South Africa is one of the best places in the world for whale watching. Sighting whales along its shoreline or from a boat is so popular that they have joined the ranks of lion, elephant, buffalo, rhino and leopard. Collectively they make up the 'big six' of African game viewing.
To help you plan the perfect trip to see these amazing creatures, we've put together a short guide that gives you information on what species you can expect to see and the best time and places to see them.
What species of whale will I be able to see?
It’s essential to be able to identify which whales you are seeing. Some are rarer than others, so make sure you are able to distinguish them apart. Here are three types of whales you might see:
1. Southern right whale
This species is easily distinguished from others because of their broad back without a dorsal fin, wide pectoral fins, a long arching mouth that begins above the eye and small rough patches of skin (or callosities) on its large head.
It has very dark grey or black skin, with occasional white patches on the belly. Its two separate blow holes produce a distinguishing V-shaped blow. Southern rights have an enormous head which is up to one quarter of total body length. The callosities on the head are made of hard material, similar to human finger-nails, which appear white due to large colonies of whale lice called cyamids. The number, shape and position of the callosities are unique to each individual whale, which allows you to tell them apart.
2. Humpback whale
The most confident and common to visitor to South Africa's coastline are the humpback whales, migrating towards Mozambique and Madagascar to breed and calve. They can be identified by their robust bodies, humps and their long and bumpy pectoral fins. Their flukes are concave and have a serrated edge, and their small dorsal fin sits on their hump on their lower back. The anterior of their mouths are covered in bumps, each containing a single sensory hair follicle. This black or dark grey bodied creature also has white underneaths and can reach lengths of 16m and weights of 35 tons.
3. Bryde's whale
These are the shy giants and are often more difficult to find due to longer diving times (up to 20 minutes to depths of 300m). A distinguishing characteristic is their 40 to 70 throat pleats, as well as the three ridges near their blow hole. Their dorsal fin rises abruptly out of the back and is tall. They often exhale under water and so a little blow or no blow at all makes them harder to spot.
In addition to whales, South Africa's waters are home to a wide variety of other incredible creatures including great white sharks, dolphins, seals and penguins.
When is the best time of year to see the whales?
The best time for watching the southern right whale along the Cape south coast is between June to November, with peak calving season in July and August.
The curious humpback whale can be seen between May to December, moving up along the coast from Hermanus to St Lucia in KwaZulu-Natal. The medium-sized Bryde's whale can be spotted all year round.
Where are the best places to see the whales?
There are a number of places that you can see the whales from in South Africa. Here are three of the best places to see them from:
Known as the whale capital of South Africa, Hermanus was ranked in the top 12 whale watching locations in the world by the World Wildlife Fund. Only a two hour drive from Cape Town, this little town is the heart of the Whale Route. Watch as whales come within metres of the shores, and join in on the festivities of the annual Hermanus Whale Festival. Great viewings can be had from terraces such as Old Harbour and Gearing Point and other great spots include Gansbaai, Grootbos Private Nature Reserve, Dreunkrans, Siever’s Point, VoelKlip and Grotto beaches.
2. False Bay
In and around the Cape Town area lies the picturesque False Bay. With many roads hugging the coastline and on higher points, you’re bound to catch great sightings of the giants of the sea. Roads such as Boyes Drive, Clarence Drive, Chapman’s Peak, Jager’s Walk, Baden Powell Drive and Cape Point are some of the best routes on which to see the whales. You can even catch great views of the whales just sitting at coastline restaurants, such as The Brass Bell in Kalk Bay.
3. The Garden Route
The Garden Route is a long and scenic chunk of South Africa’s southern coastal region, the perfect route for a leisurely drive. Visit quaint coastal towns and enjoy the diverse floras against the dramatic rocks and turquoise sea. Great whale viewing can be done at Wilderness at Dolphins Point, Map of Africa view point, Wilderness Beach, Leentjiesklip and Flat Rock Beach. The seaside town of Knysna also offers panoramic views of the ocean from points such as The Heads, Noetzie and Brenton-on-Sea. Further up the coast lies Plettenberg Bay and Mossel Bay more great towns to explore and providing breathtaking views of the whales on their journeys. You really are spoiled for choice when it comes to the Garden Route.
Whale Watching Tips
- 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.
- Any giant splash out of the corner of your eye could be whales breaching, continue to look in the same direction for a while
- Look for white patches out at sea – these are usually indicative of waves breaking over the bodies of whales.
- Be sure to have plenty of battery life and card space on your camera.
If you are interested in seeing the whales for yourself then get in touch with our experts today by calling 020 7843 3500 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org and they can help you plan your dream whale watching holiday.
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