Activities / Attractions / Travelling Tips / Trending / Western Cape

Expert Tips For Spotting Whales On The Cape Whale Route

Updated Thursday, 16 May 2024

The winter whale watching season is upon us!

From early July until October every year the Southern Right Whale makes the Cape shoreline of South Africa its nursery. Whales come to warmer waters (from the icy waters further north) to mate, give birth and nurse their young.

Whilst you can catch a glimpse of them all the way from the West Coast up to Storms River Mouth, the best part of the coastline to spot them is known as the Cape Whale Coast.

Expert Tips For Spotting Whales On The Cape Whale Route

This centres on Walker Bay in the Overberg (also known as the ‘heart of the whale coast’) with whale viewing spots between Rooi Els (on the eastern edge of False Bay) and Die Dam in Hermanus.

If you’re new to whale spotting, and want to make the most of your chance to see whales, here are a series of tips to ensure you a sighting …

Expert Tips For Spotting Whales On The Cape Whale Route


Best places for spotting whales

Hermanus, De Kelders, Gansbaai, De Hoop Nature Reserve, Witsand & Infanta

The waters between Hermanus and Pearly Beach (Walker Bay) attract hundreds of whales annually, which is why Walker Bay is listed in the top 12 whale viewing locations in the world by WWF.

Hermanus boasts the best landbased whale watching from its cliffsides, but De Kelders, and Gansbaai (great for boat-based whale watching) give it a run for its money. Expect crowds.

San Sebastian Bay – De Hoop Nature Reserve and Witsand and Infant – boasts the largest gathering of right whale cow-calf pairs in the world, and easily rivals Walker Bay when it comes to sheer numbers. De Hoop’s beaches are the hidden secret of the whale season and the shore-based whale watching is excellent (if you like your whale watching without the crowds, then head here).

Struisbaai and Cape Agulhas are excellent bets as well.

Expert Tips For Spotting Whales On The Cape Whale Route

How to know they’re there

Those white patches out to sea that could be sea horses, except the wind isn’t blowing. These are usually indicative of waves breaking over the whales.

Keep watching and you’re sure to see a fin break water sooner rather than later.

Giant splashes out of the corner of your eye are whales breaching.

And look out for lobtailing (tail vertically out of the water), fluking (the tail appears just before a dive), spyhopping (lifting a head out to have a look around), blowing (water out of one of two blowholes), spouting or logging (more difficult to see as the fins and tail are submerged).

Consult the whale crier

Hermanus boasts the only whale crier in the world (you will know him by the odd looking feather in his cap, board around his neck and kelp horn) and the blasts he keeps giving indicate the number of whales spotted and where along the coastline. Or you could just read the board around his neck.

Best weather

Give it a skip if the sea is rough or the winds high as whales are really difficult to spot

The shortlist

Binoculars, a sun hat, sunscreen, patience (whales are wild creatures; they don’t perform to schedule and you may sit for an entire morning on a bench waiting for a whale to show itself).

Hikes that include whale spotting

The Whale Trail – this iconic 5-day trail in De Hoop is booked up way in advance.

Recommended places to stay

Hermanus, Gansbaai, Witsand, De Hoop Nature Reserve.


Boat-based whale watching operates from these towns: Simon’s Town, Hout Bay, V&A Waterfront, Hermanus, Gansbaai, Kleinbaai & Struisbaai

Small boat versus big boat

Small boats are worse for sea sickness, but better for sightings. Larger boats are smoother, if the weather’s good.

Boats versus land-based whale spotting

Swings and roundabouts. It really depends on the day, the weather and the whales. Some people rave about their boat-based whale sighting, exclaiming at how close to the boats the whales come and how wonderful seeing them is, whilst others bemoan the lack of whales and the seasickness.

Whale & Dolphin Watching Cruise

Boat-based whale sighting guaranteed

Not. Anyone worth his salt offering whale watching is going to do his utmost to know where the whales are and to give you the best possible sighting.

However, the whales are not paid to perform.

The lowdown on seasickness

If you can’t handle the back seat during car rides, or end up with the paper bag on your lap during take off and landings, then chances are you’re prone to seasickness.

Take something before, rather than during the trip.

Don’t skimp on breakfast

You won’t feel more seasick if you’ve just had a meal. Infact, the opposite is true. You’re likely to feel ill if you haven’t had any food.

Whale Watching in South Africa

The best weather


25 minutes’ tops

Legally, boats in South Africa are only allowed within 50 metres of the whales and only for 25 minutes.

Although sometimes whales defy all odds and swim right up to you, for curiosity’s sake.

Dress up, not down

Despite the short time spent with the whales (legally 25 minutes), your time on the boat can clock up to two hours (getting there and back).

The temperature of the water is icy at this time of year and the combination of sea spray and wind will make it feel even colder.

Wrap up! Hooded tops, windbreakers, beanies, gloves and even a lightweight blanket.

Whale-Watching in South Africa

Book ahead and arrive on time

Don’t expect to arrive in Gansbaai and simply get on the next boat out. You will need to book ahead.

If you’re waiting to gauge the weather, then phone first thing – there are no guarantees that you will get a same-day boat, but you can try.

Arrival involves ticket collection and time to get on board. You want to allow plenty of time to do this, not only for a good seat, but because whale watching is an incredible experience and you don’t want to ruin it with a frenzied start.

The shortlist

Binoculars, rubbersoled shoes, snack, warm clothes, sunscreen, sunglasses, camera (the jury is out on the value of cameras, as so often one misses the ‘moment’ focusing through a lens elsewhere), patience (sometimes the whales just aren’t interested).

Keep an open mind

If you have a list of expectations, chances are none of them will be met. Sometimes you just won’t spot any whales.

But if you’re on the look out there are seals, sharks and dolphins in these waters.