Did you know that South Africa is the fifth fastest-growing whale-watching destination in the world and, with our very own whale capital, Hermanus, we are blessed with the best when it comes to witnessing these marvellous mammals and their annual migratory patterns.
Each year, southern right whales journey to our shores to frolic, mate and calve in our waters. Humpbacks, Bryde’s whales (which can generally be seen year-round, though they keep further offshore) and the occasional orca also grace our oceans during season. Sometimes they arrive earlier and stay later, but prime whale-watching season is usually between June and December, peaking between August and October. Calving normally takes place in August and September but can happen as early as July.
Though Hermanus will probably always remain our favourite place to spy these gentle giants, there are many (other) magical places dotted along the 900-kilometre-long Cape Whale Route where you can get up close with these magnificent mammals. Here are our picks…
THE AWESOME OVERBERG
Image credit: Southern Right Charters
Naturally, no whale-watching list would be worth its weight in plankton without mentioning the self-proclaimed whale-watching capital of the world, Hermanus.
Here, you can whale watch from the 12-kilometre-long cliff path – which has useful explanatory signage. Or you might prefer hop on a boat, or do a special aerial or guided sea kayaking trip, allowing you to get up close and personal with these colossal creatures.
Insider tip The annual Hermanus Whale Festival is a fun and festive time to whale watch. In 2014, it saw 100 000 visitors pass through the town for the whales, naturally, but also for the fun activities, festive atmosphere, good food and live entertainment.
Good to know During summer (off season), you can enjoy rare sightings of Bryde’s whales and dolphins.
Top viewing spots Voelklip and Grotto beaches, Gearing’s Point (overlooking Old Harbour), Dreunkrans (towards New Harbour), and Siever’s Point (one of the most popular locations as it’s closest to where the whales frolic)
Distance from Cape Town Around 2 hours
2. Gansbaai and De Kelders
Image credit: Southern Right Charters
The working fishing village, Gansbaai, is the only South African town that boasts the Big 2: great white sharks and southern rights. Best of all, you can whale watch from land or join a boat-based and aerial tour.
With the area’s spectacular cliffs and inlets, unparalleled views of Walker Bay and the unspoilt Pearly Beach, Gansbaai is where outdoor activities and Cape history co-exist. Aside from exploring nearby nature reserves – such as Walker Bay Nature Reserve and Grootbos Nature Reserve (home to ancient Milkwood forests) – you can also enjoy fishing, surfing, swimming and, of course, (shark-cage) diving.
The seaside village of De Kelders is the scenic portal to Gansbaai and is considered by some to be one of the best whale-watching spots in the world. Its historical caves are amazing viewing places, allowing visitors to observe the whales up close. The 7-kilometre-long Klipgat Hiking trail, in particular, offers wonderful whale views.
Don’t miss the remarkable limestone caves of De Kelders, which, like the Klipgat Cave, overlooks the bay.
Distance from Cape Town Around 2 hours and 20 minutes
Insider tip It’s a good idea to call the Tourism Offices of Hermanus (028 312 2629, firstname.lastname@example.org) or Gansbaai (028 384 1439, email@example.com) before planning your trip to ensure that the whales are indeed around.
THE BEAUTIFUL BREEDE
1. De Hoop Nature and Marine Reserve
Image credit: De Hoop Collection
Encompassing 34 000 hectares of unspoilt natural beauty, this is one of South Africa’s most diverse reserves, with a mountain range (in the Potberg), unspoilt coastline, sand dunes and a vlei. The Marine Protected Area ranks as one of South Africa’s most important whale nurseries.
Something for everyone Outdoor enthusiasts can go hiking, eco quad- or mountain-biking; nature lovers might enjoy a guided bird or nature walk, and some star-gazing; intrepid travellers would do well to spend a night or three at some of the varied accommodation types on offer; there’s a spa and yoga retreat for those in need of some pampering; and the Karina Behr art workshop for culture vultures.
Don’t miss the five-day Whale Trail. This 55-kilometre-long km hike is renowned for its breathtaking fynbos vegetation, dunes and, of course, whale-watching opportunities. The good news? You don’t need to carry your pack! (Please note You need to book a year in advance, be moderately fit, and no children under 8 are permitted.)
Distance from Cape Town Around 3 hours
Tourism office De Hoop Nature Reserve: 021 422 4522, firstname.lastname@example.org
WEST COAST WAY
1. Lambert’s Bay
Image credit: Johan Jooste Photography
Like the other West Coast spots, this picturesque town offers visitors the unique possibility of packing Namaqualand flowers and whales into one awesome trip. Lambert’s Bay is not only something of a seafood mecca, it’s also home to the world-famous Bird Island and the Sandveld Museum, which rounds off the town’s rich cultural history.
View the whales up close from the shore, or take a guided boat trip. And while you’re there, you might enjoy a spot of hiking, fishing, crayfish diving (in season).
Don’t miss carefully walking along the breakwater wall (if seas aren’t too rough) to visit Bird Island where you’ll see blue-eyed Cape gannets, cormorants and Cape fur seals.
Distance from Cape Town Around 3 hours
Image credit: panoramio
Over the years, peaceful Strandfontein has slowly evolved into a bustling travel destination. It’s also a handy stopover for those travelling along the N7 from or to Namibia.
With the area’s beautiful pristine coastline, this tiny coastal town has a lot to offer, especially during flower season and when the whales frequent nearby shores. Its sandy cliffs, especially, provide excellent viewing spots.
Just south of the town, between Doringbaai and Strandfontein, lies the Wandering Whale Labyrinth, built on a clifftop, its paths are stunningly made from blue-mussel shells with a rose-pink quartz centre. Other activities to enjoy include hiking, kayaking and canoeing, kiting, microlight trips, sailing and windsurfing to name a few.
Don’t miss The important Olifants River Estuary at nearby Papendorp. A birdwatchers’ paradise, over 200 bird species have been identified here, and the river mouth is known for its flamingos and pelicans.
Distance from Cape Town Around 4 hours
Image credit: Clive Basson
This small fishing town is famous for its pristine beaches and fishing (especially snoek and crayfish) and also caters to whale watchers at a number of lookout points (above the harbour and from the main beach).
In spring, the sand dunes and terrain are awash with brightly coloured, indigenous flowers and with the West Coast National Park (with its Postberg Flower Reserve section) relatively close by (49km), Yzerfontein is a great place for wildflower viewing too. There’s also bird-watching, kite-surfing, bodyboarding, hiking, windsurfing, 4x4ing and fishing.
Don’t miss Dassen Island, and the Schaapeiland Hiking and Bokbaaivygie Flower Trails.
Fun fact The 16 Mile Beach, which covers roughly 30km, is the longest, uninterrupted sandy beach found along South Africa’s coastline.
Distance from Cape Town Around 1 hour
THE GORGEOUS GARDEN ROUTE
1. Wilderness and Knysna
Image credit: Ocean Odyssey
Wilderness and Knysna are two of the Garden Route’s brightest gems. In Wilderness, you’ll find secluded beaches, lakes and rivers in lush surroundings, making this intimate town the perfect place for a relaxing getaway. In Knysna, the Garden Route’s unofficial capital, visitors have the impressive Heads, the beautiful lagoon, as well as scenic rivers and forests.
Add to this some unique whale-watching opportunities, and you have a perfect holiday cut out for you.
Top viewing in Wilderness Dolphin’s Point, Map of Africa viewpoint, Wilderness Beach, Leentjiesklip and Flat Rock Beach
Top viewing in Knysna The Heads, Noetzie and nearby Brenton-on-Sea.
Don’t miss the 800-year-old Outeniqua Big Tree (a yellowwood also known as the King Edward VII tree) situated near Diepwalle Forest Station in the Knysna Forest.
Distance from Cape Town Around 5 hours and 30 minutes
2. Plettenberg Bay
Image credit: Ashwynn Baartman – Ocean Safaris
Stunning Plett is the St Tropez of the Garden Route, especially in summer when the Joburg Jetsetters head to the beach resort for their annual holiday. Well known for its long beaches and animal sanctuaries, Plett has a thriving whale-watching scene – it even has its own Whale hotline during season.
Plettenberg Bay has a very organised whale-watching industry, with boat, kayak and aerial trips all offered, though things are still closely monitored to ensure minimal interference to the whales and other marine life.
Thanks to its resident Bryde’s whales and orcas (and Bottlenose dolphins), it’s one of the few spots in South Africa that allows for year-round whale watching, with southern rights and humpbacks visiting the area during season.
Recommended viewing spots Robberg Peninsula and Nature Reserve, Beachy Head, Signal Hill, the Beacon Isle, Look-out Deck and Beach, and Harkerville.
It’s also popular among dolphins, sharks and Cape Fur seals, who densely populate the amazing Robberg Peninsula.
Distance from Cape Town Around 6 hours
3. Mossel Bay
Image credit: Kelly-Jane Poe
Mossel Bay, considered by many as the Garden Route’s westernmost point, offers visitors great beaches, amazing surfing, warm hospitality and, of course, whale watching.
Though southern rights are most commonly seen during season, humpbacks, orcas and Bryde’s also make an appearance.
Aside from boat-based tours, there are also great viewpoints with informative boards providing handy info. Another option (if the weather plays ball) is to hike the popular St Blaize Trail, which offers dramatic sea views (and great whale- and dolphin-sighting).
Don’t miss Mossel Bay’s Seal Island home to over 4 000 Cape fur seals. You might also spot dolphins, sharks and even whales there.
Distance from Cape Town Around 4 hours and 20 minutes
… ALSO PART OF THE BEAUTIFUL BREEDE
Image credit: Whale Watchers Inn
Known as “The Whale Nursery of South Africa”, due to the number of southern right whales who migrate to and calve in Saint Sebastian Bay, this picturesque town is a special place for land-based whale watching only. Because the whales mate and birth in the bay, boat-based whale watching is not permitted, but land-based watching is particularly good as the whales come very near to the shore once their young are born and the calves are particularly playful, which delights visitors.
Situated at the beautiful Breede River mouth, and with 4km of white beaches enclosed by stunning fynbos, Witsand is also an important breeding ground for birds.
Fun fact 2013 saw the highest total ever of calves born in the nursery. An aerial survey revealed a total of 194 whales, with 82 calves (birthed by 82 mothers), plus 30 other whales – the highest total counted on a single day.
Distance from Cape Town Around 3 hours and 30 minutes
MARVELLOUS MOTHER CITY SURROUNDS
1. False Bay Coast
Known to some as Cape Town’s Whale Central, this coastline has some great whale-watching spots (and an important history behind them too). During the 1800s whaling was a way of life in the Cape and sadly, between 1806 and 1935, False Bay had several thriving whaling stations.
Nowadays, however, they are well-protected and, erstwhile whaling stations have been replaced by viewing points.
Top viewing spots Boyes Drive, Chapman’s Peak, Jager’s Walk (Fish Hoek), the coastal road from Fish Hoek to Simon’s Town, Cape Point’s Rooikrans, Clarence Drive and even Baden Powell Drive.
Best of all, you can view them from the shore (or your car), book a boat trip or even enjoy sea kayaking to sight these most spectacular mammals.
Don’t miss these other fabulous False Bay viewing spots: Hout Bay, Noordhoek, Kommetjie, Fish Hoek, St James, Kalk Bay, Muizenberg, Simon’s Town, Cape Point, Gordon’s Bay
Distance from Cape Town Around 1 hour
Although there are many other great spots dotted around the Western Cape (and in fact the entire coastline of South Africa), we’ve listed our favourites above. We advise packing a pair of binoculars, your camera (or smartphone, with your favourite Instagram filter), and calling ahead just to be sure these magnificent creatures will be out and about when you visit. For those who’ve had the pleasure of close-up sightings, you’ll know what we mean when we say it’ll move you in ways you never expected.
Other wonderful whale-watching spots in the Western Cape:
- Cape Agulhas and Struisbaai (Overberg)
- Arniston (Overberg)
- Stanford (Overberg)
- Betty’s Bay (Overberg)
- Elands Bay (West Coast)
- Saldanha Bay (West Coast)
- Langebaan (West Coast)
- Paternoster (West Coast)
- Melkbosstrand (West Coast)
- Doringbaai (West Coast)
- Stilbaai (Garden Route)
- Sedgefield (Garden Route)
- Nature’s Valley (Garden Route)
- Llandudno (Cape Town)
- Hout Bay (Cape Town)
Date June – December (main season: August – October)