South Africa, the gift that keeps on giving. Home to one of the seven natural wonders, Table Mountain, the “Cradle of Human Kind” and the infamous Big 5. Thinking of Africa’s most legendary land species and vivid imagery of the Big 5 are conjured. Namely the lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and buffalo. But did you know South Africa’s surrounding oceans have their own iconic species – the Marine Big 5 animals.
The Marine Big 5 are:
- Southern Right Whales
- Bottle-nose Dolphin
- The African Penguin
- The Cape Fur Seal
- The Great White Shark
1. Southern Right Whales
The Southern Right Whale is among the largest mammal species on earth. At 16 meters in length, the sheer size of these ocean giants are enough to have you in awe. Between June and December, all along South Africa’s Western Cape coastline whales can be seen as they move into the warmer shallow waters to calve. The Cape Whale Route, not to be confused with the Cape Wine Route, stretches from Cape
Town to Cape Agulhas and includes various bays along the Garden Route as well as False Bay and Hermanus. The endangered Southern Right and Hump-back Whales’ can often be seen playing a stone’s throw away from our shores.
The Southern Right Whale, so named because they were considered to be the “right” whales to hunt, migrate up from the cold waters of the Antarctic to the warmer conditions of South Africa’s beautiful coastline. Here they can be seen playing just offshore, nurturing their young, waving their fins or bobbing their tails and, if you are lucky, you might even get to see one of these 60-ton giants breaching out of the water to make a tremendous splash.
One of the best places in the world for land-based whale watching is just over an hour and a half drive from Cape Town, Hermanus. The town boasts a 12km of cliff path walking where in some places, whales can be seen from only a few meters away. How lucky are we?
Hermanus also hosts the now-famous Whale Crier, who announces the arrival of whales in the bay by blowing on a kelp horn. As these gentle giants were once almost hunted to extinction it is a marvel to see them flourishing in their natural habitat.
South Africa is home to over ten dolphin species, the ones likely to be seen jumping in and out of the surf and swimming close to shore are our famous Bottle-nose Dolphin, the Long-Beaked Common Dolphin, and the shy Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphin.
No trip is complete without at least one dolphin sighting as dolphins are synonymous with the ocean space. Luckily, because of our rich marine biodiversity along the South African coastline, you are sure to tick this one off your list fairly quickly! These aquatic mammals can be seen in both the Atlantic and Indian oceans.
Humankind and our relationship with dolphins go back through centuries. We’ve all heard stories of dolphins protecting swimmers by warding off sharks and tales of guiding ships and sailors safely to shore. Few other marine mammals inspires such joy and excitement as they cavort through the water. The sardine run, which takes place between May and July, is the perfect time to see dolphins as they gather on mass to take advantage of the abundance of food. Pods of dolphins can be seen working together to herd the sardines into a what’s called a “bait ball”, which they usher to the surface to then feed on, much like sheepdogs herding sheep.
A less season-specific option is to take a trip out to Plettenberg Bay along the Garden Route has plenty of land-based options for viewing but also opportunities that get you really close by taking a boat cruise or, if you’re feeling a little more adventurous, a kayak tour into the big blue. As human interactions adversely affect dolphins, swimming with dolphins is strictly forbidden. South Africa has some of the best regulations controlling interactions with sea life.
3. The African Penguin
Another creature that has recovered from the brink of extinction is the African Penguin. South Africa has a few well-established colonies dotted around the Western and Eastern Cape of South Africa namely Dassen Island, St Croix Island, Robben Island, Bird Island, Dyer Island, and Boulders beach.
While St. Croix Island in Algoa Bay, near Port Elizabeth, has the largest population in the world and with Robben Island in Cape Town perhaps being the most famous habitat for these birds, Boulders Beach is my personal favourite and will undoubtedly be the most memorable to any visitor. The penguin colony at Boulders Beach boasts almost 3000 birds, you’re pretty much guaranteed penguin sightings all year round, whether walking the board-walk or heading down to the beach. Located in Simon’s Town roughly a 45-minute drive from Cape Town, Boulders has been rated as one of Lonely Planet’s Top 10 Unique Beaches. Along with spectacular views across False Bay, visitors to this sheltered cove can get close to the penguins and actually swim with them!
4. The Cape Fur Seal
The famous Cape Fur Seal, known for its soft brown fur, can be seen from Namibia, all the way down the west coast and past Cape Town as far as Port Elizabeth. In Cape Town, they are a true tourist attraction and can be found at Hout Bay and Kalk Bay harbours and get a quite a bit of attention at the V&A Waterfront too.
Along with the African Penguin, I find the seal to be quite comical creature. There is something comical about their movement and clown like flippers that bring a smile to my face. But it’s as they plop off dry-land and into the water that you get a sense of the playfulness, agility, and speed of these aquatic mammals.
Although cautious on land, seals are famous for their curiosity underwater. They are known to approach humans and even swim alongside scuba divers. A seal scuba dive is a great way to get to know these aquatic acrobats in their natural habitat.
If you’d rather not get wet with the seals there are boat trips to many of the seal colonies dotted along the coast. Gansbaai is popular as a hub for all marine viewing and Geyser rock adjacent to shark alley is home to roughly 60,000 Cape fur seals.
5. The Great White Shark
At the very top of the marine food chain sits the Great White Shark, unquestionably holding the number 1 spot. They are the largest fish species on earth and adult sharks reach between 4.5 and 6 meters in length, weigh about 2 and a half tons and can swim at almost 25km an hour …oh and not to mention the several rows of ever regenerating serrated teeth.
The combination of speed, agility, and raw power of the Great White makes it a fearsome and feared predator AND a hot favourite for any sea safari.
One of the most thrilling and humbling animal encounters on the planet would be to witness the apex predator of the marine kingdom up close and personal. The Western Cape is one of the best places to see Great White Sharks at daringly close range, our viewing hot-spots are Seal Island in Mossel Bay, Dyer Island and Geyser Rock near Gansbaai, and the infamous Seal Island in False Bay, which is home to the “flying” Great White Shark. With impeccable ‘safety first’ regulations, African Shark Eco-Charters offers you this experience to get below the surface and into the shark’s natural environment.
The Western Cape provides exceptional opportunities to view these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat and in one day if you so wish. The Southern Peninsula, around False Bay is an incredible destination boasting the full complement of Whales, Seals, Penguins, Sharks, and Dolphins. With Cape Town being a world class city and a premier tourist destination, include the Marine Big 5 experience to your list of activities.