The Cape Whale Route is a 900-kilometre-long stretch of coastline that extends from Strandfontein near Muizenberg to Plettenberg Bay in the southern Cape. Every year, between June and December, southern right whales journey to our shores to mate and calve, giving us the awe-inspiring opportunity to get up close with them. Sometimes they arrive earlier and stay later, with prime whale-watching season peaking between August and October. Calving normally takes place in August and September, but can happen as early as July.
Though Hermanus is considered to be the Whale Capital of the world, the less well-trodden town of De Hoop is probably where you’ll be able to spot the largest numbers (without having to dodge crowds). In fact, in August 2018, over 1 116 whales were spotted on the De Hoop coastline alone… a record number!
But actually, the entire Whale Route – considered the fifth fastest-growing whale-watching destination in the world – is teeming with these gentle giants. We’ve rounded up the best places to witness these magnificent mammals and their annual migratory patterns. Have we missed any? If so, please let us know in the comments.
THE BEAUTIFUL BREEDE
De Hoop Nature and Marine Reserve
De Hoop Collection
Encompassing 34 000 hectares of unspoilt natural beauty, De Hoop is one of South Africa’s most diverse reserves, with a mountain range (Potberg), unspoilt beaches, towering sand dunes and a dreamy vlei. It’s also arguably the best land-based whale-watching destination on the Cape’s Whale Coast – in August 2018, there was a record sighting of 1 116 whales in a single day! The Marine Protected Area ranks as one of South Africa’s most important whale nurseries.
Something for everyone Outdoor enthusiasts can go hiking or mountain-biking; nature lovers might enjoy a guided bird, coastal 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 for those in need of some pampering; as well as The Shed restaurant and bar, two swimming pools, and a tennis court.
Don’t miss the five-day Whale Trail (operated by CapeNature). This 55-kilometre-long 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.) For Whale Trail bookings, contact 021 483 0000.
Where to stay For an eco-luxe experience, Morukuru Beach Lodge offers unhindered nonstop whale-watching. For a vlei-side stay, De Hoop Collection’s across-the-board range of accommodation is a good bet.
Distance from Cape Town Around 3 hours
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 close to the shore once their young are born. 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-ever number 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
Tourism office De Hoop Nature Reserve: 021 422 4522, email@example.com
THE AWESOME OVERBERG
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
Gansbaai and De Kelders
Southern Right Charters
The working fishing village of 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 and Grootbos (home to rare and ancient Milkwood forests) – you can also enjoy fishing, surfing and swimming.
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 seven-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, overlook the bay.
Distance from Cape Town Around 2 hours and 20 minutes
Knobbly-headed black and grey ocean giants, otherwise known as humpback whales, can be spotted along the Cape Agulhas shores along with their southern right counterparts, but they are less common. The magnificent beasts can be seen frolicking in the water in large pods.
Take a boat out for a better view, but keep 50 metres away, so as not to upset the whales and their calves.
Don’t miss Killer whales, also known as orcas, have been spotted in the area so keep a keen eye on the horizon.
Distance from Cape Town Around 2 hours and 45 minutes
Good to know The best time to view the gentle ocean giants is early morning before the wind picks up.
Insider tip It’s a good idea to call the Tourism Offices of Hermanus (028 312 2629, firstname.lastname@example.org), Gansbaai (028 384 1439, email@example.com) or Cape Agulhas (028 435 7185, firstname.lastname@example.org) before planning your trip to ensure that the whales are indeed around.
WEST COAST WAY
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 a careful walk along the breakwater wall (if the sea isn’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
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 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 bird-watchers’ 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
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 to be enjoyed, as well as an indigenous garden with a labyrinth that children love.
Don’t miss Dassen Island, and the Schaapeiland Hiking Trail.
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
Lambert’s Bay 027 432 1000, email@example.com
Strandfontein 027 201 3376, firstname.lastname@example.org
Yzerfontein 022 451 2985, email@example.com
THE GORGEOUS GARDEN ROUTE
Wilderness and Knysna
Wilderness and Knysna are two of the Garden Route’s brightest gems. In Wilderness, you’ll find secluded beaches, lakes and rivers in lush surrounds, 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.
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
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. It’s also a popular destination for dolphins, sharks and Cape Fur seals, who densely populate the amazing Robberg Peninsula.
Whale-watching can be done by boat, kayak and aerial trips, though things are still closely monitored to ensure minimal interference to the whales and other marine life.
Thanks to its resident Bryde’s whales, orcas and bottlenose dolphins, it’s one of the few spots in South Africa that boasts year-round whale-watching, with southern rights and humpbacks and dolphins visiting during season. You can also watch great white sharks in their natural habitat from Robberg (from May through to October).
Recommended viewing spots Robberg Peninsula and Nature Reserve, Beachy Head, Signal Hill, the Beacon Isle, Look-out Deck and Beach, and the Harkerville Trail.
Distance from Cape Town Around 6 hours
Mossel Bay, considered by many as the Garden Route’s westernmost point, offers visitors great beaches, amazing surf, 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 3 000 Cape fur seals. You might also spot dolphins, sharks and even whales there.
Distance from Cape Town Around 4 hours and 20 minutes
Wilderness 044 877 0045
Knysna 044 382 5510, firstname.lastname@example.org
Plettenberg Bay 044 533 4065, email@example.com
Mossel Bay 044 691 2202, firstname.lastname@example.org
MARVELLOUS MOTHER CITY SURROUNDS
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.
View these spectacular beasts from the shore (or your car), book a whale-watching boat ride or even a jaunt on a sea kayak.
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.
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 central Around 1 hour
Other wonderful whale-watching spots in the Western Cape:
- 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)
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 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.
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