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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.

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. I’ll also talk about 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. In this guide, I’ll outline my experience. 

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. This is the best time to go if you want to see migratory Southern Right Wales or Humpback Wales. It is possible to spot whales as early as May and as late as December.

The best time to go whale watching in South Africa is between August and October. This is peak of the whale watching season. The annual Hermanus Whale Festival takes place during this time in late September or early October.

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.

If you visit during these times, there is a good chance that you’ll spot some whales. There are no guarantees with wildlife but your chances of success are high. 

Where to Go Whale Watching in South Africa

Hermanus, Western Cape

The town of Hermanus is considered one of the best places in the world to go whale watching. Some consider it the whale 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. There are some excellent viewpoints along the path. Of course, you can also take a whale watching tour to get a closer view. There are plenty of boat-based whale watching tour options available. 

Hermanus, South Africa

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

In 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 rock, 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. Here, you can 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. 

In addition to whale watching, Hermanus offers beautiful sandy beaches. There are some great waterfront cafes and seafood restaurants where you can refuel after your tour. The city hosts a farmer’s market every Saturday. 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 pristine 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 provides a sanctuary for a variety of land and marine life.

This reserve is rich in biodiversity and offers stunning landscapes. One of the highlights of De Hoop Nature Reserve is the Southern Right Whales, which frequent these waters between June and November. During this period, these whales come close to the shore, providing excellent viewing opportunities as they breach, lobtail, and nurse their young. 

The reserve’s coastline offers some of the best land-based whale watching in the world. Here, visitors can observe these creatures from the top of tall dunes along the coast. Boats are not allowed in the waters during the peak calving season.

Beyond whale watching, De Hoop Nature Reserve’s marine protected area is a vital 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 rare Bontebok, Cape Mountain Zebra, Eland, and over 260 bird species. The diverse habitats, from wetlands to dunes, provide an ideal environment for birdwatching.

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 makes it an appealing place that attracts migrating whales. A number of tours depart from here.

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. These spectacular creatures pass through these waters 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. 

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. Here, 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, boat-based whale watching is 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 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 these waters during their migration. They can be spotted pretty much every day.  You can also spot other marine life such as dolphins and otters. Here, you can spot whales from the shore or take a boat tour. 

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. 

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 destination to visit in the Eastern Cape 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 be rewarded with some spectacular views. There are 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 South Africa to breed and calve.

These whales frequent the coastlines of the Western Cape, with Hermanus being a prime spot. The best time to view them is from June to November. These whales can often be spotted from shore. You can also view them closer up from a boat tour. They are acrobatic creatures. They can be seen lobtailing, breeching, and doing headstands. 

The Southern Right Whale is a large species of baleen whale known for its distinctive callosities on the head. It has a broad back without a dorsal fin. These whales also have a long, arching mouth that begins above the eye. They can reach up to 18 meters in length and live for around 50-70 years. 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 are known for their long pectoral fins and knobbly head. They often breach and slap the water with their fins or tails, making them a favorite among whale watchers. They can be spotted alone or in small pods. 

Humpback whales can be identified by their distinctive body shape and long pectoral fins. Their flukes are also unique to each individual. They grow up to 16 meters and can live for about 45-50 years.

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. They are closely related to Minke and Fin whales. They are a bit sleeker and more slender than other types of baleen whales. Bryde’s whales have a tall, falcate dorsal fin and three parallel ridges on the top of their head.

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.

To identify Bryde’s whales, look for the triple ridges on their head and their frequent surfacing behavior. They usually travel alone. Sometimes, you can spot a group of mother whales and their newborn calves. They often feed together.  

Brydes 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. 

Orcas

Orcas or Killer Whales, are easily recognized by their distinctive black and white coloring and prominent 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 but are known to travel vast distances globally. This makes them a bit unpredictable. 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 less predictable, but they can be seen throughout the year. They do not have a specific migration pattern and are known to travel great distances across oceans.

Sperm Whales are the largest of the toothed whales and are distinguished by their massive heads and prominent rounded foreheads. They have a single blowhole on the left side of their head, which creates a distinctive angled blow.

Their enormous head, angled blow, and the position of the blowhole are key identification features. 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 of the baleen whales. They have a pointed snout, a tall, hooked dorsal fin, and a sleek body. Their small size and the shape of the dorsal fin help in identifying them. Minke Whales typically measure around 7-10 meters in length. 

They are occasionally seen off the South African coast, particularly 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 southern hemisphere’s winter.

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 see some 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.

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. 

It’s important to note that you aren’t guaranteed to see whales. During the whale 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 that winds along the cliffs between the New Harbor and Piet-Se-Bos. The path basically stretches across the entire length of the town, giving you stunning 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 beaches where you can sit down and take in the views. 

You can whale watch from shore at any of the destinations outlined earlier. 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. 

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. 

For the best deals, book in person when you arrive. The tour companies have offices in town or near the port. Booking directly will get you the best rate. You can also get some good deals booking through your hotel. Booking online is convenient but is usually a little more expensive.

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. It’s important 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 not sure about what to wear, ask the tour company before the trip and they will give you suggestions. 

What to Expect on the Boat

The whale watching tours typically last 3 hours. There are usually morning and afternoon departures. Most tour boats have around 20 passengers. On board the boat, there will also 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 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 whale-watching trip.

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. 

Why Go Whale Watching in South Africa?

South Africa offers some of the best whale watching in the world. The country is situated 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 massive marine life biodiversity. Here, 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. 

Cape Town, South Africa

Final Thoughts

Whale watching in South Africa offers an unforgettable experience. The most popular whale watching destination is Hermanus. This coastal town is known as the whale watching capital. 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.

Each location presents a unique opportunity to witness the majestic Southern Right Whales, humpbacks, Bryde’s whales, orcas, and other marine species. Whether you choose a guided boat tour or prefer land-based observation, the whale-watching options in South Africa offer something for every budget and preference. 

As you plan your South African adventure, remember that whale watching is a seasonal activity. To give yourself the best chance of spotting these gentle giants, try to visit during the months of August and October. This is peak season for migrating whales. 

This experience is a must-do for nature lovers and wildlife enthusiasts. Whale watching offers a perfect blend of adventure and education in some of the most picturesque settings in the world.

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

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