Occupying the southern tip of the African continent, South Africa is gifted with nearly 3,000km of coastline stretching from its western desert border with Namibia on the Atlantic coast to the northeastern border with Mozambique on the Indian Ocean. This translates into rich marine biodiversity, that changes with the habitat along the shore. Many excursions can be undertaken through professional tour providers to witness marine wildlife up close–from great white sharks to penguins, sardine runs and southern right whales.
Imagine seeing the great white shark inches away from you in its natural blue habitat. This surreal experience is possible in South Africa, where sharks enjoy full protection. There are several places where one can go into the ocean inside a shark-cage, the most popular being Gansbaai, about 160km east of Cape Town. Board a boat to a spot known as Shark Alley, where chum is used to attract sharks. Once a great white shark makes an appearance, it’s time to hop into the cage dangling off the side of the boat for a closer look under water. The months of May through October are the best time to go cage-diving. Contact White Shark Projects ([email protected] ; R1800).
Travel Trivia: Great white sharks can grow up to 15-20 feet in length and weigh up to 2,200 kg. They can detect blood in the ocean from up to five km away.
Travel Tip: Swimming is not a requirement as you remain just below the surface of the water in a shark-proof cage. You only dunk your head momentarily when the shark whizzes by.
June onwards, southern right whales start arriving on the coast of South Africa to spend time in sheltered bays where they mate, calve, and nurse their babies, before heading off again into the deep Southern Ocean by December. Hermanus, a town on the southern coast of the Western Cape, is reputed to be the best shore-based site for whale watching in the world. Here, a horn alerts bystanders about the presence of a whale. Head over to the cliff path overlooking the bay and watch a 50-tonne whale breach the serene blue waters in a majestic manoeuvre.
Besides the southern right whale, humpbacks (during winter), the smaller Bryde’s whale and occasionally orcas are also seen. Contact Southern Right Charters ([email protected]; from R 700).
Travel Trivia: The kelp horn is blown by the Whale Crier, a tradition that started at Hermanus in 1991. His sandwich board tells tourists how to interpret the horn’s morse code.
Travel Tip: If you’re alert, and lucky, you may even spot the majestic whales from the shore.
Throughout history, dolphins have been exalted and adored in popular media. The species found in South African waters include bottlenose, common and humpback dolphins. The bottlenose tends to keep closer to shore so it is most often seen playing around in the surf. Head to the seaside town of Plettenberg Bay on the Garden Route for a host of marine wildlife excursions including boat-based and kayak-based dolphin- and whale-watching trips. Dolphins can also be seen along the Sunshine Coast and Wild Coast in the Eastern Cape, as well as off the coast of KwaZulu-Natal.
Travel Trivia: Dolphins are seen all year round. A great time to visit would be during the sardine run, between May and July, when one can see massive pods of dolphins riding the waves like surfers as they shadow the sardine migration.
Travel Tip: These beautiful, sleek creatures love to surf in the breakers, so if you’re planning a beach holiday keep an eye out for them, especially in the early
Boulders Beach in Simon’s Town boasts of being the only place in the world where one can get up-close to African Penguins. The highly endangered birds have established a colony here, making nests on slopes and even in gardens of seaside homes. Viewing is facilitated by boardwalks that lead visitors across the three beaches as well as to an information centre. Loss of habitat has led to a decline in penguin numbers. To provide a safe environment, Boulders Coastal Park management has introduced artificial nesting boxes in the area.
Beachgoers can sunbathe in close proximity to the comical birds waddling between their nests and the sea (sanparks.org; R 70 per adult per day, R 35 per child per day).
Travel Trivia: The only other land-based African penguin-breeding colony is at Betty’s Bay.
Travel Tip: Although the penguins are usually harmless, interacting with them is advised against. They can inflict a nasty bite.
Every May, millions of small, shiny fish travel from the cold waters of the Cape to the warmer tides of KwaZulu-Natal, colouring the shoreline silver. Their followers include schools of sharks, marine mammals and game fish, Cape fur seals, humpback and minke whales, thousands of dolphins, shoals of shad, garrick and ‘geelbek’ (a type of kob), and birds.
In order to evade their pursuers, sardines form ‘bait balls’ that underwater photographers and film crews have repeatedly captured in dramatic footage and images. Sardine shoals also sometimes come ashore, sparking a different frenzy as people rush into the shallow water to gather their seasonal bounty. At places like Margate and Shelly Beach in southern KwaZulu-Natal, tour operators take tourists out to get closer to the ‘Greatest Shoal on Earth’.
Those who are shore-bound should use their binoculars to watch for the telltale signs of diving birds and churned-up water, indicating a shoal’s presence.
Travel Trivia: Sardine-run shoals are usually 15km long, 4km wide and approximately 40m deep. Best time to visit is mid-May to mid-July.
Travel Tip: Love that silver bracelet or that locket a loved one gave you? Leave it behind, we suggest. Even zippers need to be blacked out to ensure that the only silver around are the sardines.
Visitors to Cape Town just need to book a boat ride to spend some time observing a seal colony in a natural environment. Head to Hout Bay, where boats take you to a breeding colony on a rocky outcrop called Duiker Island. Seals can often be seen basking here and at Kalk Bay. Some of the regulars even have names. Cape fur seals, also known as South African fur seals, are delightful to watch because of their agility and curiosity.
Alternatively, you can book a longer marine safari from the naval port of Simon’s Town to Seal Island in False Bay, about 16km offshore. This is the only place in the world where great white sharks are regularly seen breaching as they predate on the seals (most likely seen during early morning hours from May to August).
Travel Trivia: Seal Island is home to more than 60,000 seals.
Travel Tip: The best time to see seals and sharks is from mid-April to mid-September.