Whale watching in South Africa is an experience you will never forget
There aren’t many places on Earth where you can perch on a massive white sand dune – or sit outside a bar, cold beer in hand – and watch whales frolic in the surf.
But that’s what hordes of people flock to do along South Africa’s south coast. Around this time of year, southern right whales start making their way from the Antarctic to calve and mate.
They come in to the protected shores around the southern tip of Africa to have their babies in August and September and the males arrive for mating in a few weeks.
A fantastically remote place to take in this spectacle is from the top of a sand dune at the magnificent De Hoop Nature Reserve – just three hours from Cape Town.
In addition to whale watching in this World Heritage Site, you can enjoy guided marine walks and hiking trails through 36,000 hectares of rare fynbos vegetation or hop on a bicycle or quad bike and get up close to antelope like bontebok and eland, as well as zebra, baboons and ostriches.
The beaches are spectacular and the rock pools perfect for exploring. Hardy types can do the five-day Whale Trail walk. There is a great range of accommodation spread out along a bird-rich estuary and the Fig Tree restaurant serves delicious local dishes. Get them to pack you a picnic and head for those dunes with your binoculars.
If you’d prefer to combine wildlife with nightlife, there’s no better place than Hermanus, a lively town just over an hour’s drive from Cape Town, which holds a whale festival every year (October 2-4 this year).
The famous Whale Crier will alert you to any sightings in Walker Bay – all you have to do is sit outside one of the bars or restaurants along the cliffs of the New Harbour and the whales basically come to you! There are various lookout points along the cliffs.
And if you fancy getting near enough to hear their tummies rumble – or even get wet when they spout water – you can clamber onto the rocks on the seafront. The sea shelf falls away dramatically here, so the whales come in really close to show off their calves.
If you’re lucky they’ll even put on a show – breaching (backflips clear out of the water), spy-hopping (popping up nose first) and lobtailing (for that great shot of its fluke as it dives under water). September and October is usually peak season, but I have sat outside a pub with a cold glass of sauvignon blanc and watched 20 whales belly-flop and back-flip their way around Walker Bay well into November.
At other times of the year you’ll find schools of hundreds of dolphins feeding on sardines – you can watch from the shore, or take a boat trip around the bay. Thrill seekers can go cage-diving at nearby Gansbaai for close encounters with great white sharks – while gentler types can head 40 minutes in the opposite direction to Betty’s Bay to see penguins waddling about on the beach.
These are a few of the best places to enjoy the abundant marine life – but you sometimes don’t even have to leave Cape Town. Whales are spotted all along the coast at this time of year and around Seal Island – just off the shores of False Bay – is the only place in the world where you can see great whites leap out of the water to attack seals from below. All this just an overnight flight away – with no jetlag. You could even make a long weekend of it…