South Africa’s coastal waters are frequented by more than 2000 species of fish including the most impending, the Great White Shark. Turtles breed on the beach. Dolphin, seals and otters frolic on or near the shore.

See also Encounter Magazine's comprehensive guide on whale watching in South Africa.

But for many, the main attraction is likely to be the intelligent and remarkable giant of the sea, the only mammal that lives in the open oceans. Humpback, Bryde’s and southern right whales as well as Orcas or killer whales, can all be spotted here.

Humpback Whale
The Humpback Whale is approximately 15m in length and weighs approximatly 30 tons. Usually black on top and white underneath. It also has long, narrow flippers. They perform spectacular 'breaches' - leaping out of the water.

Southern Right Whale
The Southern Right Whale is called such because it was the ‘right’ whale to hunt as it floats when dead; is rich in oil and baleen, and is relatively slow moving. They are also usually approximately 15m long, but are heavier, 50 – 60 tons, and live to about 100 years.

They are huge - rounder and heavier than the Humpback or Bryde’s whale - and only smaller than the blue whale. They are characterised by their gentle slowness, lack of dorsal fin and rough patches of skin called callosities on their heads. These wart- like growths are covered with whale lice and, as each whale has a unique callosity pattern, are often used to identify individual whales.

Season
The peak whale watching season along the South African coast is from July through October when the southern right whale is resident along the Cape south coast and Humpback whales frequent the waters off the Elephant Coast in KawZulu Natal.

Brydes whales can be seen off the South African coast year round, albeit further out. These gentle giants spend summer feeding around Antarctica and then migrate thousands of miles to our waters where the sheltered bays of the South African coast provide perfect refuge to mate and calve.

Whether you partake in shore or boat-based whale watching, a trip to the South African coast is unlikely to be forgotten soon.

Shore-based Tours
Shore-based whale watching allows both adults and children to take in the big picture and observe as one or more marine mammals puts on a show. Coastal cliffs and ridges along the Western Cape Coast afford the best views of southern right whales with Hermanus as most popular spot.

For land-based viewing there are whale-watching towers in three KZN Wildlife Reserves: Cape Vidal, Amatikulu and Mpenjati, though at the right time of year you could be lucky from just about any vantage point along the coast. Humpback whales are most commonly seen, and pods of bottlenose dolphins routinely patrol up and down the coast just beyond the breakers all year round.

Boat-based tours
Probably the best way to view whales and dolphins up close is from a boat. Look out for the whale's blow because boat-based whale watching trips will bring you within 50 feet of a whale, or even closer! For many this is likely to be the ultimate marine thrill.

However, unless you are aboard a boat licensed by the Department of Marine and Coastal Management you are not allowed, by law, to approach within 300m of a whale.

Cape Coast
The coming of the whales to the Cape Whale Coast every year, especially between June and November, creates quite a stir. While whale watching is possible just about anywhere along the Cape coast from Lambert’s Bay in the west to Port Elizabeth in the east, Hermanus is the best place to spot southern right whales from shore.

Boat-based whale watching tours also depart from Plettenberg Bay. In Cape Town, False Bay on the city's southern edge, offers exceptional shore-based whale watching

Some of the top locations along the Cape Coast for watching whales are:
*Hermanus – The town of Hermanus has proclaimed itself the whale capital of the world - and it's not far off. These huge beasts sometimes loll around mere metres from the shore, and they are clearly visible from the scenic and fragrant cliff-top walk.

Hermanus is geared towards whale watching and many vantage points have been set up to accommodate the hundreds of people who flock here for the Hermanus Whale Festival every year in late September.

*Stilbaai - Scores of Southern Right Whales in young enter the placid waters of The Bay of Sleeping Beauty to bear their calves. The new-borns can be spotted frolicking with their attentive mothers from Lappiesbaai Restaurant (Stillbaai East) adnd the parking area about the harbour.

*Mossel Bay - Whilst relaxing on De Bakke Beach,with the stunning setting and the view from the north-facing beaches you can experience the care-free playing of whales and dolphins. Regular boat trips to Seal Island give you the best chance to spot whales, dolphins, jackass penguins, seals and sharks.

*Hartenbos - Situated close to Mossel Bay, boasts with one of the longest walking beaches in the Southern Cape. You can experience marine life in every form

*Wilderness - The small seaside resort is 15km east of George and an ideal whale watching destination. Dolphin's Point, at the east end of the spectacular Kaaiman's Pass (part of the N2 highway), overlooks some 20km of beach and the bay.

*Knysna - The Knysna Heads guarding the entrance to the Knysna Lagoon are the best-known viewpoint, offering an unfrogettable view of the rugged coastline and tranquil lagoon.

*Plettenberg Bay - Offers outstanding whale watching facilities with ideal viewpoints along the coastline. The area between the wreck of the Athene (at the soutern end of Lookout beach) and Keurbooms River is especially favoured by the Southern Right Whales.

*Nature's Valley - Occasionally one or two pairs (consisting of a mother and her calf) will take up "residence" in the vicinity of Nature's Valley. Continue along the Bloukrans Pass until you reach the Tsitsikamma National Park, at the Storms River Mouth.The National Park offers excellent whale watching opportunities.

Kwazulu Natal
While the Cape coast receives the most hype, the Elephant Coast boasts the highest number of sightings. Whales can frequently be seen off the KwaZulu-Natal coast from July to November - mainly Humpbacked Whales, and occasionally Southern Right Whales.

From July to September the whales are moving north on their way to their breeding grounds off the Mozambique coast, and from September to November they return, heading for the nutrient-rich waters of Antarctica. Boat-based whale watching excursions depart from the village of St. Lucia situated 80 km north of Richards Bay.

What to bring
Equip each child with a camera and binoculars as well as a notebook to record all sea life sightings. Don’t forget to pack a waterproof jacket and hat for each member of your crew and sunscreen.

Don’t underestimate the risk of seasickness on a boat-based whale watching tour; an ocean that appears calm from shore can actually be rough at sea.

Contact
For up-to-the-minute information on whale sightings, and for further information on whale-watching on South Africa's coast, contact the Whale Hotline on Tel: +27 (0)83 910 1028
  • Whale Watching
  • Whale Watching
  • Whale Watching