AFRICANGLOBE – 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.
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.
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.
Cape west and south coasts
South African whale-watching territory runs from Doringbaai, south of Cape Town, all the way east as far as Durban. They can be viewed from cliffs and beaches, with boat operators offering trips out to sea for close encounters.
In Cape Town, 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 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.
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.
Whales can also be seen all around the Cape Peninsula and along the south coast to Cape Agulhas, the southernmost tip of Africa. Agulhas is particularly rewarding, with great views of southern right cows and calves at play – up to 50 pairs at a time.
Plettenberg Bay and the Garden Route
Hermanus claims to be the whale capital of the world – but so does Plettenberg Bay, further east, on the Western Cape Garden Route. Southern rights visit the bay from about June to November, and 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.
Boats are big, comfortable and moderately dry. Boarding is easy and people in wheelchairs can be accommodated. If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, you could paddle out in a sea kayak and the whales or dolphins may surface near you – they often do.
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 are spotted almost daily during their northward migration from May to July and again on their return journey from November to January, occasionally being spotted as far north as Cape Vidal on the KwaZulu-Natal north coast.