Watch whales fluking, spy hopping, and breaching along the Cape coast

The Western Cape coastline is known for its fertile oceans and remarkable beauty. Rated as one of the world’s top whale watching destinations, the Western Cape is the best province in South Africa to spot these prehistoric giants of the sea. Scores of travelers flock to the Cape to visit its sprawling vineyards, but forget that the Cape is an idyllic destination for marine safaris and whale watching.

A guide to whale-watching in the Western Cape

The best time to visit is between June and November when the southern right whales migrate from the Antarctic to the warm Indian Ocean waters around Cape Town to calve. This is considered the prime whale-watching season, with the peak season being September. 

In September,  oceans become alive with activity, and onlookers are frequently rewarded with flamboyant displays of whales fluking, spy hopping, and breaching. When a whale dives into the depths of the ocean, its tail pops out of the water. This is called fluking. Watching a whale breach is also fascinating to watch—and it’s loud! Breaching is when whales launch themselves out the water to rid their bodies of the barnacles nesting on their skin. Spy hopping happens when whales decide to pop vertically out of the water. Now you can impress your friends with your whale behavior knowledge.

But it’s not only the southern right whales that appear during the season—Bryde’s and humpback whales are regularly spotted frolicking alongside the southern rights. Because the waters off the coast are pristine and protected, you’ll discover prolific pods of bottlenose dolphins, orcas, great white sharks, cow sharks, and more. 

It can be hard to pinpoint the best destination to go whale watching, especially if you’ve never visited the country. Whales appear all along the east and west coast, but there are two main areas that we believe are the best places: Hermanus and the De Hoop Nature Reserve.

Best time to go whale-watching

Hermanus and the De Hoop Nature Reserve are great year-round destinations to visit, but as mentioned above-whale watching is best done from June to November. It’s not uncommon to spot whales year-round, but they’re a dime a dozen outside of season. Typically, June – September are the best times to go, with September being the month when the pods come close into the shores.

While June to August fall into the best time to spot whales, it can be cold and rainy. Oceans are wild and torrential downpours can obscure sightings. However, there are always crisp sunny days in Cape Town’s winter season. Rains never last for more than a few days.

From experience, our favorite months are September and October when temperatures are more moderate.

About Hermanus and De Hoop Nature Reserve

Hermanus

Situated about 2-hours drive outside of Cape Town along the Overberg Coast, is the whale-centric town of Hermanus. The town was recently included in the world’s top 12 locations to view whales by WWF. This small coastal village has blossomed into a thriving coastal town, but one thing remains at its core: whales. The town is set along the Walker Bay coastline, a rugged cliff lined coast where whales come close to the bay during the season.

The town even has its own whale crier, a person who blows a kelp (dried seaweed) horn whenever there’s a whale in the bay. In the beginning of October, there’s an entire festival centered around the arrival of the whales in the bay. The village square is where the action happens, and it brims with locals selling their wares and activity operators touting their marine tours which include everything from sea kayaking to boat cruises, and diving. Surrounding the square is a host of cafes and restaurants, some of which are award winning (try Char’d!).

There’s a well-kept path that meanders its way along the coast, and is ideal for individuals who want to whale watch and keep active. Along the path there are various viewing points adorned with seating areas that overlook the ocean. Some notable viewpoints include Gearings Point, the area in front of village square, and the old harbor.

Hermanus also offers a variety of wine farms along the Hemel-en-Aarde valley, and there’s a wine 4×4 tour that sets off from the center of town. The Fernkloof Nature Reserve’s looming mountains serve as the backdrop to Hermanus, offering abundant hiking trails. This charming town truly is the coastal town for all ages of travelers.

Accommodation is plentiful, with most establishments erring on the side of luxury. The premier Birkenhead House is located on a cliff face overlooking the whole of Walker Bay, and is part of the discerning Royal Portfolio that includes the Royal Malewane safari lodge. Other contenders include the likes of the exclusive Auberge Provence and the landmark hotel, The Marine. For guests wanting to add more of a wilderness experience to their whale watching vacation, the Grootbos Private Nature Reserve is a top choice in the area.

De Hoop Nature Reserve

De Hoop Nature Reserve is a marine protected area situated close to Cape Agulhas, the southernmost tip of Africa. Spanning some 350 square kilometres of fynbos-covered mountains, beaches, rocky coast, and mind-blowing inter-tidal pools, De Hoop is your best bet for a whale watching wilderness combo. The southern right whales move up the coast from Hermanus to Cape Agulhas, with a staggering 120 whales returning to the same waters every year. And De Hoop is only a 3-hour drive from Cape Town. 

An adventurous way to explore the De Hoop area is to sign-up for the whale trail, a rustic multi-day hike that offers an immersive wilderness experience. It’s common to spot about 20 whales in one day while hiking. Shorter guided walks through the reserve are possible when you stay at one of the luxury lodges, which include the Lekkerwater Beach Lodge and Morukuru Beach Lodge.

 Whale watching aside, De Hoop Nature Reserve has another local wildlife special: the Cape vulture. De Hoop is the natural habitat for the Cape’s only breeding colony of Cape vulture, whose numbers are prolific. In addition, there are over 260 species of bird to spot, most of which are pelagic and woodland specials. Plains game wander the dunes, so there’s plenty of opportunity to spot herds of eland and bontebok. But if it’s sea urchin, anemones, rock fish, and brightly Colored seagrasses you’re wanting to see; head to the one of the many rock pools lining the shores.

Activities

In Hermanus, whale watching cruises and boating are worthwhile activities for those with sea legs. You can get up close with the giants of the sea, and get some great scenic shots of the coast while cruising on the ocean. For the more adventurous, there are sea kayaking and canoeing tours which can be booked at any one of the tour kiosks in the village square. While exploring De Hoop Nature Reserve, you’ll quickly find that snorkelling, guided walks, hikes, and finding vantage points on the cliff faces are the main whale watching activities in this region. 

Whether it’s exploring the rugged cliff faces of protected reserves, soaking up the village atmosphere of Hermanus, or jumping head first into adrenalin themed activities; the Cape coast offers something for all types of whale-watching personalities. 

Big Journeys Start With Small Steps

~ African Proverb

Let's take the first steps together...

Karen Cockburn - Namibia
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