The marine life of the Western Cape

Southern Right whale breaching

Southern Right whale breaching

The Western Cape of South Africa is a popular region in the spring/summer seasons to watch whales and other marine life in their natural environs. Hermanus (map) and Gansbaai, about a two-hour drive east of Cape Town and close to the southernmost tip of the African continent, are great places to watch whales, Great White sharks and other amazing marine life in the Western Cape. However, there are also other places closer to Cape Town to spot the incredibly rich marine life in this region. Here are some suggested places to see whales, Great White sharks, penguins and seals around the Western Cape near Cape Town.

Whale-watching in Hermanus

Hermanus is the whale-watching capital of South Africa. Sandwiched between the awesome Kleinriviersberge ridge and Walker Bay, it is a popular vacation town which draws a sizeable number of tourists in the summer. Visit in October/November when it’s sufficiently warm, there are less tourists and when you can spot the Southern Right Whales from viewing points built on the cliffs overlooking the bay. If you’re visiting in September, don’t miss the annual Whale Festival in Hermanus which celebrates the return of the Southern Right whales to Walker Bay.


Walker Bay

I can recommend a stay in Hermanus, with its top-notch restaurants, relaxing cafés, excellent hotels and magnificent scenery. I’ve stayed at the luxurious The Marine Hermanus (on a cliff in the town centre) as well as One Marine Drive (a lovely boutique hotel a short walk from the town centre) and can recommend both.

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In Hermanus, you can stroll along the cliffs and spot whales during the whale season.


Sunrise at The Marine Hotel.


The lovely room I stayed in at One Marine Drive Boutique Hotel.

False Bay – whales and penguins

If you don’t have the time to make the trip to Hermanus, you can also spot many whales from the shoreline in False Bay, close to Cape Town, in October. The road from Muizenberg (map) to Simon’s Town winds along the bay’s shore – stop if you see a group of people along the road staring at the water; they’ve most likely spotted some whales (the closest I’ve ever gotten to a whale was close to Fish Hoek when, from the roadside, I spotted a pod of whales that were barely 20 meters away!). Near Simon’s Town, you’ll find Boulders Beach which is famous for its colony of African penguins.


Simon’s Town on False Bay.


Penguins at Boulders Beach.

Great White watching in Gansbaai

For the ultimate whale/Great White-watching experience, head out for Gans Bay or Gansbaai (map), about 40 kilometers southeast of Hermanus. You can easily sign up for one of the boat trips or if you’re a crazy thrill-seeker, you can opt for cage shark diving to rub noses with a Great White. I went for the former and had the time of my life!


Great White cage-diving in Gansbaai. Can you spot the Great White?

That's as close to a Great White as I'll ever get!

That’s as close to a Great White as I’ll ever get!

The boat tour will take you along the shoreline for some close-ups with the many Great Whites in the area. They can be seen floating around, riding the waves. A chilling experience indeed. Hold on tight to the boat’s railings! There were also many Southern Right and Humpback whales, as well as dolphins. It is a truly exciting and, I found, soothing experience to see these inquisitive creatures frolic in the water.

The tour also took us to Dyer Island and Shark Alley (a passage between two islands filled to the brim with thousands of seals – an easy meal for the Great Whites). Dyer Island is extraordinary – a rocky outcrop with little vegetation, it’s populated with thousands of seals and penguins that produce a wonderously loud cacophony of hoots, cackles, and wails.


Lots of seals, penguins and birdlife on Dyer Island.

If you choose to visit Gansbaai, consider staying at Grootbos, a private nature reserve in the hills overlooking Walker Bay. Read about my stay at Grootbos.

The Grootbos villa with its private pool and amazing views of the fynbos and Walker Bay.

Betty’s Bay

Another great place to see a large colony of penguins is Betty’s Bay (map). There are literally hundreds of them there. If you’re in the area, don’t miss the drive along the coast between Betty’s Bay and Gordon’s Bay. This spectacular drive offers many awesome views of the beaches, the mountains and False Bay. You can end your drive in the Cape Winelands, with the historic Stellenbosch as the main town in the region. You’ll find stunning vineyards and hotels as well as a fantastic array of wine experiences.


Penguins at Betty’s Bay.


The spectaccular coastal road from Betty’s Bay to Gordon’s Bay.

Read about things to do in Stellenbosch and wineries to visit in Stellenbosch.

All these coastal towns can easily be combined with a drive along the popular Garden Route which winds through the coastal mountains and along the ocean from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth.

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15 Responses to “The marine life of the Western Cape”

  1. cape town tours 07/01/2010 9:54 am

    The shark cage diving looks like an incredible experience. Hi 5 for that great Vergelegen wine.

  2. velvet 06/07/2009 4:26 am

    Hi Christine,
    Thank you for your comment and the Simonstown tip!


  3. Christine 05/07/2009 9:27 pm

    Excellent article about the whales and Hermanus! Boulders Beach in Simonstown is fantastic for “penguin watching”. They literally swim with you and waddle past you ob the beach Its amazing!

    PS: Am thoroughly enjoying this blog!

  4. jen Laceda 23/06/2009 4:21 am

    Hey Keith,
    I don’t know how you do it everytime. Fascinate me with your wealth of knowledge and experience in world travel. Hermanus is a dream vacation spot for me as well. Especially if I can afford to stay at Birkenhead House….dreamy!!

  5. velvet 22/06/2009 11:11 pm

    Hi Sandy,
    Thanks for your comment and your tips. Hey, I’ve stayed at Birkenhead House. Indeed, you can see the whales from your balcony – I have that on video somewhere.


  6. Sandy Salle 22/06/2009 9:11 pm

    Fantastic post. A beautiful and luxurious place to stay in Hermanus is Birkenhead House and from their balconies you can spot many whales during the season (June through November). A great place to see penguins is also at Boulders Beach, Cape Town and at Dyer Island. The population of penguins has dropped drastically, and the Dyer Island Conservation community has begun a program of building “temporary” houses for the penguins to lay their eggs so that Kelp Gulls and other predators, plus the heat, don’t take the eggs. It’s a great effort and hopefully will help to stave off their extinction. I love the shark diving too at Gaansbai, and thank you for highlighting this activity.
    Sandy, Hills of Africa Travel


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