The Wildebeest's guide to South Africa

Watching Whales in South Africa

Afrikaans name: Walvis kyk in Suid Afrika

Southern Right Whales

Southern Right Whales are often seen at Hermanus

Photo © Adobe

When you think about South Africa, it is mainly synonymous with drives through game reserves or taking a tour through a cultural village, but South Africa definitely does have a lot more to offer than that. The country is already blessed with a diverse cast of bird and wildlife, but many people forget that our coastlines have a lot to offer as well. South Africa is fortunate that it has two oceans that meet on our shoreline. With the mix of the colder Atlantic Ocean and the warmer Indian Ocean, South Africa is granted the best of both worlds when it comes to an abundance of marine life.

Thanks to this, South Africa is lucky enough to have six different species of whale that regularly grace our waters, so it comes as no surprise that South Africa is a prime whale watching destination. While you may be thinking about what your chances are to actually seeing a whale due to the sheer amount of coastline this country has and you aren’t wrong, it’s definitely not going to be easy, but we will give you a few tips to help with your search for these majestic creatures.

First off, it is important to have the right equipment. A good quality pair of binoculars is a good place to start. It is very seldom that you will see a whale up close, so having something that allows you to see them in the distance is a must-have. You could also opt for a telescope, however, that is not always a viable option because it is not easily portable. When it comes to whale watching, it can be done on the shoreline or on a boat. If you choose to go on a boat, you can imagine that taking a telescope with you is not the best idea.

Another piece of equipment that you may want to take with you, would be either a camera or video camera. These are definitely handy when it comes to documenting what you see on your whale-watching trip. They are also useful when you see something, and you are not too sure what it is. You can take a picture or record the sighting and take a better look at it when you load it onto the computer. You do not need an awful lot to take with you on a whale watching trip, but keep in mind that continued exposure to the elements and the sea air will start to corrode your equipment over time. It is also particularly important to keep an eye on the straps of your gear, you don’t want it to snap while you are on a boat.

Now that you already have your gear, the next thing you need to know is where to go. There are several places in South Africa that you can visit on your whale watching trip. When planning your trip, you need to keep in mind which whales you are hoping to see as each type of whale prefers a different part of the coastline. You also need to make sure your plans correspond to the seasons because this will also affect where you may see certain whales. Wherever you are, always look for a good vantage point. This will be an area of high elevation which is not obscured by anything.

Humpback Whale

Humpback Whales are seen most often during June and July

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When it comes to Southern Right whales, they are typically found closer to the coastline and it is not unusual to see them throughout the South African shoreline. However, they do have a higher population nearer Cape Town, so they are quite common along the southern coastline. Be sure to make stops at False Bay and Hout Bay. During the winter months, it is recommended that you take a drive from Muizenberg to Cape Point to get a glimpse of the Southern Right whale. Do not be shy to travel a bit further along the coast. If you plan on going towards the western shoreline, aim to stop at Yzerfontein or the West Coast National Park. Both places are perfect for whale watching and provide the perfect lookout point.

If you are thinking of going east of Cape Town, aim to go to Hermanus with detours to Betty’s Bay and Kleinmond. If you plan on going this route, aim to go between July and November as this is the Southern Right whales breeding season, and you may be lucky enough to see some calves.

Bryde’s whales can be seen throughout the year as the seasons do not affect them. They are best observed from larger bays, which make places like False Bay and Walker Bay your best viewing destinations. To improve your chances of seeing this particular species of whale, we suggest maybe making a trip to the east coast between the months of May and July, which is the time of the annual sardine run, as these whales do feed on fish so they should be making an appearance to hunt during this time.

Humpback whales do not stay in the waters off the South African coastline however they can frequently be seen during their migrations. During June and July, Humpback whales migrate from their feeding grounds in the Antarctic and can be seen travelling northwards. Later, in the year, during October and November, the whales can be spotted making their way southwards.

Sperm Whale

Durban is the best place to see Sperm Whale

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While Humpback, Bryde’s and Southern Right whales can often be spotted from the shoreline, some of the other species found in South African waters are a little harder to see as they live in deeper waters. In these instances, you will have to have to charter a boat if you want a chance to see them.

Sperm whales are mainly found off the coast of Durban. Minke whales can be seen between Cape St Francis and the Wild Coast or other the waters off other destinations like Plettenberg Bay, Still Bay, Cape Infanta and Witsands.

Once you have found your ideal whale watching spot, you will need to keep your eye out for the following signs of whale activity. The first thing to look for when you are whale-watching, is other whale-watchers. If you get to an area that already has people with binoculars in hand, it is a good sign that whales are around. Next you will need to keep your eyes out for little bursts of spray. These will be made by the whale’s blowhole and will give away its location. Look out for any breaching or surfacing. This will help you identify the type of whale and the number of whales in the area.

When you see some whale activity, don’t keep your eyes fixed on one location. You will need to make a guess as to where the whale might appear next if you hope to get a better view, so keep scanning in the direction you think the whale is heading.

Whales and humans have a complex relationship, but now, we are starting to see how valuable these gentle giants are to our ecosystems and economy. When whaling was a thriving business, some whale species were hunted to the verge of extinction, but now we realise that that is no longer a sustainable avenue. Communities are now embracing conservationist strategies to help boost whale populations as whale-watching becomes a popular tourist attraction. South Africa has numerous pieces of legislation that is put in place to aid in conserving and protecting its whale population. Many of these laws forbid people from interfering, harming or harassing whales. There are also laws in place about how far away boats must be from these majestic creatures. Abiding by this legislation is imperative when it comes to ensuring that the whales receive the respect they deserve, so they can continue thriving.


References and further reading

Watching Whales & Dolphins in Southern Africa - Author: Noel & Belinda Ashton - Year Published: 2012

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