Western Cape Tourist AttractionsThe Cape Whale Coast
The coming of the whales to the Western Cape's southern coastline, also known as the Cape Whale Coast, every year between June and November, not only creates a stir, but brings to our shores a large, intelligent and remarkable giant of the sea and the only mammal to have adapted to life in the open oceans.
Whales, including the Southern Right Whale and less commonly the Bryde’s (pronounced 'broodess') and Humpback Whale, are frequently sited along the Cape Overberg Coast from Stony Point near Betty’s Bay, along the cliff paths of Kleinmond, Onrus, Walker Bay, the De Hoop Nature Reserve and Witsand. These gentle giants spend summer feeding around Antarctica and then migrate thousands of miles to our waters where the sheltered bays of the South African coast provide perfect refuge to mate and calve.
The Overberg coastline is the meeting place of two oceans - the Indian and Atlantic. Two major ocean currents - the cold Benguela wells up in the west and the warm Agulhas Current in the east - create a number of conditions, which, combined with South Africa’s proximity to the southern ocean, result in a rich marine life including as many as 37 species of whales and dolphins to South Africa’s coastline. By comparison, the whole north Atlantic attracts only 28 species.
The Southern Right Whale can weigh up to 60 tonnes, averages 14 metres in length, lives to about 100 years and has the most highly-evolved mammalian brain on earth. They are huge - rounder and heavier than the Humpback or Bryde’s whale - and only smaller than the blue whale. They are characterised by their gentle slowness, lack of dorsal fin and rough patches of skin called callosities on their heads. These are covered with whale lice and, as each whale has a unique callosity pattern, are often used to identify individual whales.
The Southern Right Whale population was virtually decimated during the whaling years - an estimated 20 000 of these beautiful mammals are said to have been slaughtered. There has been active protection in South African waters since 1935 and the population is slowly restoring itself. There are now close to 4 000 of these languid beasts - a large proportion of which grace our shores every year. They swim within 200 metres of the shore-line between June and November (as opposed to the Humpback which prefer deeper waters) and sightings of mother and calf are especially common. In Walker Bay, in places like De Kelders, they come as close as 20-30 metres from the shore and never fail to fill hearts and minds with wonder at their magnificence.
The entire Cape Overberg coastline offers generous sightings of the whales and the Walker Bay area, between Gansbaai and Hermanus, is a whale sanctuary. Hermanus arguably offers the best land-based whale watching in the world. For this position it competes only with Plettenberg Bay, further along the coast. Not only does Hermanus boast the world’s only ‘whale crier’, but there is a 14 km cliff path that offers a bird’s eye view of the 100 or so Southern Right Whales that visit Walker Bay every year and often come within five to ten metres of the coast. Hermanus celebrates the arrival of the whales with an event-filled annual Whale Festival in late September.
The 'big two' town of Gansbaai offers both Great White Shark and Southern Right Whale viewing, east and west of the Danger Point peninsula respectively and De Kelders, a suburb of Gansbaai, offers a hiking trail along its cliffs which allows fantastic views of the protected coves in which the whales wallow and approach very close to the shore. Cape Agulhas is equally rewarding as the bay attracts a number of pairs of mother and calf at a time and Pearly Beach has a protective, shallow bay offering the whales a sanctuary in which to mate and calve.
Witsand, in St Sebastian Bay, has earned the reputation of the most important whale nursery on the African Coast and one of the greatest concentrations of Southern Right Whales comes here to calve every year. Boat access in this area, and the breeding grounds of the De Hoop Nature Reserve, is obviously severely restricted. Watching the whales from a boat is another experience entirely. The Southern Right Whale tends towards natural curiosity and venturing close to the boats is not uncommon. Failing this, you’re bound to evidence a playful display of raised heads, tails and flippers as the whales acknowledge your presence. Characteristic behaviour is resting head down in the water with tails in the air, called ‘sailing’ or ‘headstanding’.
South Africa doesn’t allow boats any closer than 300 metres from a whale without a permit and 50 metres with a permit - although this doesn’t stop the whales from coming close to the boats themselves, which they often do! Approaching whales is done quietly, without motors and at ‘no wake speed’. We are also the only country in the world, so far, with an established environmental court (in Hermanus) where poachers of protected marine species are tried for their offences. The number of legal boat-based permits is limited. South Africa’s coast is divided into sections, for whale watching, and each section has only one permit holder for boat cruises. Boats are also not allowed anywhere near cow-calf pairs. If this does happen accidentally, guides know to leave the area straight away at a constant slow ‘no wake speed’ so that as little intrusion as possible occurs.
Southern Right Whales tend to leave our waters by late October, although some stay through November, and sightings are still made even as late as December. Just as they leave our waters, the Humpback whales and their calves arrive and stay until the end of December or early January. But the Humpback does not mate in our waters and are thus less easy to see.
The Overberg coastline is without doubt one of the most exciting parts of the country to view whales and few visitors leave disappointed or untouched by the experience.
"Whales are different. They live in families, they play in the moonlight, they talk to one another and they care for one another in distress. They are awesome and mysterious. In their cold, wet, and forbidding world they are complete and successful. They deserve to be saved, not as potential meatballs but as a source of encouragement to mankind." - Victor B. Scheffer (former chairman of US Marine Mammal Commission).
Popular Towns in the Cape Whale Coast
Overnight? Accommodation in Arniston
Lying on the shores of Marcus Bay, just north-east of Cape Agulhas, is the tranquil little fishing village of Arniston, also known as Waenhuiskrans - ‘wagon shelter cliff’ - after a large low-tide sea cave, eroded in such a way as to...
More info and photographs: Arniston Information
Overnight? Accommodation in Bettys Bay
Only an hour’s drive from Cape Town, Betty’s Bay is a picturesque seaside village situated along the scenic Clarence Drive Route (R44) between Pringle Bay and Kleinmond. The pretty town is positioned in a narrow strip of land sandwiched...
More info and photographs: Bettys Bay Information
Brenton On Sea
Stay? Accommodation in Brenton On Sea
Lying on the other side of Knysna’s Western Head, nestled on the shores of the Indian Ocean in a quiet, lazy bay, residents describe Brenton on Sea’s beauty as the coast that Knysna doesn’t have, and in reality, Knysna lies on a lagoon...
More info and photographs: Brenton On Sea Information
Overnight? Accommodation in Dana Bay
Whilst often disregarded simply as a suburb of Mossel Bay, Dana Bay is in fact a conservancy, set in the heart of the Cape Floral Kingdom, home to fine examples of coastal and limestone varieties of fynbos under threat from global warming...
More info and photographs: Dana Bay Information
Overnight? Accommodation in De Hoop
The De Hoop Nature Reserve and adjacent marine reserve lie on the southern Cape coast between the towns of Arniston and Witsand, just 50 km east of Bredasdorp. This is one of the most biologically diverse sanctuaries in the world...
More info and photographs: De Hoop Information
Overnight? Accommodation in De Kelders
The little village of De Kelders, which lies just 5 km north of Gansbaai and about 25 minutes’ drive from Hermanus, has managed to remain largely immune to the large scale tourism that envelopes this part of the country, and is still...
More info and photographs: De Kelders Information
Overnight? Accommodation in Gansbaai
The unpretentious village of Gansbaai - named after a flock of wild Egyptian geese that are alleged to have congregated at the freshwater fountain next to the harbour - has a large reputation. Both Southern Right Whales and Great White...
More info and photographs: Gansbaai Information
Overnight? Accommodation in Glentana
Just east of the Great Brak River, almost half way between Mossel Bay and George, lies the beautiful seaside village of Glentana, its beaches topped by fynbos covered cliffs that plunge precipitously into the Indian Ocean. The origins of the...
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Overnight? Accommodation in Gordons Bay
Gordons Bay is all about its waterfront, where the bay lies against the sheer mountains of the Helderberg, providing shelter to a picturesque cove that offers a veritable feast of water-based activities and a promenade lined with fish...
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Overnight? Accommodation in Hawston
Just past Hermanus, between Fisherhaven and Onrus, lies the village of Hawston, which is notably famous for its beautiful beach, more than the attraction Hawston might hold for visitors. The beach, tucked away in the little town, is truly...
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Overnight? Accommodation in Hermanus
Hermanus, the world's foremost land based whale watching destination, is a thriving holiday resort offering residents and holiday makers all modern amenities, yet retaining its fisherman's village charm. The popular resort town of Hermanus...
More info and photographs: Hermanus Information
Overnight? Accommodation in Kleinbaai
The appealing little village of Kleinbaai has suffered the unmerited disadvantage of being the smaller of two towns that lie at Danger Point Peninsula, where shark diving and whale watching are world-renowned draw cards. As a result Kleinbaai...
More info and photographs: Kleinbaai Information
Overnight? Accommodation in Kleinmond
Kleinmond is within easy driving distance from Cape Town, along the scenic coastal road known as R44 or Clarence Drive, Kleinmond is a peaceful little village endowed with some of the coast’s most natural beauty. It lies within the UNESCO...
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Overnight? Accommodation in L'Agulhas
L’Agulhas or Agulas - The biggest draw card for Agulhas, other than the fact that it lies only two hours from Cape Town on one of the most beautiful coasts in the country, is that this little village lies on Cape Agulhas, the end of...
More info and photographs: L'Agulhas Information
Overnight? Accommodation in Onrus
The Cape Overberg region in the province of the Western Cape comprises some of the most scenic and popular parts of South Africa. These include the shark cage diving Mecca of Gansbaai as well as the whale watching hub of Hermanus. Onrus...
More info and photographs: Onrus Information
Overnight? Accommodation in Pearly Beach
Pearly Beach is known for its wild beauty and serenity. Pearly Beach was, until recently, regarded as a remote seaside hamlet with no more than a few holiday homes and few permanent residents. The beach is uncultivated and scenic, with...
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Overnight? Accommodation in Pringle Bay
The little seaside village of Pringle Bay is one of the towns set within the natural beauty of the Kogelberg Biosphere, the only reserve in South Africa to be proclaimed by UNESCO, which supports over 1600 species of fynbos, 150 of which...
More info and photographs: Pringle Bay Information
Overnight? Accommodation in Rooi Els
Rooi Els (sometimes spelt Rooiels or Rooi-Els), like its neighbours Pringle Bay, Betty's Bay and Kleinmond, borders the Kogelberg Nature Reserve, forming part of the larger Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve. The smallest of these towns...
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Overnight? Accommodation in Sandbaai
Sandbaai is one of the newer suburbs in the Greater Hermanus area. It lies literally in a little sandy bay, hence its name, just past the L'Agulhas lighthouse. The village is only a stone’s throw away from Hermanus and to the east...
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Overnight? Accommodation in Struisbaai
When asked to describe Struisbaai, many refer to the pretty little white-washed fishermen’s houses at the entrance to the village - the ‘Hotagterklip cottages’ - that have been restored and are now mostly holiday homes, despite their...
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Overnight? Accommodation in Vermont
The little village of Vermont is usually spoken of in the same breath as its immediate neighbour, Onrus, and indeed, the two lie close together on the coast where the Onrus River runs into the sea via a lagoon, just over an hour’s drive from...
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Overnight? Accommodation in Witsand
The peaceful, coastal town of Witsand (white sands) lies on St Sebastian’s Bay just off the N2 on the Cape South Coast, three hours from Cape Town and not to be confused with the Witsand Nature Reserve, which lies just west of the Langberg...
More info and photographs: Witsand Information