Conversation about Africa’s Big Five centers on the 5 most iconic species of the continent: lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo. But did you know that the vast ocean surrounding the southern tip of Africa is home to its own flagship species?

The Marine Big Five are the whale, shark, seal, penguin and dolphin. South Africa offers exceptional oportunities to view these animals all across the Western Cape Province from the Garden Route to Cape Town itself. These are the most popular sea animals of Southern Africa and ticking all five off your list is a must-do for any holiday to this beautiful country.

The Marine Big 5

  1. The African Penguin
  2. The Cape Fur Seal
  3. Dolphins
  4. Southern Right Whales
  5. The Great White Shark

Atil

5. The African Penguin

This diminutive creature, dapper in black and white plumage, has recovered from the brink of extinction. There are a few well established colonies dotted around the Western Cape of South Africa; Dassen Island, St Croix Island, Robben Island, Bird Island, Dyer Island and Boulders beach.

While St. Croix Island in Algoa Bay boasts the largest population in the world, and Robben Island is perhaps the most famous habitat for these birds, Boulders Beach is undoubtably the most memorable.

Paul Mannix

The penguin colony at Boulders Beach boasts almost 3000 birds so, whether walking the board walk or heading down to the beach, you are guaranteed sightings year round. Located in Simon’s Town roughly 45 minutes’ drive from Cape Town, Boulders has been rated as one of Lonely Planet’s Top 10 Unique Beaches.

In addition to the spectacular views across False Bay, visitors to this sheltered cove can not only get close to the penguins but actually swim with them! And if this kind of close encounter with the avian kind leaves you hankering after a more intimate experience, Sanccob, a penguin rehabilitation centre in Simon’s Town, offers private tours and voluntourism opportunities.

4. The Cape Fur Seal

John Mason

The Cape Fur Seal, famous for its soft brown fur, can be seen from Namibia, all the way down the west coast and past Cape Town as far as Port Elizabeth. In Cape Town they are a real tourist attraction at Hout Bay and Kalk Bay harbours and get a fair bit of attention at the V&A Waterfront too.

There is something comical about these lugubrious looking sea giants, sunning themselves and flumping about on their clown-shoe flippers. But its as they plop off dry-land and into the water that you get a sense of the playfulness, agility and speed of these aquatic mammals.

David Stanley

With this in mind I was thrilled to learn that you can actually go snorkelling with seals. Diving with Seals happens on the Atlantic side of Cape Town at Duiker Island in the Karbonkelberg marine protected area (part of Table Mountain National Park). The cooler waters of the Atlantic, shallow kelp forests and comparatively low number of seals (only 5000) mean that this is the perfect spot to interact with these wild animals.

While cautious on land, seals are famous for their curiosity under water.  They are known to approach humans and even swim alongside scuba divers. The trip from Hout bay is short and easy and the area, i am assured, is shark free! What better way to get to know these aquatic acrobats?

Tim Sheerman-Chase

If you’d rather not get into the water with the seals there are boat trips to many of the seal colonies dotted along the coast. Gansbaai is popular as a hub for all marine viewing and Geyser rock adjacent to shark alley is home to roughly 60,000 Cape fur seals. If that is a little small for you then you need to head for Kleinzee on the West Coast. Just north of Kleinzee is the largest on-land seal colony in South Africa boasting over 350 000 seals!

Jolene Thompson

3. Dolphins

Dolphins are synonymous with the ocean space and no trip is complete without at least one dolphin sighting. Luckily with the rich marine biodiversity along South Africa’s coastline you are sure to tick this one off your list fairly quickly! These aquatic mammals can be seen in both the Indian and Atlantic oceans, jumping in and out of the surf or on a specialist dolphin tour.

While South Africa is home to over ten dolphin species, the ones that you are likely to see swimming close to shore are the famous Bottlenose Dolphin, the Long-Beaked Common Dolphin and the shy Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphin.

No other marine mamal inspires as much excitment and joy as they cavort through the water. The sardine run, which takes place between May and July, is a great time to see dolphins as they gather en mass to take advantage of the abundance of food. You can see pods of dolphins working together to herd the sardines into a “baitball”, which they push to surface and then feed on, a lot like sheep dogs herding sheep.

A less season specific option is to take a trip out to Plettenberg Bay on the Garden Route. Plettenberg Bay has plenty of land-based viewing options but also opportunities to get really close by taking a boat cruise or, for those feeling a little more adventurous, a kayak tour into the big blue.

Jolene Thompson

South Africa has some of the best regulations controlling interactions with sealife and because human interactions adversely affect them, swimming with dolphins is strictly firbidden.

2. Southern Right Whales

Mazzali

At 16 meters in length, the shear size of these ocean giants is enough to drop anyones jaw. All along South Africa’s Western Cape coastline, between June and December,  whales can be seen as they move into the warmer  shallow waters to calve. The Whale Route includes various bays along the Garden Route and stretches from Cape Town to Cape Agulhas.

Sheltered bays like False bay and Hermanus are nurseries to the endangered Southern Right and Humpback Whales who can be seen playing, often a stones throw away from the shore.

Rolf Kleef

Southern Right whales, so named because they were considered to be the “right’ whales to hunt, migrate up from the cold waters of the antarctic to the warmer conditions of South Africa’s beautiful coastline. Here they can be seen playing just off shore, nurturing their young, waving their fins or bobbing their tails and, if you are lucky, you migt even get to see one of these 60 ton giants breaching out of the water to make a tremendous splash.

South African Tourism

Just over an hour and a half from Cape Town is the coastal town of Hermanus. It is one of the best places in the world for land based whale watching and boasts over 12km of cliff path walking where in places, whales can be seen from only a few meters away.

Hermanus is also host to the now famous Whale Crier, who announces the arrival of whales in the bay by blowing on his kelp horn. Considering that these gentle giants were once hunted to the brink of extinction it is a marvel to see them flourishing.

1. The Great White Shark

Isabel Sommerfeld

Top of the marine foodchain the Great White Shark unquestionably holds the number 1 spot. The largest fish species on earth, adult sharks reach between 4.5 and 6 meters in length, weigh about 2 and a half tons and can swim at almost 25km and hour … did I mention the several rows of ever regenerating serrated teeth?

The combination of speed, agility and raw power of the Great White make it a fearsome and feared predator AND a hot favourite for any sea safari.

Seeing the apex predator of the marine kingdom up close is without a doubt one of the most thrilling and humbling animal encounters on the planet. The Western Cape is one of the best places to see Great White Sharks at daringly close range, with hotspots including Seal Island in Mossel Bay, Dyer Island and Geyser Rock near Gansbaai, and the infamous Seal Island in False Bay, which is home to the “flying” Great White Sharks.

With impeccable ‘safety first’ regulations it is now more accesible than ever to get below the surface and into the sharks natural environment.

John Mason

Listed as vulnerable on the IUCN red list very little is known about these predators. Public opinion towards sharks is changing and companies like Marine Dynamics, operating out of Gaansbaai, run eco-tourism oportunities where conservation is at the heart of all activities. This means that your adrenaline pumping experience with the Great White contributes directly to the science of keeping them sfae and protecting white shark populations.

 

Source credit: www.africanbudgetsafaris.com

Did you know that South Africa is one of the best places in the world to go whale watching? And you can even see whales as you walk on the coast paths or enjoy a meal at a restaurant with an ocean view! How cool is that?

 

Choose the best time to go

The best time to visit depends on the whales you plan to see. For the southern right whale, in South Africa, the season is between June and November. You have more chances to see them in September and October than in July and August. For the humpback whale, the season is from May to December. The Bryde’s whale can be seen year round.

Choose the right location

South Africa is one of the best places in the world to go whale watching. The route to see whales in South Africa includes the famous Table Mountain National Park, Garden Route, Tsitsikamma National Park, Transkei National Park and iSimangaliso Wetland Park. You can even spot them in Cape Town itself from the road along the False Bay coast.

It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience

Going on a whale watching safari is going to be a once-in-a-lifestyle experience. Of course, each experience is unique and it really depends on luck, but even seeing the whales from a distance is a magnificent sight.

Wear layers and dress for the occasion

It is windier and at least 10 degrees cooler in open water than at the shore. The trick is to wear layers and shed them (or put them on) if necessary. And remember you are on the water, so chances are you might catch some spray from the waves. Make sure your shoes, clothing, and your photography gear are prepared for this. High heels may not be the best choice on a moving boat. So opt for some rubber-soled shoes (sneakers), which don’t slip or take on water.

You may also catch a glimpse of dolphins

As it is always the case with animals, nothing is guaranteed. You may see whales. Or you may see some puffs and conclude that there must be a whale. On the other hand, you have a lot more chances to see dolphins playing around the boat regardless of when you go.

Mornings are better if you get seasick

The winds tend to pick up in the afternoon, so if the thought of going on a boat makes you queasy, you may want to choose the first tour of the day. And make sure to pack some seasick pills. But if you don’t have problems with the boat’s movement, any hour would do, but the later tours would already know if whales have been spotted earlier in the day.

If you haven’t been on a boat before, it’s best to pack some seasick medication, just in case. Most medication must be taken at least an hour before the trip. Just to be on the safe side, avoid that sickly feeling by staying away from caffeine and big meals before the trip.

It may get boring for the kids

The pleasant 2-4 hours tour may be a nice and relaxing cruise for the adults but kids don’t have the same patience. With all the standing and waiting involved, a whale watching boat tour may not be the best fit for young children. Instead, choose a family whale watching safari which involves spotting them from the land or opt for a land-base family safari until the kids grow older.

Fun Facts About Whales Found in Africa

Southern Right Whale

southern right whale

Photo Credit: rosshuggett Flickr via Compfight

  • they are the rarest of all large whales.
  • their heads can measure up to one-third of their total body length.
  • they came close to extinction between the 17th and 19th century and now they are considered endangered and have been protected since 1949.

Humpback Whale

Humpback Whale
  • they are known for their magical song, able to travel great distances through the ocean.
  • they are found near coastlines.
  • they regularly leap from the water, landing with a big splash. Scientists still have no idea if they do this for anything else but to have fun.

Bryde’s Whale

Bryde's Whale

Photo Credit: Nik Cyclist Flickr via Compfight

  • they are long and slender and have much more streamlined bodies than other large whales
  • they can live up to 50 years in the wild
  • they can lift their entire body out of the water in an acrobatic display

Source: bookallsafaris.com

Nothing prepares you for your first whale and the impact that seeing it has upon you. Perhaps it is their immensity. Definitely it is the whales’ authenticity and the absolute trust they show towards us. But mostly it is the overwhelming sense of awe, of joy, of having been touched by something greater than oneself that translates into 13 million people around the world enjoying organised whale watching annually.

WHALE WATCHING IS ONE OF THE WESTERN CAPE’S BIGGEST DRAW CARDS

For those of you who haven’t yet sat in a boat, or stood on land, and marvelled as a whale the size of a jumbo jet rises out of the water just in front of you, or glides past and ‘catches’ your eye, then you have yet to become obsessed with watching these gentle giants.

For others, for whom a commune with the whales is an annual pilgrimage; an event that gains the kind of precedence bordering on compulsive, a visit with these mammals of the deep takes on an element of ritual and renewal. The experience of a whale’s willingness to share themselves with humans, despite the atrocities we have and continue to employ against them, is humbling.

For an unforgettable experience we recommend Simon’s Town Boat Company to take you on a magical journey and see not only Southern Right Whales up close, but so much more.

The western half of False Bay – stretching from Strandfontein all the way to Cape Point is one of the finest boat based whale watching sites in South Africa. This area is sheltered from the open ocean, surrounded by stunning views & provides an ideal winter home for the Southern Right Whales. They visit each year between June & November to mate, calve, or simply to get away from the icy Antarctic winter. Interacting with these gigantic & magnificent mammals (the size of 12 elephants) alongside our boat is an experience that will stay with you for the rest of your life. Be ready to photograph one breaching or giving you a friendly wave with its tail!
Sightings of Brydes whales, Humpback whales, Orcas and Dolphins are also common. 

Trips depart daily at 10:30 & 14:00. Booking is advisable!
This tour is operated from our marina by Ocean View Masiphumelele Fishing (PTY) Ltd. who is the sole permit holder for boat based whale watching in False Bay (Permit No. 0806336).

Visit their website, www.boatcompany.co.za, to make your online booking.

 

Credit: boatcompany.co.za & SAvenues.com