One of the reasons we went to South Africa in September, is because we wanted to go during whale season. Every year, there's a large whale migration from Antarctica to the warmer waters around South Africa with whales coming so close to the shores you can even spot them from land.
The best time for whale watching in South Africa is from June until October, though whale watching season starts as early as May and lasts until November. Peak calving season is in July and August.
The three types of whales that are most often spotted in South Africa are the southern right whale, the humpback whale and the Bryde whale. Orcas aren't uncommon either.
- Where is the best whale watching in South Africa?
- Boat based whale watching in Simon's Town South Africa
- Land based whale watching in Hermanus
- Robberg Nature Reserve – Plettenberg Bay
- More whale watching opportunities in and around Cape Town
- Tips to get the most out of your whale watch trips in South Africa
- Where to stay in Cape Town and Hermanus?
- Pin for later
Where is the best whale watching in South Africa?
Whales can be spotted from Doringbaai at the western coast, all the way around the Cape Peninsula, along the Garden Route and as far east as the border with Mozambique. The Western Cape is better known for whale spotting than the Eastern Cape and also happened to be where most of our South African road trip took place.
The following are spots where we saw whales during our trip.
Boat based whale watching in Simon's Town South Africa
As seeing whales in the wild was at the top of bucket list, I knew I didn't want to stick to just land-based whale watching but also wanted to go out on the water with a boat. There are plenty of boat companies that provide whale watching at the cape but we ended up doing a trip with Simon's Town Boat Company thanks to Cape Town Travel.
Going on a whale watching trip is one of the things to do in Simon's Town – if not the only thing, as it's a pretty small but quaint place located on the Cape Peninsula at False Bay.
If you're wondering where to see whales in Cape Town, False Bay is the answer. It's a large bay, embraced by land from Cape Point to Pringle Bay, which is just beyond Cape Town. And Simon's Town Boat Company happens to be the only company that is allowed to organize whale watching boat trips there.
That maybe makes you think out trip took place on a massive whale watching boat with 30 other tourists, but the opposite was true. There were only about 10 or so of us on the rather small boat and I really appreciated that.
During the trip, we could sit outside at the back, go inside to warm up, climb on top of the “roof” to have a good overview or go sit at the front. Water and small snacks were complimentary.
But we weren't just there for a boat trip, were we. We were there to see some whales!
As we headed out of the harbor, the captain told us there'd already been some sightings of whales in False Bay that morning and so our odds were good. During the trip, he'd constantly keep an eye on his whale radar while his first mate used his binoculars to spot if something was out there.
And then it happened.
Bumps of black back slid in and out of the water, never truly revealing the size of the animals they belonged to until we got close. Or better: until we let them get close. The boat never chased the animals but held still at a little distance so the animals could decide whether they wanted to come and say hi or not.
Luckily for us, they did.
Standing on top of the boat, I could see how a pod of four or five southern right whales swam around the boat. They were huge!
The captain told us that the whales would often come super close to the boat, but they'd never hit it. In spite of their large bodies, they somehow knew to keep themselves just inches from the vessel. Once or twice, one even swam underneath the boat to appear again on the other side.
We spent quite a while observing these beautiful creatures, but it only felt like a heartbeat. Then it was time to move on.
There was supposed to be another pod of whales in the bay and so we set out to find them. Sure enough, after just a few minutes we spotted the ring we'd learned to recognize as a whale sign.
This time, we'd found a pod of humpback whales. They weren't too impressed with us, though, and only briefly came to say hello. So we admired them from a bit further away until we headed back to Simon's Town.
When we approached the harbor, I thought: “That was quick!” but then I realized we'd been out at sea for almost three hours. We didn't see any spectacular jumps or anything like that, but I'd loved every moment of the experience and I'd do it again in a heartbeat.
Simon's Town boat trips with Simon's Town Boat Company leave from the harbor at Wharf Street. It's just a small side street from the M4 main road. You can park on the street nearby, or take an Uber there like we did.
As the best time to see whales in Cape Town is during South African winter/beginning of spring, it won't be warm on the boat. Dress accordingly.
Land based whale watching in Hermanus
Hermanus is one of the most popular places for whale watching in South Africa and rightfully so. It offers some of the best watching in the world, both from the shore and from the water. The town even has the Hermanus Whale Festival which takes place annually around the end of September/beginning of October.
As we'd already done a boat trip, we skipped the whale watching tours offered from Hermanus and instead opted for the magnificent whale hiking trail.
The trail is actually known as the Cliff Path and it's an almost 11 km long walk along the cliffs from New Harbour to Grotto Beach in Hermanus. That's 11 km of whale spotting opportunities.
We saw whales at several moments during our walk. The most memorable one was probably when we were having lunch at Dutchies, a cafe by the beach, and we could see a southern right whale swim along the shore right from the terrace.
Based on our very limited experience, I wouldn't say there's one best place to see whales in Hermanus, but there is one place I think everyone goes to.
Gearing's Point is a spot that sticks out a bit into the ocean and thus gives you a great view of the water. You can get there even if you're not walking the Cliff Path as it's right by Hermanus's commercial center.
It's also where you're likely to find the Hermanus Whale Crier. The Whale Crier of Hermanus is the only whale crier in the world. The job was created by the city in 1992 and has since been taken up by several men. When the Whale Crier spots a whale, he lets everyone know by blowing a big horn. He answers questions about whales and tells stories about the history of the city.
Robberg Nature Reserve – Plettenberg Bay
I won't go into our amazing hike at the Robberg Nature Reserve in Plettenberg Bay too much, as I'll do so in another post, but I do want to mention this was one of the other places we spotted a whale. Unfortunately, I was too slow to get my camera out.
As the Robberg Nature Reserve is located on a rather narrow peninsula that sticks high out above the ocean, it's probably the best place for some Plettenberg whale watching.
As far as I know, Keurboomstrand isn't particularly known for whale sightings. There are one or two viewpoints along the road driving there, but the beach itself is just a beautiful long stretch of open sand.
And still, we spotted a whale! I think there were two of them, but it was hard to tell from such a distance and we didn't have our binoculars with us. #fail
The photo above is no masterpiece, but it shows how close to the shore the whale was. It kept appearing just right behind the breaking waves! We actually spotted it as we were about to leave the beach and stuck around for quite a bit longer as we did. When we headed back to the car, it was still making appearances right where we'd first seen it.
More whale watching opportunities in and around Cape Town
As said, the above are just the places where we spotted whales. In season, you can see them just about everywhere along the Western Cape. You can take a boat tour, like we did, do land-based whale watching and in some places you can even rent go on a kayak whale watching tour.
If you're planning a city trip to Cape Town and you want to see whales in Cape Town, just remember that you'll need to get out of the city center. Obvious, maybe, but I'll just mention it to be sure :-) Simons's Town is the closest place to Cape Town where you can go on an excellent whale watching tour and the rest of False Bay isn't too far away either.
Tips to get the most out of your whale watch trips in South Africa
1. Always bring a binocular when heading to the coast
I know it's heavy to carry around, but we left ours at the hotel a few times and were then bummed when we spotted something in the distance. Unless you're carrying a massive photo lens with you at all times, bring that binocular.
2. Always keep your eyes open
We knew you could spot whales from the shore just about anywhere along the Western Cape, but we still hadn't expected to see them at random. So whenever you're near the water, keep your eyes open. You never know when you'll spot a black back.
3. Wear proper clothes on your whale watching boat trip
And with proper, I mean wind resistant and somewhat warm. They might not be necessary anymore if you late October, but they definitely were beginning of September. Even though the boat is still while you're watching the whales and goes very slowly as it approaches them, it'll go fast when it leaves the harbor or makes it way to where the captain assumes the whales are. And a fast boat = lots of cold wind.
4. Don't just look through a lens
I had to tell myself on several occasions that I didn't need to get that perfect shot (and I didn't because none of the whales wanted to breach :D) and that I should just enjoy the experience. Who knows when you'll get to see whales in the wild again, right? So don't just look through your binoculars or your camera (except when they're super far away, obviously) but also just take in the moment with your two natural lenses.
Where to stay in Cape Town and Hermanus?
We spent three nights at an Airbnb in Green Point and two nights at boutique hotel Blackheath Lodge while we were in Cape Town. In Hermanus, we spent two nights at the One Marine Drive boutique hotel.
Want to try Airbnb? If you don't have an account yet, I can give you a discount on your first booking if you book through my link.
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Rather stay at a hotel? You can find information about prices and availability at Blackheath Lodge here and information on ONe Marine Drive here.
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We received a complimentary whale watching tour to be able to write about the experience.
As always when I collaborate with brands, no agreements were made about how I'd write about what. The decision to enjoy this trip was entirely mine.