The Southern Cape, including Cape Town, provides some of the easiest and best places in the world for whale-watching. You don’t need to take a pricey boat tour to get out to sea; if you come at the right time of year, whales are easily visible from the shore, although a good pair of binoculars will come in useful.
All nine of the great whale species of the southern hemisphere pass by South Africa’s shores, but the most commonly seen are southern right whales (their name derives from being the “right” one to kill because of their high oil and bone yields and the fact that, conveniently, they float when dead). Southern right whales are black and easily recognized from their pale, brownish callosities. These unappealing patches of raised, roughened skin on their snouts and heads have a distinct pattern on each animal, which helps scientists keep track of them.
Female whales come inshore to calve in sheltered bays, and stay to nurse their young for up to three months. July to October is the best time to see them, although they start appearing in June and some stay around until December. When the calves are big enough, the whales head off south again, to colder, stormy waters, where they feed on enormous quantities of plankton, making up for the nursing months when the females don’t eat at all. Though you’re most likely to see females and young, you may see males early in the season boisterously flopping about the females, though they neither help rear the calves nor form lasting bonds with females.
What gives away the presence of a whale is the blow or spout, a tall smoky plume which disperses after a few seconds and is actually the whale breathing out before it surfaces. If luck is on your side, you may see whales breaching – the movement when they thrust high out of the water and fall back with a great splash.
The Whale Coast’s hottest whale spots
In Hermanus, the best vantage points are the concrete cliff paths which ring the rocky shore from New Harbour to Grotto Beach. There are interpretation boards at three of the popular vantage points (Gearing’s Point, Die Gang and Bientang’s Cave). At their worst, the paths can be lined two or three deep with people.
Aficionados claim that De Kelders, some 39km east of Hermanus, is even better, while De Hoop Nature Reserve, east of Arniston, is reckoned by some to be the ultimate place along the entire Southern African coast.
Several operators offer boat trips from Hermanus; they’re all essentially the same, so your choice of whom to go with will depend more on the time and day than the reliability of the operator.