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Whale Watching in South Africa: The Best Tours and Locations

The best place to go whale watching in South Africa is Hermanus in the Western Cape. This charming little town sits on Walker Bay. The deep waters of the bay make the area a perfect breeding ground for migratory whales. Here, you can actually view whales from shore or even from the comfort of your hotel room. Of course, you can go out on whale watching boat tours as well. A couple of other popular whale watching destinations in South Africa include False Bay and De Hoop Nature Reserve. There are excellent whale watching destinations along the entire South African coast.

You can spot around 30 different species of whales and dolphins off the coast of South Africa. A few species you might spot include Southern Right Whale, Humpback Whale, Bryde’s Whale, and Orcas. The best time to go whale watching in South Africa is between August and October. South Africa is one of the best places in the world to view these gentle giants up close.

This guide outlines how to go whale watching in South Africa. In this guide, I’ll outline some of the best whale watching destinations in South Africa. I’ll also list some of the whale species you’ll see. Finally, I’ll explain how to book a whale watching tour and what to expect on the tour. 

South Africa is a perfect whale watching destination. Many species migrate through the waters just off the coast. I’ve gone on several whale watching tours around the world. Once in my home state of Washington, once in Canada, once in Baja, and of course in South Africa. South Africa has been my favorite.

The Cape of Good Hope, South Africa
The Cape of Good Hope
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When to Go Whale Watching in South Africa

The whale watching season in South Africa runs from June to October. It is possible to spot whales as early as May and as late as December. Generally, whale watching is a winter activity in South Africa. During this time, whales migrate from the cold waters of Antarctica to the warmer waters off the coast of Southern Africa. They return to the nutrient-rich Antarctic waters around December.

The best time to go whale watching in South Africa is between July and early October. This is the peak of the whale watching season. The annual Hermanus Whale Festival takes place during this time in late September or early October. This is the best time to go if you want to see migratory Southern Right Wales or Humpback Wales. Another good time to visit is between May and June during the sardine run. During this time of year, the sardines spawn. Migrating whales, sharks, and seabirds feast on the billions of sardines.

Where to Go Whale Watching in South Africa

Hermanus, Western Cape

The town of Hermanus is one of the best places in the world to go whale watching. Some consider it the whale watching capital of the world.

This small town is located on Walker Bay in the Western Cape. The city lies just a two hour drive from Cape Town, making it extremely convenient to visit. The whale watching season in Hermanus runs from June to October. 

Hermanus is ideal for whale watching because the waters just off the coast are very deep. Migratory Southern Right Whales and Bryde’s Whales swim into the bay right up to shore. 

Whales can be spotted from the beaches and cliffs in Hermanus. There is a 12 km (7.5 mile) clifftop path that runs the length of the town from New Harbour to Piet-Se-Bos. There are some excellent viewpoints along the path. You’ll find plenty of benches along the path where you can sit and watch for whales and take in the scenery.

Of course, you can also take a whale watching boat tour to get a closer view. There are whale watching tours leaving multiple times per day every day during the whale watching season. Most tours last around 3 hours. It’s best to book in advance. You’re not guaranteed to see whales on a tour but if you’re traveling during the whale season, the likelihood is high.

Hermanus, South Africa cliff path
The clifftop path in Hermanus

You can even spot whales from your hotel room if you stay in a waterfront property. All of the waterfront hotels have large windows facing the ocean to give you the best possible view. 

While visiting Hermanus, consider taking a ‘marine big 5’ whale watching tour. On these tours, you can spot whales, great white sharks, African penguins, Cape fur seals, and dolphins.

Many of the tours from Hermanus take you to Dyer Island Reserve. This is a bird sanctuary. On this rocky island, you’ll spot African penguins as well as several other species of sea birds. You’ll also visit nearby Geyser Rock, where you can see a colony of Cape fur seals. The area between these two islands is called Shark Alley. If you’re lucky, you will spot great white sharks leaping out of the water while hunting for seals. 

While you’re in town, be sure to visit the Hermanus Whale House Museum. Here, you can view the full skeleton of a Southern right whale. Hermanus also has the world’s only ‘whale crier’ who blows a horn when a whale passes to alert visitors. 

Every year at the end of September or the beginning of October, Hermanaus hosts the Whale Watching Festival. This event is designed to educate people about the local marine life and conservation efforts that are taking place. At this event, you’ll find interactive exhibits, live music, a parade, arts and crafts stalls, food trucks, and more. It’s a fun and family-friendly event. 

Hermanus has grown a lot over the years. At this point, the town has a population of almost 80,000. It still has a small-town feel. It’s touristy and charming. During the busy season, it can get crowded.

In addition to whale watching, Hermanus also has some beautiful sandy beaches where you can relax. There are some great waterfront cafes and seafood restaurants. There is a farmer’s market every Saturday and there are also some nice galleries in town that you can browse. It’s also a really scenic place to walk around. The waterfront is beautiful. 

De Hoop Nature Reserve in Overberg, Southern Cape

De Hoop Nature Reserve is a beautiful conservation area located along the Western Cape coast, about two hours drive from Hermanus and four hours from Cape Town. The reserve also includes the De Hoop Marine Protected Area, which extends 5 km into the sea. This area is designed to protect both land and marine life.

This reserve is extremely biodiverse. It also offers stunning landscapes. One of the main attractions of De Hoop Nature Reserve is the Southern Right Whales. They can be spotted in the waters just off the coast between June and November. The whales come right up to shore. You can see them breach, lobtail, and nurse their young. 

The reserve’s coastline offers some of the best land-based whale watching in the world. You can watch the whales from the top of the tall dunes of Koppie Alleen along the coast. Boats are not allowed in the waters during the peak calving season.

De Hoop Nature Reserve’s marine protected area is also an important breeding ground for other marine species, including dolphins, seals, and a number of fish species. On land, the reserve is home to 86 wildlife species, including the Bontebok, Cape Mountain Zebra, Eland, and over 260 bird species. The wetlands are perfect for birdwatching.

Cape Agulhas, Southern Cape

Another great whale watching spot on the Southern Cape is Cape Agulhas. This is the southern tip of Africa where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet. Here, the colder waters of the Atlantic and warmer waters of the Indian Oceans mix. This attracts migrating whales. A number of tours depart from here.

During the peak calving season between July and November, boats are not allowed here. It is a Whale Sanctuary Marine Protected Area.

Elephant Coast, KwaZulu-Natal

The Elephant Coast is located in the Northeast of South Africa in the region of KwaZulu-Natal. This area has the highest number of whale sightings of anywhere in South Africa. Even more than Hermanus. 

Elephant Coast is an ideal spot to view migratory Humpback whales. They pass through here on their way toward the warmer waters off the coast of Mozambique, Tanzania, and Madagascar, where they breed. They pass by the Elephant Coast between June and early December every year. 

You can take whale-watching tours to view the humpbacks up close. You might also spot some Southern right whales here. In addition, you may see some dolphins and whale sharks. 

The Elephant Coast is also a great spot to view sea turtles nesting between November and March. You may also spot some monkeys and bird species on land.  

One of the best places to book a whale watching excursion is the town of St. Lucia. This small town is located in the iSimangaliso Wetlands Park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Mossel Bay and Plettenberg Bay on the Garden Route

Mossel Bay and Plettenberg Bay are two popular stops along the Garden Route. The hills and cliffs along the coast make these destinations perfect for whale watching. You can see humpback whales, southern right whales, Bryde’s whales, and the occasional orca. You might also spot some bottlenose dolphins, humpback dolphins, and Cape fur seals. 

The best times to go whale watching in Plettenberg Bay are between May and June and October and November. These are the months when the whales are migrating. There are some resident Bryde’s whales that can be spotted year-round. In Mossel Bay, the best time for whale watching is from late June to October. 

One of the best viewpoints in Plettenberg Bay is Signal Hill. Robberg Nature Reserve and Beachy Head also offer great views. Whale watching boat tours and kayaking tours are also options. It’s also possible to take aircraft tours. There are also a few hotels built on the cliff tops that offer excellent views. In Mossel Bay, whale watching boat tours are the most popular option. There are 1.5 and 3 hour tours available. 

Plettenberg is also popular for its wide and empty beaches and beautiful scenery. It’s a charming seaside town with some great restaurants. Mossel Bay is a larger city with a population of around 120,000. It is a port city.  

False Bay

False Bay is the most convenient place to go whale watching from Cape Town. It is located is on the migratory path of humpback whales, southern right whales, and Byrde’s whales. The whales pass through here during the winter months between June and November. You can also spot some large colonies of Cape fur seals here.

You can go whale watching from the coast. There are plenty of beaches on the bay where you can spot whales. You can also take a boat tour for a closer view. You can easily take a day tour here from Cape Town. Many whale watching tours also depart from Simon’s town (Simonstown). 

The author at the Cape Point, South Africa

Eastern Cape

The Eastern Cape is another great option. Between May and December, humpback whales and southern right whales pass through here during their migration. They can be spotted pretty much every day. You can also spot other marine life such as dolphins and otters. You can spot whales from the shore or take a boat tour. The whales are a little further out here. You may need some binoculars to spot them from shore.

This is also a great beach destination. Some of South Africa’s best beaches are located in this region. There are miles of unspoiled coastline to explore. This is also a great destination for those who are into water sports, such as kite surfing.

There are a few different cities where you can go whale watching in the Eastern Cape. A couple of the best destinations include Port Alfred and East London. Another popular destination to visit is Port Elizabeth. This is one of the best places to spot bottlenose dolphins. Whale spottings are a bit less common here. 

Wild Coast

The Wild Coast is actually part of the Eastern Cape. This is one of South Africa’s most rugged sections of coastline. Here, you’ll find rocky shores, mangrove swamps, hidden caves, and dense forests. A number of rivers also empty out into the Indian Ocean here. 

The coast can be difficult to access because it is so rugged. If you’re willing to hike, you can enjoy some spectacular views. There are also some lodges that can be accessed by road. 

The whales don’t come as close to shore here as they do at other destinations. You’ll need a good pair of binoculars to see them. It’s best to take a boat tour if you can. 

Types of Whales You Can Spot in South Africa

A Southern right whale in South Africa
A Southern right whale

Southern Right Whale

Southern Right Whales migrate annually from their feeding grounds off Antarctica to the warmer waters of Southern Africa to breed and calve. These whales are frequently found along the coastlines of the Western Cape. Hermanus is a perfect place to spot them.

The best time to view Southern Right Whales is from June to November. These whales can often be spotted from shore. You can also view them closer up from a boat tour.

The Southern Right Whale is a large species of baleen whale. They are known for their distinctive callosities on the head. They have broad backs without dorsal fins. These whales also have a long, arching mouth that begins above the eye. They can reach up to 18 meters (59 feet) in length and live for around 50-70 years. These are acrobatic whales. They can be seen lobtailing, breeching, and doing headstands. To identify Southern Right Whales, look for a V-shaped blow, lack of dorsal fin, and unique callosities.

These whales got their name during the whale industry of the 1800s. They were considered the ‘right’ whales to hunt because of their quality meat and high oil content. They also tend to come in close to shore. Southern right whales were hunted nearly to extinction. Luckily, they were designated as a protected species in 1937. Their numbers have increased steadily since then. 

Humpback Whale

Humpback whales can be identified by their distinctive body shape. They have long pectoral fins and a hump. Their flukes are also unique to each individual. They grow up to 16 meters and can live for about 45-50 years. They can be spotted alone or in small pods. 

Humpbacks often breach and slap the water with their fins or tails. They are known for their acrobatics. This makes them popular among whale watchers.

The East Coast, particularly the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, is a great place to spot them. The peak season for spotting Humpback Whales runs from May to December.

Humpback whales migrate from the Antarctic to the warmer climates of the African coast for breeding. They pass through South African waters on their way to their breeding grounds off the coast of Tanzania, Madagascar, and Mozambique. 

Bryde’s Whale

Bryde’s Whales are a type of baleen whale. To identify Bryde’s whales, look for three parallel ridges on their head. They also have a tall, falcate dorsal fin. Bryde’s whales are closely related to Minke and Fin whales but are a bit sleeker and more slender. You can also identify them by their behavior. They frequently surface. They also usually travel alone. Sometimes, you can spot a group of mother whales and their newborn calves. They often feed together.  

Bryde’s whales can reach up to 15 meters in length. They have a lifespan of about 50-70 years. They have pleated throats that allow their mouths to expand. This allows them to feed on plankton, krill, and schools of small fish. 

They are commonly seen all year round in the coastal waters off the Western Cape and Eastern Cape. Unlike other whales, Bryde’s Whales do not have a long migration pattern. They live in South African waters.


Orcas or Killer Whales, are easily recognized by their black and white coloring and tall dorsal fin. They can be spotted year-round but are less predictable. The Western Cape coast, especially around the Cape Peninsula, is a good spot to look for them.

Orcas do not follow a specific migratory pattern in South African waters. They are known to travel long distances globally. This makes them a bit harder to spot. They can grow up to 9 meters long and live for 50-90 years.

Sperm Whale

Sperm Whales can occasionally be spotted off the coasts of the Eastern Cape and Kwa Zulu Natal. Sightings are a bit less predictable because they do not have a specific migration pattern. They can be seen throughout the year. They are known to travel long distances across oceans.

Sperm Whales are the largest species of toothed whales. They can be identified by their massive heads and rounded foreheads. They have a single blowhole on the left side of their head, which creates an angled blow. Sperm whales can reach up to 18-20 meters in length and have a lifespan of up to 70 years.

Minke Whale

Minke Whales are the smallest type of baleen whales. They have a pointed snout, a tall, hooked dorsal fin, and a sleek body. They typically measure around 7-10 meters in length. 

Minke Whales are occasionally seen off the South African coast. Usually in the Western and Eastern Cape regions. The best time for sightings of Minke whales is from July to December. They pass through South African waters during their migration to higher latitudes during the winter in the southern hemisphere.

How to Watch Whales: Boat Tours Vs Viewing from Shore

Whale Watching Boat Tours in South Africa

The best way to view the whales up close is to take a boat tour. During the whale watching season, you can take a tour from any of the above-listed destinations. In the more popular destinations, such as Hermanus, boats leave several times per day throughout the season. 

If you’re lucky, you’ll get to view the whales up close. They may splash their tails or jump out of the water. You may get close enough to hear them communicating with one another. In addition to whales, you might spot dolphins, sea lions, Cape fur seals, and even great white sharks.

It’s important to note that you aren’t guaranteed to see whales during a tour. During the whale watching season, there is a high likelihood that you will see whales but there are days when none are spotted. To give yourself the best chance of success, try to travel during the peak season. Early and late in the season, there are fewer whales so your chances of spotting them are a bit lower. 

Whale Watching from Shore

The best place to go whale watching from shore is Hermanus. The city has a 12 km (7.5 mile) coastal path along the cliffs between the New Harbor and Piet-Se-Bos. The path basically stretches across the entire length of the town, giving you uninterrupted views of the ocean. 

This path is a great place to spot whales, dolphins, sea lions, and other marine life. Along the path, you’ll find plenty of benches where you can sit down and take in the views. 

You can whale watch from shore at any of the destinations outlined above. This particular place is special because the whales come so close to shore. You can easily view them without binoculars. Sometimes, they get close enough that you can hear their mating calls. 

The path is paved. Most of it is wheelchair accessible. Along the path, you’ll see some signs with information about the whales and the area. 

Whale Watching By Air

It’s also possible to go whale watching by helicopter or aircraft at some locations. I’ve never tried this but it is an option. This would be a unique way to spot whales from a different vantage point. Of course, helicopter tours are far more expensive than boat tours.

How to Book a Whale Watching Tour

You can book whale watching tours online in advance, in person when you arrive, and through your hotel. If you’re traveling during peak season, it’s best to book your boat trip in advance. They can fill up. You don’t need to book too far in advance. A day or two is fine. 

To score the best deals, book in person when you arrive. The tour companies have offices in town and near the port. Booking directly will get you the best rate. You can also get some good deals booking through your hotel. Sometimes there are last-minute deals.

Booking online in advance is convenient but is usually a little more expensive. I only recommend you book online if you’re short on time. If you absolutely must go on a specific date then it’s best to book online so you have a confirmed spot.

What to Wear

The whales are around during South Africa’s winter and spring. The weather can get pretty chilly. Particularly while you’re out on the water. You’ll want to wear warm clothing.

Dress in layers so you can easily add or remove clothing if you get too hot or too cold. If you’re going on a small boat, it’s a good idea to wear clothing that you don’t mind getting wet. If you’re on a larger boat, you’ll probably stay dry. Ask the tour company before the trip and they will give you suggestions if you’re not sure about what to wear.

What to Expect on the Boat

The whale watching tours usually last around 3 hours. There are usually morning and afternoon departures. Most tour boats have around 20 passengers. On board the boat, there will be refreshments available to purchase.

There are also small group whale-watching expeditions available as well as kayaking tours. These tours have fewer amenities and comforts but they allow you to get a little closer to nature. 

There will be a professional guide who will tell you about the whales you’re seeing and the history of the region. They will also give a safety briefing at the beginning of the tour. Life jackets are available. On most boats, you will be required to wear a life jacket for the duration of the tour.

The water can get choppy. If you’re susceptible to sea sickness, consider taking some sea sickness tablets before your tour.

If you’re bringing photography gear with you, be sure to bring a waterproof bag or housing to protect your gear from splashes while you’re not using it. 

Some tours also have a minimum age for passengers. This is usually around 12 years old. This restriction isn’t common but it exists in some companies. If you’re traveling with a small child, check for age restrictions before booking. 

If the weather is bad or if the water is too choppy, the tour could be canceled. When this happens, you will receive a full refund. Alternatively, you can reschedule for the next available tour. 

My Experience

This was my second time going whale watching. I took a boat tour from Hermanus. The whales came way closer than I was expecting. On a couple of occasions, they swam right up next to the boat. I got lucky and had a great guide. He pointed out different ways to identify the different whale species and explained their behavior. We also spotted some dolphins and Cape fur seals. Overall, it was a great day trip.

Cape Town, South Africa

Final Thoughts

South Africa offers some of the best whale watching in the world. The country is located on a whale route where migratory whales pass by every year. A large part of the world’s whale population passes through these waters. 

The region also offers a massive amount of marine life biodiversity. You can spot southern right whales, humpbacks, Byrde’s whales, orcas, minke whales, sperm whales, and more in their natural environment. In addition, there are dolphins, sea lions, seals, and otters, as well as hundreds of species of birds including African penguins. 

The area is also naturally beautiful. South Africa has 3000 km of coastline on the Indian and Atlantic oceans. There are sandy beaches and rugged and rocky stretches. There are estuaries, bays, capes, mangrove swamps, and more. It’s a really diverse and stunning stretch of coast. 

The most popular place to go whale watching is Hermanus. This coastal town is known as the whale watching capital of the world. All along the South African coast, you can find whale watching opportunities from False Bay in the Western Cape all the way to KwaZulu-Natal on the Elephant Coast.

You can take a guided boat tour or watch from shore. Prices are pretty reasonable. Watching from shore is free. It’s important to remember that whale watching is a seasonal activity. To give yourself the best chance of spotting whales, try to visit during the months of August and October. This is the peak season for migrating whales. 

Have you gone whale watching in South Africa? Share your experience in the comments below!

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