Whether from land or boats you can expect to have the most spectacular sightings of whales every year from June - November during their annual migration from their icy feeding grounds off Antarctica to the warmer waters off Mozambique where they feed and breed. Peak calving season, and therefore viewing season, is during July and August.
The coastal waters teem with gentle giants, from southern right whales and humpback whales, to Bryde’s whales and even the odd orca, although rare. They spend time mating, calving and rearing their young – and giving whale-watchers spectacular displays of water acrobatics.
So, do you want to watch whales? We’ve rounded up 7 of the best places to watch whales in South Africa…
False Bay near Cape Town
In Cape Town, you can sometimes spot whales from along the road on the False Bay coast. Though less guaranteed, sightings around Cape Town are still plentiful. Get up high, such as from the scenic Boyes Drive above Kalk Bay and St James or the mountainside above Simon’s Town, to get a better view. Or pop in to a seaside cafe anywhere on the False Bay side of the Cape Peninsula for front row seat. Kalk Bay harbor's Live Bait, Harbour House, or Polana restaurants are all excellent vantage points that offer amazing food too.
Overlooking a secluded beach, Whale View Manor Boutique Hotel and Spa, is situated on the outskirts of historic Simon’s Town, within walking distance to Boulders Beach Penguin Colony and 10 km from Cape Point Nature Reserve. 10 individually styled en-suite bedrooms have been decorated for your comfort and relaxation. Six rooms have magnificent sea views from which you can watch whales in the bay.
The town of Hermanus is only a 1.5 hour’s drive from Cape Town and arguably offers the best land-based whale watching in the world, making this seaside town the whale capital of South Africa. Spend some time gazing out to see over Walker Bay and you’re sure to spot a whale or two. This is one of the whales most popular calving spots so you might even spot a whale baby too, with whales often coming within mere meters of the shore.
The annual marine visitors are part of Hermanus’ identity, the town boasts the world’s only ‘whale crier’ and celebrates the arrival of the whales every year with the Hermanus Whale Festival. In its 23rd year in 2015, the festival offers live music, sports events, crafts markets, informative shows and of course food. This year the festival takes place from 2 – 4 October.
Just 5 km from Hermanus, Schulphoek Seafront Guest House is situated overlooking a beautiful bay and offers spectacular sea views. Expect stylish spacious bedrooms from which you can even hear the whales blow if you’re lucky! This is an ideal spot to relax and take advantage of the delicious menu featuring delectable seafood and home-grown herbs and vegetables. Plus there are over 12 000 bottles of regional wine to choose from!
Overberg & Southern Cape
Just along the coast from Hermanus is the area known as the Overberg located in The Southern Cape. The area extends from Hermanus to Gansbaai and beyond to Cape Agulhas - the southernmost tip of Africa.
To ensure that the giant visitors who make their annual pilgrimage to this area are not disturbed during their nuptial activities, the area off the coast has been declared a Whale Sanctuary Marine Protected Area, which means that no unauthorized boats of any kind are allowed within its boundaries during the peak months of July to November.
The 5 day Whale Trail hike from Potberg to Kopie Alleen in the De Hoop Nature Reserve covers 55 km of pristine coastline. Frequent whale sightings, thick and fragrant fynbos as well as wondrous rock formations make this one of the most beautiful hikes in South Africa. Make sure to book this hike with Cape Nature well in advance due to the high demand.
Nature lovers seeking true escape will find that at De Hoop Nature Reserve. Catering to every budget, the accommodation choices offered by the De Hoop Collection range from camping to simple cottages to a grand manor house. Though all options allow for self-catering, the surprisingly good Fig Tree Restaurant conveniently offers three meals a day as well as picnic lunches which you can pack for a visit to the world-famous De Hoop dunes which are known as an epic whale sighting spot. Relax in the unspoilt setting and watch in awe as these beautiful creatures calve, blow, breach, belly-flop, spyhop and tail-slap. Don't forget your binoculars though because most of the action is a few metres out (and calves aren't highly visible from shore). The De Hoop Reserve is a World Heritage Site and one of the world’s most important nurseries for the Southern Right Whale.
Plettenberg Bay and the Garden Route
The Garden Route, from Stilbaai through Mossel Bay and on to George, Wilderness, Knysna and Tsitsikamma, is a magnificent stretch of coastline hosting whales in their season. Located to the eastern end of this route is the sunny seaside town of Plettenberg Bay where whales visit during May and June and then again on their return migration, from November to January. Year round you can expect to see Bryde's whales or orcas occasionally and bottlenose and humpback dolphins are in residence all year. A breeding colony of Cape fur seals completes Plettenberg Bays' impressive array of marine mammals. Whale watching trips in boats, kayaks and aircraft are on offer in this seaside town and viewing distances and time spent with each animal is strictly monitored so that there is minimal interference.
With stunning ocean views, An Ocean Watch Guest House is perfectly positioned in Plettenberg Bay for whale and dolphin watching. Luxury bedrooms are tastefully decorated in colours of the sand and sea to create a relaxed and elegant beach house ambience. Most bedrooms upstairs, and two downstairs, have spectacular sea views. Relax in a private lounge with sea views or enjoy a sundowner at the pool overlooking the beautiful bay below - one of the most glorious views of Plettenberg Bay.
During the months of May to December the waters off the Eastern Cape play host to a number of visitors. Not only are the likes of Otters and Dolphins regular visitors but this is when the Humpback whales and Southern Right Whales arrive. Humpback whales can be spotted almost daily in these waters during their northward migration from May to July and again on their return journey from November to January. Many times a boat is not even required to observe their antics and a pair of binoculars will do!
The Resort at Cape St Francis, is a unique paradise on the South African southern coast which draws holidaymakers from all over the world. Enjoy glorious beaches, excellent water-sport facilities, a leisurely lifestyle and the magical beauty of the unspoilt surroundings taking advantage of some of the longest sunshine hours on the coast. Cape St Francis Resort offers accommodation from luxury beach villas to upmarket beach cottages and affordable apartments and is the ideal base from which to explore all that the area has to offer from golf, canal and river cruises, surfing, whale-watching and a penguin rescue facility.
Along the Wild Coast the whales do not come in as close as they do in the Southern Cape so it is best to pack a pair of binoculars and climb up to a high vantage point or alternatively book a trip on a whale watching boat. Debbie and Rob from OffShore Africa in Port St Johns offer a 2 hour or 4 hour ocean/ whale watching trip for a minimum of 4 people. Trips are done on availability of the boats during sardine run season (mid June – mid July) but during this spectacular observers are treated to spectacular displays including incredible whales leaps right out of the water.
The Wild Coast is one of South Africa’s most spectacular regions with it’s rocky coastline, indigenous forests, secluded coves and many river mouths and all this is right on your doorstep at Umngazi River Bungalows & Spa, an award-winning family resort which is the perfect place to relax and unwind. Thatch-roofed bungalows are set amongst indigenous gardens which provide the perfect setting for a totally relaxed holiday near Port St John's. Idyllic days are spent lounging on secluded beaches or exploring mangrove swamp.>
While the Cape coast receives the most hype, the KZN 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.
Located in the upmarket region of Salt Rock on KwaZulu-Natal‘s North Coast, otherwise known as the Dolphin Coast, is Canelands Beach Club & Spa. Set literally a step away from the beach this is the ideal beach hotel. A 180 degree seaview will greet you as your walk out onto the pool deck, here your front garden is the warm Indian Ocean and the dolphins’ playground. With only 10 rooms expect exclusive service while you watch dolphins and whales at play.
Whale Watching Tips
Only commercially licensed boat based whale watching enterprises are allowed to approach within 300 meters of whales and advertise whale-watching tours. Make sure the skipper has the required permit (for your safety and welfare of the animals).
When going on a whale watching tour you need to take a good camera or video camera, hat and a good sun block.
Whales are sensitive to disturbances so try not to make any noise.
The best time of the day for viewing whales is early in the morning when there is normally less wind.
Clear wind free conditions are best for passengers but the whales seem to perform better in windy conditions and become more active later on during the day when the wind picks up. This makes for more spectacular viewing as the whales became boisterous, frequently leaping out of the water.
Watch out for the whales spout or breaching, this is the first sign of their presence.