South Africa is one of the best destinations worldwide not only for excellent Big Five safari options, but also for watching marine wildlife, including the Marine Big Five – sharks, dolphins, whales, seals and penguins – whether from land or from boats, with spectacular annual visits from Southern Right and Humpback Whales and enormous pods of dolphins year-round.
Shark Cage Diving
There is no denying that South Africa is the perfect place to experience the Great White Shark in its natural environment, above or below water.
When planning your shark cage diving excursion, there are several options and areas to consider in Southern Africa. Gansbaai is known as the great white shark capital of the world and is only a two and a half hour scenic drive from Cape Town. Experienced boat crew will share their vast knowledge of the water world where they operate when they take you to view great white sharks from the surface or underwater from a cage. This marine wonderland is the closest place in the world where you can safely see these apex predators in their natural environment.
Simon’s Town, just 1 hour from Cape Town, is another great spot for shark cage diving. A 20 minute boat ride will take you to Seal Island, False Bay. This is the only tour to offer scuba diving on all of their trips, though you are welcome to snorkel as well if you don’t wish to scuba dive.
Mossel Bay on the Garden Route has probably the most accessible Great White Sharks in the world. Mossel Bay is a very rich area with its abundant sea life of diverse fish, seals, whales, penguins, other sea birds, dolphins, the occasional orca and, of course, a plentiful supply of Great White Sharks. The bay is very much protected and the sea conditions are normally calm and comfortable. Seal Island in Mossel Bay is only 2km from the harbour and very close to the local beach.
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.
• Blowing – the sound the whale makes when expelling air through its blowhole
• Breaching – the whale leaps out of the water and falls back in with a large splash
• Lobtailing – the whale slaps its fluke or tail on the water, causing a loud sound
• Spy hopping – the whale lifts its head and body vertically above the surface
Each year Southern Right whales migrate into the coastal waters of the Western Cape to calve and nurse their young. The animals, often mere metres from the shore, provide unsurpassed whale watching opportunities between June and November. Humpbacks migrate through the region between May and December each year, while Bryde’s whales are found slightly further offshore all year round.
The Whale Route starts along the south of Cape Town and extends to Durban, 1,200 plus miles of whale watching coastline. The route traverses several famous protected areas, including the Garden Route, Tsitsikamma National Park, and the Transkei.
In Cape Town, you can sometimes spot whales from along the road on the False Bay coast. Though less guaranteed, sightings around Cape Town are still plentiful. Get up high, such as from the scenic Boyes Drive above Kalk Bay and St James or the mountainside above Simon’s Town, to get a better view. Or pop in to a seaside cafe anywhere on the False Bay side of the Cape Peninsula for front row seat, 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.
To ensure that the giant visitors who make their annual pilgrimage to this area are not disturbed during their nuptial activities, the area off the coast in the Overberg area has been declared a Whale Sanctuary Marine Protected Area, which means that no unauthorized boats of any kind are allowed within its boundaries during the peak months of July to November. The De Hoop Nature Reserve covers 55 km of pristine coastline and is one of the world’s most important nurseries for the Southern Right Whale. As a result, The De Hoop Reserve is a World Heritage Site.
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.
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.
It is also 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.
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.
Along the Wild Coast the whales do not come in as close as they do in the Southern Cape so it is best to pack a pair of binoculars and climb up to a high vantage point or alternatively book a trip on a whale watching boat. The Wild Coast is one of South Africa’s most spectacular regions with it’s rocky coastline, indigenous forests, secluded coves and many river mouths and all this is right on your doorstep.
While the Cape coast receives the most hype, the KZN coast boasts the highest number of sightings. Whales can frequently be seen off the KwaZulu-Natal coast from July to November – mainly Humpbacked Whales, and occasionally Southern Right Whales. From July to September the whales are moving north on their way to their breeding grounds off the Mozambique coast, and from September to November they return, heading for the nutrient-rich waters of Antarctica.
Schools of up to 500 dolphins make a spectacular sight and can often be seen at play in the bay and along the St Blaize hiking trail. The most common dolphins found all year are Heaviside’s Dolphin, Common Dolphin, Dusky Dolphin and Bottlenose Dolphin.
Dolphin watching tours and boat charters are available in most coastal regions of South Africa. Outside of whale season there is still every reason to take boat based tour. Healthy populations of dolphins are to be found in almost all coastal regions and there are fantastic sightings to be had on any marine tour. Dolphin species most frequently encountered include, bottlenose, common, and humpback dolphins.
The Garden Route offers perhaps the best chances of dolphin encounters, with charters leaving from Plettenberg Bay, Knysna and Port Elizabeth.
The waters surrounding Cape Town support perhaps the widest variety of dolphin species, although sightings may be less consistent than in other areas.
Seals and Penguins
Also members of the Marine Big Five, the African Penguin in his black and white plumage reside in well-established colonies around the Western Cape of South Africa: Dassen Island, St Croix Island, Robben Island, Bird Island, Dyer Island and Boulders beach.
With almost 3000 birds, Boulders is easily the most memorable! Visitors are guaranteed sightings all year round, and can get close enough to swim with them.
The Cape Fur Seal have become a popular tourist attraction in Hout Bay and Kalk Bay in Cape Town, and have also began to garner quite a bit of attention from visitors to the V&A Waterfront.
While watching them laze in the sun or play gracefully in the water is an experience in itself, it is also exciting to enjoy a snorkeling experience with them. Diving with seals is available at Duiker Island in Cape Town, and visitors get to enjoy the friendly and playful nature of these mammals from up close.