Our Guide to Whale Watching in South Africa
There’s no doubt about it, whale watching in South Africa is a must-do for any luxury travel itinerary. Discover where, how, and why you should do this incredible activity...
Whale watching in the wild is undoubtedly one of life’s most memorable nature experiences, and where better to do it than at one of the world’s premier whale-watching destinations, South Africa.
Why Whale Watching in South Africa Is So Spectacular
If you’re booking a luxury South Africa holiday and are keen to start thinking about your itinerary, a whale-watching tour should be high on your list. The breadth of South Africa’s coastline and the array of species that call the waters home here means the chance of whale sightings - and seeing other marine creatures - is high.
These spectacular marine mammals, from Southern Right and Humpback whales to huge pods of dolphins, make annual visits to the waters around South Africa - some of which can even be seen from land, giving you plenty of opportunity to spot them.
The three most common whales you can expect to see in South Africa are Southern Right whales, Humpbacks, and Bryde whales, although you may also spot:
- Minke whales
- Blue whales
- Sperm whales
- Orca or Killer whales
Plus, a plethora of sharks, seals and dolphins if you’re lucky - giving you the full marine safari experience!
South Africa’s Whale-Watching Season
Whale-watching season in South Africa typically runs between June and December, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t see them at other points during the year. Whale sightings also very much depend on the region you’re in and the habits of the whale type.
For example, for Southern Right whales, the season follows the mating and birthing patterns of these gentle beasts. In early June, Southern Right whales leave their Antarctic feeding ground to frolic in the warmer waters of the Western coast. It’s here that they play, feed and mate, often breaching out of the waters or flopping a tail up. It’s truly a sight to behold.
Mating will typically begin early in the season (June time), and during the latter part of the season, the calves are born and raised along the warm waters of South Africa’s coastline.
If you’re looking to determine the best time for whale watching in South Africa for you, or even the best month for whale watching, get in touch with one of our travel experts who can help guide you further.
Where Can You Find the Best Whale Watching in South Africa?
Fortunately, many areas along the South African coastline are known for their frequent whale sightings, and it’s possible to see whales in both the Atlantic and Indian Ocean regions. When it comes to the best whale watching in South Africa, here are our recommended locations and hot spots:
Whale Watching in Hermanus
The number one destination on our list is undoubtedly Hermanus - also known as the whale watching capital of South Africa. Whale watching in Hermanus is great if you’re basing yourselves in Cape Town because it’s just a couple of hours away - making it possible to go for a day trip or just a couple of days.
In terms of the location itself, Hermanus is set on Walker Bay which curves around, while the surrounding waters are close to the shore. This means that many of the whales swim right into the bay, making it possible to see an abundance of them both from land and sea. The types of whales you’ll find here in Hermanus include Southern Right whales, Humpback whales, and Bryde whales - with Southern Right whales being the most common.
Whale sightings are possible all year round here, but for the best chances, whale watching season in Hermanus is usually between July and December. If you really want to have fun, head there in September for the annual Hermanus Whale Festival. There you’ll find a bustling event featuring interactive exhibits, live music, food trucks, art and crafts stalls and a lively street parade.
While Hermanus whale-watching tours are the main draw here, there are plenty of other things to see and do in the town itself. There are, for example, numerous art galleries to peruse, plenty of local craft stores, lovely waterfront cafes and restaurants, and even a weekly Saturday market selling all manner of fresh local produce.
Want an insider tip? If you are out and about in Hermanus, listen out for the town ‘whale crier’ who keeps a lookout for them along the coast and blows a horn to alert the public when the whales are within sight.
Whales can also be seen in other nearby spots on the Western Cape including in Cape Town itself and Gansbaai. In fact, many of the whale watching tours that begin in Gansbaai pass by Hermanus, so if you’re considering whether to go whale watching in Hermanus or Gansbaai, you can do both - and should have equally as brilliant an experience. The advantage of Gansbaai is that it’s slightly quieter, so you can avoid the crowds you’d likely encounter during peak season in Hermanus.
Garden Route Whale Watching
If your itinerary takes you to this region, you’ll be pleased to know that whale watching along the Garden Route in South Africa is a popular activity, with frequent sightings in the area between June and December.
Southern Right whales typically visit the area between June and November, while migratory Humpback whales can usually be seen from May and June, and then again on their return trip between November to January. Bryde whales can often be spotted throughout the year - although less frequently, while Killer whales and playful Bottlenose dolphins are in residence almost all year round.
The southernmost point of the continent, around where the Garden Route starts, marks the point where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet. This collision of cooler and warmer waters makes for the ideal environment for whales to migrate to.
Whales can also be seen from as far east along the coast as L’Agulhas, and then further east through Stilbaai, Mossel Bay and on to George, Wilderness, Knysna and Tsitsikamma.
If you’re keen to do whale watching in Plettenberg Bay, you’ll be treated to an incredible array of marine mammals, as well as whales. In fact, a breeding colony of Cape Fur seals call this area home too.
Plettenberg Bay offers a plenitude of dolphin and whale watching tours - with trips in boats, kayaks, and aircraft on offer. You could even hire kayaks to paddle out and see the whales and dolphins swimming near the surface. Just remember to keep your distance and never touch or feed them.
Whale watching in Mossel Bay is also a good option; many boat tours will take you on an excursion from the bay, to Seal Island, Victoria Bay and Herold’s Bay, all offering fantastic vantage points for spotting whales.
Eastern Cape Whale Watching
If you’ve heard of whale watching in South Africa’s Port Elizabeth, you’ll be pleased to note that the Eastern Cape region is another great destination. During whale season (July to December), Southern Right whales and Humpback whales happily migrate here in their pods. Although limited in numbers compared to some of the other areas, you can still witness these majestic mammals gliding past the shore, breaching, lob tailing, and leaping out of the warm waters along the extensive coastline.
As with other destinations, the species you’ll most likely find here are Southern Right whales, Humpback, and Bryde whales. The latter, although quite shy, are commonly spotted here around Port Elizabeth. Keep your eyes peeled for whales with large, sleek, dark grey bodies with a white underside and three ridges near their blowhole - these are Bryde whales.
While on the Eastern Cape, some of our favourite places to spot whales are:
- Nahoon Beach, Gonubie Beach and Eastern Beach in East London
- Port Alfred
- Bluewater Bay and Pollock Beach in Port Elizabeth
- The stretch between Beachview and Seaview in Port Elizabeth
- Jeffrey’s Bay
- St Francis Bay
South Africa Whale Watching Tours
Ready to start planning your visit? Here at Scott Dunn, we offer a variety of whale-watching tours in South Africa, many by boat, while some are land or air-based. All of our whale-watching boat trips in South Africa are run by seasoned experts, and we only work with responsible tour operators that prioritise the well-being of both our guests and these majestic wild creatures.
Regional Destination Manager and South Africa expert Harriet Whitmarsh gives her recommendations for whale watching tours in South Africa and what you can expect:
One option is boat-based whale watching. Head to Gansbaai, a popular launch pad for whale-watching cruises, which is remarkably rich in marine life. After an introductory talk, depart for Dyer Island, 8km from shore. This island is protected for its many bird species, including African Penguins, Cape Gannets and Giant Petrels. Adjacent is Geyser Rock, home to 60,000 Cape Fur Seals with the channel between these two islands known as Shark Alley, as Great White Sharks cruise the waters in search of their favourite prey.
In and around these waters are large numbers of Bryde and Humpback whales as well as dolphins, which make for very rewarding, close-up sightings. After around two-and-a-half hours, return to shore and enjoy a warm drink while watching a DVD of your boat trip.
Or, enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime experience as you take to the sky above Hermanus and Stanford. Avid photographers and wildlife enthusiasts will have the opportunity to see an abundance of sea life from above on a spectacular 30-minute flight. This is an ideal opportunity to glimpse large mating groups as well as mothers with their calves.
Finally, some of our properties, such as Grootbos, offer a variety of trails along the cliffs where there are plenty of opportunities for land-based whale watching.”