern right whales. Southern Right Whales migrate each year from their cold feeding grounds near Antarctica to warmer climates like South Africa. Here they mate, calve, and raise their young.
Thanks to South Africa’s huge coast, you can go whale watching from several locations around the country. However, whale watching Cape Town is particularly popular because there are so many good spots. (The Cape Whale Route is a 559 mile / 900km long stretch of coastline!)
There are several whale watching tours available around the coast, but you can also go whale watching from cliffs and beaches. Here’s some of what you can expect to see:
Blowing – the sound made by a whale when it exhales air through its blowhole, followed by a jet of condensed water vapor. This is the mammal’s natural breathing rhythm.
Breaching – the whale jumps out of the water and splashes back in. Whale whales may breach three to eight times in succession, and the activity is thought to be a form of communication, exercise, or perhaps a way to wipe parasites off them.
Lobtailing – the whale slaps its fluke or tail on the water, producing a loud noise. This is also thought to be a form of communication.
Spy hopping – the whale raises its head and body vertically, up to the level of its flippers, above the surface, allowing it to see what is going on around it.
Please keep in mind that viewing distances and time spent with the whales are carefully regulated to ensure minimum disturbance of the whales.
When is the best time to go whale watching?
For the best opportunity to get up close and personal with the whales, try to book your visit between June and November. Every year at this time, the southern right whales journey to the South African shores to mate and calve. (Sometimes they arrive earlier and they may even stay later.) However, the prime whale-watching season peaks between August and October. Calving normally takes place in August and September, but it can happen as early as July.
All year, the medium-sized Bryde’s whale may be seen. Although orcas are uncommon, you may be able to see them too.
What are the best places to go whale watching?
South Africa’s whale-watching area stretches from Doringbaai (which is all the way up the Cape West Coast), around the Cape Peninsula, and all the way up the East Coast to St Lucia at the Mozambique border. The whales can be spotted from cliffs and beaches, and boat operators offer close encounters at sea.
The whale route passes through many well-known national parks, including Table Mountain National Park, the Garden Route, the Tsitsikamma National Park, the Transkei National Park, and the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.
Whale watching in the Western Cape
The breeding grounds of the southern right whales are the sheltered bays of the Western Cape coast, where these magnificent creatures spend up to five months a year. They spend their time playing, courting, and nursing their young calves, which makes for excellent on-land viewing.
Cape West Coast
On the Cape West Coast, just north of Cape Town, there are several great viewing spots from Strandfontein to Lambert’s Bay, Elands Bay, the beautiful St Helena Bay, Saldanha, and Ysterfontein.
The whales are also visible from the road along the False Bay shoreline. For another shot, you can drive along the beautiful coastal Victoria Road (M6).
You can also go whale watching from lookout points at various points in Cape Town, but specifically on Boyes Drive (which traces the mountainside from Muizenberg to Kalk Bay) and Clarence Drive (which is the coastal road between Gordons Bay and Betty’s Bay).
The Garden Route from Stilbaai to Knysna and Tsitsikamma is a breath-taking coastline. You can often see:
- Southern right whales from June to November;
- Humpback whales from May to December;
- Bryde’s whales all year; and,
- If you are lucky, you may see killer whales.
Hermanus is further south, (approximately 2 hours from Cape Town). It is the self-proclaimed whale-watching capital of the world.
Here you can find some of the finest land-based whale viewing in the world. (Each September, Hermanus hosts a whale-watching festival).
The whales can be viewed from a beautiful cliff-top stroll, or listen for the Whale Crier, who notifies residents and tourists of whale spottings.
Top whale watching viewing spots in Hermanus include:
- Voelklip and Grotto beaches,
- Gearing’s Point (overlooking Old Harbor),
- Dreunkrans (towards New Harbor),
- Siever’s Point (one of the most popular locations)
To check if the whales are indeed out and visible, you could call or email the folks in Hermanus before you leave: 028 312 2629 / firstname.lastname@example.org.
Continue down the coast to Cape Agulhas, Africa’s southernmost point, where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet. This is a great spot because it provides excellent views of southern right cows and calves playing—up to 50 pairs at a time!
Mossel Bay’s whale-watching season spans from June to November, during which four whale species may be observed. The southern right whale is most prominent but watch for humpbacks, orcas, and Bryde’s whales too.
Drive along the coast, stopping at viewpoints with informative whale interpretation boards. You could also join a boat-based whale-watching excursion or walk on the St Blaize path to see if you can spot some dolphins or whales.
Mosselbay is a great place to see dolphins. There are schools of up to 500 dolphins! Throughout the year, the most common dolphins seen are Hobson’s, common, dusky, and bottlenose.
Bryde’s whales and orcas are seen on occasion, while bottlenose and humpback dolphins are year-round residents.
Further east, Plettenberg Bay also has a remarkable variety of marine animals, including a breeding colony of Cape fur seals.
KwaZulu Natal & Eastern Cape
Eastern Cape Province
You can go whale watching in the Eastern Cape Province, but they are nowhere near as prevalent here as they are in the Western Cape. Instead of whales, this province is known as the Bottlenose Dolphin Capital of the World.
Although whale sightings are scarce here, there are numerous vantage points from which to view humpbacks and killer whales. This is particularly the case in Algoa Bay, where sperm whales approach close to the shore.
Gqeberha (previously known as Port Elizabeth) sees minimal sightings of the humpback whale, southern right, and Bryde’s whales. Humpback whales may make an appearance along the east coast during the sardine run.
There are regular sightings of humpback whales, and sometimes southern right whales off the KwaZulu-Natal coast, with sightings as far north as Cape Vidal.
From mid-May to mid-September, the whales migrate north to their mating grounds off the coast of Mozambique and then return in September and December to the nutrient-rich seas of Antarctica.
There are boat excursions available, but for land-based viewing, Cape Vidal and Mpenjati have whale-watching towers.
Throughout the year, you can also spot pods of 30 to 50 bottlenose dolphins that patrol the shore just beyond the breakers.