WAVE TO THE WHALES ON THE WESTERN CAPE

Late winter and the early days of spring in South Africa’s Western Cape mean many things: the petering out of winter rains, the explosion of spring flowers in Namaqualand, and the beginnings of the busy summer season.

But it also means it’s time for the whales to arrive, as hundreds of Southern Right whales congregate off Cape shores. They’ve swum nearly 4000 kilometres from the icy waters of Antarctica, heading north to make the most of South Africa’s warm and calm waters to mate and calve. Here they’ll stay until October or November, when they begin the long return migration to the south.

The annual arrival of Eubalaena australis also brings visitors from across the globe: binocular-toting tourists making the most of the Western Cape’s world-class opportunities for shore-based whale watching.

It’s with good reason that most visitors arriving in search of Southern Rights head straight for the Overberg town of Hermanus. Here, steep sea cliffs facing on to Walker Bay offer front-row seats to some of the best whale watching in the Southern Hemisphere. While the centre of town gives on to wonderful whale watching promontories above the historic harbour, the best way to stretch your legs and improve your sightings is to wander the 12-kilometre cliff-top trail that runs from the town’s New Harbour to the Blue Flag-certified Grotto Beach.

While sightings from the shore are excellent, boat-based whale watching tours are also popular on the waters of Walker Bay. However, the industry is highly regulated and only five operators have permits to approach whales at sea. All other craft have to keep a minimum of 300 metres from any whales in the bay, so be sure to book with a licensed operator.

Although Hermanus claims the crown of the Cape’s whale watching capital, it’s not the only place along the coast where Southern Rights – and the occasional wandering Humpback or Bryde’s whale – can be seen. Heading east of Hermanus brings you to Gansbaai and Kleinbaai. Perhaps more famous for its shark cage diving, the seas here also deliver excellent whale sightings. The cliffs at De Kelders are particularly good, and always less crowded than Hermanus.

The rough and rocky shores of Cape Agulhas provide little chance for clear sightings, but east of the southernmost tip of Africa you’ll find the laid-back coastal village of Arniston, which offers charming accommodation and calm seas for swimming or spotting. From here it’s also an easy day trip to the 34,000-hectare De Hoop Nature Reserve.

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Fronting a Marine Protected Area that stretches five kilometres out to sea, it’s little wonder that whales flock to the quiet waters offshore where they can loll about unworried by sightseeing boats or fishing nets. Whether you’re staying overnight at De Hoop or stopping in for the day, the dunes at Koppie Alleen are guaranteed to deliver memorable whale sightings. If possible, time your visit for low tide to explore the pristine rock pools below.

If you have a taste for gravel roads, the quiet coastal villages at the mouth of the Breede River – Cape Infanta and Witsand – offer more great land-based spots overlooking the calm waters of San Sebastian Bay, a whale nursery where the chances of spotting mother and calf together are excellent. It’s a dedicated whale watcher that heads this far east of Cape Town, but with a bit of luck you’ll also enjoy great sightings just off the shores of the Mother City.

Boat-based tours are available in False Bay, off the city’s southern coastline, with informative cruises departing from the historic naval village of Simon’s Town. If you don’t have time for the boat, shore-based sightings are also possible in the peak months of September and October. The Sea Point promenade, off the city’s Atlantic Seaboard, is another great option for finding flukes out of the water.

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Richard Holmes
Richard Holmes is a freelance travel, food and lifestyle writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. His work on African and international destinations has appeared in a wide range of consumer publications both in South Africa and abroad.