Whales Watching in Cape Town
South Africa has earned itself a reputation as one of the most incredible destinations in the world for watching marine mammals.
With majestic southern right and humpback whales visiting the South African seas year-round, it is not a surprising fact.
Be it from a boat or from land, whales watchers can expect the most spectacular displays of raw power and elegant water acrobatics they have ever seen!
In Cape Town, the most seen whales are the southern right whales. Every year, southern right whales migrate from their icy feeding grounds off Antarctica to join the warmer climates in June. They spend the winter in quiet bays (like Fish Hoek) between the West Coast and Port Elizabeth. The country’s lagoons provide these giants of the sea what they need to mate, calve and rear their young. The breeding spot of the southern right whales is the sheltered bays of the Western Cape coast. They can spend up to five months a year here, passing their time playing, courting and nursing their newborn calves.
The best area to spot whales in Cape Town is on the warmer False Bay side, though there are many other hot spots for you to catch more than just a glimpse of these queens of majesty. Whales in the Southern African seas are gigantic in size, glorious with their sleek, streamlined bodies, and so majestic that they are celebrated.
Whales are the only mammals which have adapted to life in the open seas—and they have done it so wonderfully. They are so huge that they seem to reign on water… and so graceful that the ocean currents seem to obey them. Watching those majestic Queens of the sea from so close in Cape Town will simply be an unforgettable experience of your entire life!
Whales Watching Locations
Whales Watching in Hermanus, the world’s whale watching capital
The seaside town of Hermanus lies approximately one and a half hour away from Cape Town. Home of the southern right whale, it is acclaimed to offer the best land based whale watching in the world. From May onwards, Southern Right whales can be seen mating and with their calf in the nearby warm and shallow water. The best time to catch a spectacle of the whales is between August and November when the bay is dotted with those huge impressive mammals.
To spot a whale or two, the only thing you need to do it to walk along the cliff path that stretches for 12km from one end of the town to the other. The whales will be just nearby, as close as 20 meters away, frolicking in the sheltered bay or just beyond the breakers. Follow the rumbling sound of the Whale Crier’s kelp horn, a much loved local personality, it will signal to you where the whales can be spotted.
The annual Whale Festival of 9 days at Hermanus occurs in late September every year. As it has been so for eons, the whales will be the star performers of the festival, which will be embellished by great food, quality crafters, sport events and entertainment of all kind. Hermanus welcomes thousands of visitors every year (it was host to 137 000 visitors in 2011) in its unique natural environment where you will contemplate those giants of the sea.
With its excellent beaches and tourists attractions, Hermanus is a town that will enchant you.
Whales Watching in False Bay
False Bay is generally considered as the best place for whales watching in Cape Town. Its waters provide plenty of cetaceans and large numbers of other visitors during the whale migrations—it is thus, of no wonder that False Bay is the whales’ favorite place.
East False Bay
On the east side, the coastal road from Gordon’s Bay to Cape Hangklip, which is the eastern most point of False Bay, provides you with excellent views of the southern right whales. Stony Point is located just south of Cape Hangklip. It is a historical site of the Hangklip whaling station and currently shelters a Jackass Penguin colony.
West False Bay
On the west side of the bay, you can frequently find southern rights within meters from the shore!
The Muizenberg - Simon's Town coastal road, Boyes Drive above St James and Kalk Bay and the coastal road from Simon's Town to Cape Point are two outstanding whale watching spots. In particular, the coastal walkway from Muizenberg to St James (past Baylie's Cottage), the Kalk Bay Harbour Wall, the walkways at Fish Hoek including the catwalk can give excellent views.
Other places where you can find the whales in Cape Town are:
- On Boyes Drive, there is a perfect vintage point winding along the mountainside between Muizenberg and Kalk Bay.
- Fish Hoek is the excellent place for beach lovers, where you can walk from the restaurant area along Jager’s Walk towards Glencairn. You might be delighted with a soaking from one of their blows.
- Some spectacular mountainside vantage points can be found along the route from Boulders to Smitswinkelbaai.
- Between Gordon’s Bay and the tiny coastal town of Rooi Els, there is a picturesque coastal road called Clarence Drive. It has prime whale watching spots en route to Hermanus.
- Another magnificent place in Cape Point is the dramatic cliff viewpoint above Rooikrans.
- Misty Cliffs is another wonderful location. As the road is slightly above the shallow waters, you can find the whales literally frolicking at your feet.
Whales Species – Cape Town Region
Around Cape Town, you can mostly find three different species of whales (though other species are also sometimes spotted):
- Southern right whales
- Humpback whales
- Brydes Whales
- Killer whales (Orcas)
Southern right, humpback and brydes whales are from the baleen whales family. They have a filter in their mouths called ‘baleen’ or ‘whalebone’ to help them filter tiny shrimp-like animals called zooplankton. Killer whales form part of the toothed whales family, and normally eat fish and squid.
Southern Right Whales (Scientific name: Eubalaena Australis)
The most commonly seen whales are the southern right whales. The whale is name as such because it is considered the ‘right’ whale to catch. What is particular about this species is that it has the most highly-evolved mammalian brain on earth. Huge, rounder and heavier than the Humpback or Bryde’s whale, they can weigh up to 60 tons, and average to 14 meters in length. Their lifetime can stretch to over 50 years. You will recognize them by their lack of dorsal fin and rough patches of skin called callosities on their heads, covered with whale lice. The expert eye can identify the individuals since each whale has a unique callosity pattern.
They can remain under water for about 6 minutes and swim fairly slowly at an average speed of 6 km/hour when cruising, although that can reach 11 km/hour in short bursts. Being seasonal feeders (in winter), they can eat up to 1.5 tons of krill a day.
Humpback Whales (Scientific name: Megaptera Novaeangliae)
After the southern right ones, humpback whales are most prevalent in the South African bays, namely between KZN and the Garden Route. They meat and calve in the warm waters off both Mozambique and West Africa. As they move past South Africa to migrate to the northern seas in winter, usually in May and June, they can be contemplated in False Bay by visitors. You will also see them on their return trip to the Southern Ocean in October and November, with a few stragglers lacking behind in December.
Southern hemisphere Humpback whales are slightly smaller than those of the northern hemisphere. They weigh 30 to 50 tons; females can reach 13.7 meters, a little bit longer than the males’ 13.1 meters. You can find them single or in small pods.
Known as the acrobats of the ocean, they are quite frolic mammals: jumping clear out of water and slapping it with their tails, poking their heads out. They can remain under water for about 15 minutes, diving to depths of 150 to 210 meters (500 to 700 ft). Faster than the southern right whales, their swimming speed is about 12 km/hour (3 to 9 miles an hour) and can even reach up to 25 km/hour (15 to 16 miles an hour).
Like other baleen whales, humpback whales seem to be seasonal feeders. On average, a Humpback whale eats 2000 – 2500 kg of food a day during the feeding season. Intelligent mammals, they cooperate in hunting by trapping their prey into ‘bubble-nets’.
Bryde’s Whales (Scientific name: Balaenoptera Edeni)
Quite mysterious to the sight is the Bryde’s whale, a species of which surprisingly little is known. They are sleek dark grey (with a white underbelly), predatory missiles which aim for the larger, more mobile prey than do some other baleen species. The Bryde’s whale is rare elsewhere but between the West Coast and Port Elizabeth, including Fish Hoek, it is very commonly seen.
Like for the other baleen whales, mature females are larger than the males. They can reach 14 meters long, compared to the males of 13.5 meters. Bryde’s like zigzagging through the water on their sides while they gulp food, mostly large shoals of small fish like pilchards and sardines.
Killer Whales or Orcas (Scientific name: Orcinus Orca)
Orcas are occasionally seen in False Bay, though they may be found the whole length of the South African coast. As not much is known of their migratory patterns, their movements are unpredictable.
Unlike the other whales described, orca males are larger than the females. Males are usually of a maximum length of 10 meters, while the females have a mean length of about 7.5 meters.
Generally, orcas move in groups of up to 200 animals but in the South African waters, they are usually in smaller groups of 3 or 4. Rather quick animals, they can attain speeds of up to 30 km/hour and dive for up to 6-7 minutes.
As for the diet of orcas, it is a varied one: fish, squid, seals, dolphins, sea birds and even small whales! As suggested by their name, they are well-known predators of the sea, so much that seals appear to have an inborn fear of them. However, despite this fearsome reputation, there are no records of orcas attacking man. They attack their prey by biting their flippers or flukes and then attempt to get to the tongue, which they seem to particularly like.
Whale Watching Behaviours – What to expect?
Whales have, for ages, been a fascination to man. They behave in spectacular ways, exhibiting graceful movements so easily in the vast and deep ocean that they almost seem to be dancing.
They have a diverse range of behaviours which you can observe from close to the shore, giving you the most spectacular show of your life:
It may be a form of play, communication or an aggressive display, often described as a behavioral exclamation mark! The whales leap out of the water in an arching back flip, spinning in air before re-entry, once or many times in succession (and if you are lucky, up to 35+ times!). At times, two or three whales can associate and breach simultaneously.
The whale lunges or leaps partially out of the water and in doing so, strikes the underside of the chin forcefully on the surface of the water. This behavior often occurs after a breaching sequence, and nobody knows why.
Lobtailing (or the Tail Slap)
They slap their tail flukes on the surface, often forcibly, and create a sound that one can hear from a considerable distance. This can occur two ways: “right way up” with the whale slapping the ventral (underneath) side of the flukes on the water; or, with the whale belly-up slapping the dorsal (top-side) of the flukes on the water. It can often occur many times in a row. As with the other behaviours, why whales do this is not precisely known, and the theories suggested are contradictory in themselves. Some speculate they might do it to ward off other whales while others suggest it might be an invitation to other whales to join a group. Why not observe for yourself and form your own theory?
This is when the whales stand vertically with their heads and bodies, as far as the flippers, above the surface. The mouth is neither open nor are the ventral pleats extended. Usually the whale is stationary, and the flippers, outstretched beneath the surface. Such a posture enables them to have a clear view of what surrounds them. At times, they will clear the water first with their flippers or tails, creating a circular window, from which they can have a better view through the surface of the water.
Mating – Competitive Behaviour between Males
Often you will find a group of whales interacting within an area—it is usually a mating session where several males will attempt to mate with a single female. Male humpback whales especially, compete and fight with each other in order to claim exclusive access to a female. Surface-active groups may be harmless as much as they can be aggressive. Sometimes you may find low-impact displays with no physical contact while at other times, high-impact collisions and tail lashes may be the cause of bleeding wounds on the tubercles (head knobs), dorsal fin and tail fluke.
This is when the whale slowly raises its tail into the air, and sometimes, high enough for its genital area to be exposed above the surface. It can often keep its tail in this elevated position for extended periods of time. Such behavior is more common in some breeding areas. Though the exact reason is unknown, speculations explaining this weird behavior include avoiding unwanted male attention or as a way to regulate body temperature.
The whale lunges forward, with a good portion of its head coming out of the water. It is a behavior common in surface-active groups where male escorts and challengers are vying for close position to a female.
You might find a submerged whale releasing a controlled stream or trail of bubbles from its blowhole, leaving a long stream behind it. It is a behavior often seen in surface-active or competitive groups from the primary escort or his challengers. Suggestions include that this bubbling behavior makes a visual screen so that whales cannot see underwater—ah, something is fishy there!
This is another of the common behavior in competitive or surface-active groups when males compete for a female. The whale opens and closes its jaws, clapping them together, at times audibly!
This is when whales emit a roaring sound which can be heard 1-2 km away, especially at night.
What is the Best Season to Spot Whales?
The best period for spotting whales in Cape Town is between May and November, though there are whales in the Cape waters all year round. This is because mothers with young calves stay in the more hospitable waters until their calves have grown big enough, but it is in the winter and spring months of the year that you can spot the largest number of whales.
For watching the southern right whale, the best season is from June to November along the Cape south coast. Though the peak calving period is July and August, whales can be seen throughout September and October as well. Stragglers can leave towards the end of November. Though it is not guaranteed, some out of season expeditions have shown that there is enough krill off the West Coast to support a very small population of whales, so you have a chance to spot them all year round.
There have been many sightings in Muizenberg and Simon’s Town in August, so it is definitely one of the best months.
Whales can generally be seen throughout the day, but it is best to go ‘eye-hunting’ them in the morning and late afternoon for an even bigger chance to spot more of them.