South Africa’s Marine Big 5 – Do You Know What They Are?

One of South Africa’s major appeals is its immediate access to big five safaris. For this reason, thousands of visitors head through our international airports.

But South Africa marine big 5 is fast falling under the spotlight too, as more and more visitors become aware of the equally enticing appeal of the country’s coastline.

Why South Africa marine big 5?

South Africa’s seas are home to numerous seals, dolphins, penguins, whales and sharks, so what makes some more special than others?

The term ‘marine big 5’ was coined by the seaside town of Gansbaai, who consider themselves the Serengeti of the sea.

For ages they marketed themselves as ‘home of the big 2’ attracting thousands of visitors down in shark cages hoping to see great white sharks, and out on boats to catch a glimpse of the southern right whale.

It wasn’t long before it became only logical to expand on the theme, to ‘home of South Africa marine big 5’.

Gansbaai lies on the Whale Coast. But its access to a range of marine wildlife that far exceeds whales has meant that it is a one-stop-eco-destination, and a day-trip from Cape Town for tourists after an ocean adventure.

South Africa’s marine big 5

The Cape Fur Seal

This stocky, strong character is the largest of all the fur seals, and often called the ‘dog of the ocean’ for its curious and playful nature.

You’ll find the furry and curious Cape fur seal (now officially known as the South African fur seal) only along the shoreline of South Africa and neighbour, Namibia.

And whilst they may seem a little awkward on land, once they’re in the water they turn into balletic masters of their element.

For a quick glimpse head to Kalk Bay harbour, where a group of them think nothing of sunning themselves on the quay alongside tourists (keep your distance, though, they aren’t tame, and some of these characters get as big as 150 kg).

Up close and personal: you can swim with them in Hout Bay or Plettenberg Bay on the Garden Route. Best time: if you want to see seal pups, then the start of March

Bottlenose dolphin

More specifically the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin, which is slightly smaller than the common bottlenose dolphin, but otherwise looks like a ‘typical’ dolphin, just more shy than their bottlenose counterparts.

These friendly, playful beauties of the ocean tend to hang around in social groups of between five to fifteen dolphins and remain in their birth zones throughout their lives.

They’re even believed to develop particular whistles specific to their pod. South Africa’s strict cetacean conservation laws make the waters around South Africa relatively safe for dolphins, and you can often sight them just offshore.

Up close and personal: the annual sardine run in Durban; Dyer Island cruises; and various licensed boat-based whale watching companies regularly sight dolphins from their boats

African Penguin

The African penguin is also known as the Jackass penguin for the absurd braying sound these diminutive waddlers make when on shore.

They’re also rather territorial on land – don’t make the mistake of assuming that because they can’t outrun you that they’re accommodating if you’re close to their nests.

Once in the water they’re seriously magnificent to watch.

Up close and personal: South Africa has two land-based penguin colonies – Boulders beach and Stony Point (Betty’s Bay), but there are other colonies on the islands around South Africa, and boats often venture out past them, Dyer Island, off Gansbaai, included

Southern right whale

Every year the southern right whale comes to South Africa’s whale coast to calve and to mate.

They spend months here, close to the shore, and this gift to the coastline has become a major drawcard for visitors between June and November.

Up close and personal: there are strict laws in place on the ocean allowing only a few, registered charters as close as 50 metres of the whales, but this doesn’t stop them coming close to the boats themselves. For detailed info on when and where to see them, download our whale watching infographic

Great white shark

The great white gets a lot of bad press, but you’ve actually less chance of being taken by a great white than you have of being shocked by a toaster.

Perhaps it is the sight of those serrated teeth, and the thought of the possible devastation they could wreak that causes such anxiety.

It’s worth knowing that their eyes are blue, they have a sixth sense, and each has their own personality – just like us, really.

Up close and personal:Kleinbaai, Mossel Bay and Gansbaai