One of the reasons we went to South Africa in September, is because we wanted to go during whale watching season. Every year, whales migrate from Antarctica to the warmer waters around South Africa coming so close to the shores you can even spot them from the land.
Whale watching in South Africa is best between June and November, though the whale watching season starts as early as May. 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 Bryde's whales. Orcas aren't uncommon either.
- Where is the best whale watching in South Africa?
- Boat based whale watching
- Best land-based whale watching in Hermanus
- Robberg Nature Reserve – Plettenberg Bay
- More whale watching opportunities in and around Cape Town
- Tips to make the most of your whale watch trips in South Africa
- Where to stay when whale watching in South Africa
- Pin for later
Where is the best whale watching in South Africa?
Whales can be spotted from Doringbaai on the western coast, all the way along the coast of the Cape Peninsula. You can also go whale watching along the Garden Route, at Cape Agulhas (the tip of Africa where the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean meet), and as far east as the border with Mozambique.
The west coast with the Western Cape and Garden Route are better known for spotting whales than the east coast.
The following are spots where we saw whales during our trip to South Africa.
Boat based whale watching
As seeing whales in the wild was at the top of the bucket list, I knew I didn't want to stick to land-based whale watching but also wanted to do some boat-based whale watching. There are plenty of companies organizing whale watching but we ended up doing a tour with Simon's Town Boat Company thanks to Cape Town Travel.
Simon's Town is located in the north of the Cape Peninsula at False Bay. There are some cute cafes and it is walking distance to Boulders Beach where you can see the famous African penguins. But the main reason you go there? For whale watching of course.
It's a large bay, embraced by land from Cape Point to Pringle Bay, which is just beyond the city. Simon's Town Boat Company happens to be the only company that is allowed to organize whale watching trips there.
That maybe makes you think we were on a massive whale watching boat with 30 other tourists. In fact, there were only about 10 or so of us on the rather small boat and I really appreciated that.
During the tour, we could sit outside at the back, go inside to warm up, climb on top of the “roof” for the views, or go sit at the front. Water and small snacks were complimentary. We weren't just there for a boat ride, were we. We were there to see some marine life!
As we headed out of the harbor, the captain told us there'd been some sightings of whales in False Bay that morning and so our odds were good. During the tour, 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 deck, I could see how a pod of four or five southern right whales swim around us. They were huge!
The captain told us the whales would often come super close. In spite of their large bodies, they somehow knew to keep themselves just inches from the vessel. Once or twice, they even swam underneath the boat to appear again on the other side.
We spent quite a while observing these beautiful marine 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 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.
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, but I'd loved every moment of the experience and I'd do it again in a heartbeat.
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 as we did.
As the whale watching season is South African winter/beginning of spring, it won't be warm while out on the water. Dress accordingly.
Best land-based whale watching in Hermanus
Hermanus offers some of the best whale watching in the world, from the shore and the water. They even have the Hermanus Whale Festival which takes place annually around the end of September/beginning of October.
We skipped the whale watching boat tours in Hermanus and opted for the magnificent whale hiking trail. The trail, known as the Cliff Path, is an 11 km long walk along the cliffs from New Harbour to Grotto Beach in Hermanus.
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. 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 southern right 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 here you're likely to find the Hermanus Whale Crier (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 who let everyone know they've seen a whale by blowing a big horn. He answers questions about whales and tells stories about the history of the city.
If you'd like to take a whale-watching bout tour while in Hermanus, this one comes highly recommended. Refreshments are included and there is a whale specialist on board to answer all of your questions.
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
The above are just the places we spotted whales. In season, you can see them just about everywhere along the Western Cape. You can take a boat tour, do land-based whale watching, in some places you can even go on a kayak whale watching tour.
If you're planning a city trip to Cape Town and you want to see whales, just remember that you'll need to head out of the city center. Obvious, maybe, but I'll just mention it to be sure :-) Simons's Town (which is about 45 minutes by taxi from Green Point) is the closest place to go on an excellent whale watching tour and the rest of False Bay isn't too far away either.
Tips to make the most of your whale watch trips in South Africa
1. Always bring binoculars
I know they're 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. Binoculars will make it much easier to spot whales from the shore.
2. 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
I mean wind resistant and warm! 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 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 see whales in the wild again, right? So don't just look through your binoculars or your camera but also just enjoy the moment with your two natural lenses.
Where to stay when whale watching in South Africa
In Cape Town
In Hermanus, we spent two nights at the One Marine Drive boutique hotel. It has a pool and is located right by the Hermanus whale watching coastal path. We loved our stay here.
In Plettenberg Bay, we spent one night at the Anlin Beach House. This B&B is just a quick drive from the Robberg Nature Reserve. It has private parking.
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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.