How to See South Africa’s “Marine Big 5”

You’ve likely heard of Africa’s traditional “big 5” (lions, leopards, elephants, hippos, and buffalo), the coveted wildlife-spotting checklist for anyone headed out on a land-based safari. But here’s an unexpected twist for your next African wildlife expedition: the “marine big 5.” South Africa is the perfect launching point for ocean safaris that set out to encounter Africa’s great white sharks (you can even go cage diving with them!), southern right whales, dolphins, seals, and penguins. This veritable “Serengeti of the sea” is best accessed from the Western Cape Province (with Cape Town as its capital), set at the southernmost tip of the African continent, where the Atlantic and Indian oceans collide to create a thriving underwater jungle. We have the scoop on spotting these five magnificent creatures of the deep—all you need to do is buy a plane ticket and pack your binoculars.

SOUTHERN RIGHT WHALES

Southern Right Whales

While great whites are mammoth, they pale in comparison to the colossal size of many whales. The Western Cape is a pilgrimage point for whale watching, by both land and by sea—so much so, in fact, that parts of the coastline have been designated as part of a national “Cape Whale Route,” and there’s even a 35-mile-long “Whale Trail” trek here. The well-touristed seaside town of Hermanus is the hub of regional whale-watching activity. From June to December, hundreds of the giant, rotund, and calloused southern right whales come to the calm of Walker Bay from Antarctica to mate, rest, calve, and nurse their young in safe harbors—and, in turn, put on a spectacular show of blowing, breaching, lobtailing, and other aquatic acrobatics to the delight of shore-side spectators. Visitors can also look out for Hermanus’s unusual “whale crier” (who sounds his kelp horn to announce the whales’ presence), a dedicated whale museum, and the annual Hermanus Whale Festival (held in September). 

For whale-watching encounters by boat, you can try well-reputed outfits like Southern Right Charters, right in Hermanus. You might even consider a sea kayaking whale tour with Hermanus’s Walker Bay Adventures, or seek an aerial perspective of the cetaceans from above spectacular Walker Bay, with an airborne whale-watching tour from African Wings. For land-based viewing outside of Hermanus, other celebrated Western Cape vantage points include the scenic sand dunes of De Hoop Nature Reserve, and the limestone cliffs of the village of De Kelders.

While the southern right whales are most famously spotted, migrating humpbacks, elusive Bryde’s, and even orcas sometimes make an appearance, too.

DOLPHINS

Dolphins

The waters off of the Western Cape get regular visits from three species of dolphins: the famously agile and curious bottlenose; the shyer and more elusive humpback; and the ever-gregarious common dolphins. A lucky spotting of common dolphins might mean a pod numbering in the hundreds—they’re delightfully playful, and will often take great pleasure in surfing the wake of your boat. While you might spy dolphins frolicking in waves from shore, it’s a much likelier occurrence from aboard a boat. Try Ocean Safaris in Plettenberg Bay, where you can have a go at a dolphin-spotting trip by sea kayak with Dolphin Adventures. While dolphins are present year-round, you might want to time your visit to coincide with the annual sardine run (between May and July) when they truly abound, hot on the trail of the tasty fish. 

CAPE FUR SEALS

Cape Fur Seals

Seals might be among the more commonly spotted marine mammals on this list, but chances are you’ve never seen them in numbers quite like this before. Expect pure cacophony in the massive congregations of Cape fur seals (also called South African fur seals) that congregate off of the Western Cape’s coast. For some of the most impressive viewing, head out on a boat tour and get a closer look at these big-eyed, playful creatures, where their bobbing heads, sunning blubber, and playful antics are sure to amuse your eyes (if not your nose). You’ll find plenty of them around Gansbaai, Hout Bay, Plettenberg Bay, and Cape Town (you can often spot them right on the V&A Waterfront) any time of year. Try trusted boat operators like Dyer Island Cruises, which takes guests out to Geyser Rock, with its colony of some 60,000 seals and pups; or, embarking from Simon’s Town on the Cape Peninsula, Simon’s Town Boat Company sails to Seal Island in False Bay, with a similarly massive population. You might even consider snorkeling or swimming with the inquisitive and silly seals—hook up with an operator like Animal Ocean (in Hout Bay) or Offshore Adventures (in Plettenberg Bay) for the unique opportunity.  

AFRICAN PENGUINS

African Penguins

Don’t miss the dapperly dressed, black-and-white African penguins, a happy addition to the marine big 5 scene. You’ll find a gathering of these endangered birds on protected Dyer Island—a prime but, unfortunately, depleted breeding ground for them—in the company of other seabirds like the Cape cormorant. Get there with Dyer Island Cruises, who also run the nearby African Penguin & Seabird Sanctuary, where visitors can learn about penguin conservation and rehabilitation efforts. You might also spy some of the monogamous breeders waddling about with their clan back on land, with prime viewing spots at Boulder’s Beach in Simon’s Town (on the Cape Peninsula), or at Stony Point, in the seaside town of Betty’s Bay.

GREAT WHITE SHARKS

Great White Sharks

Chances are, if you’ve ever seen a TV special covering great white sharks, the most spectacular footage was sourced from around South Africa’s notorious “Shark Alley,” wedged between Dyer Island and Geyser Rock. You can get there via a 20-minute boat ride from the Western Cape fishing village—and “great white shark capital of the world”—of Gansbaai. This precarious channel, teeming with penguin and seal colonies (tasty shark bait), is home to one of the largest concentrations of great whites in the world, making it the best place on the planet to come face-to-toothy-face with these impressive predators year-round.  

Embarking from Gansbaai, Dyer Island Cruises runs leisurely marine wildlife cruises that might come across them, but your significantly better bet is to hook up with a shark cage diving operator. While some of the practices behind adrenaline-spiking shark cage diving are controversial (like baiting), if you’re determined to take the plunge, the operators behind Marine Dynamics are the most reputable, noted for their eco-friendly practices and conservation efforts. Onboard their custom-built 40-passenger catamaran, thrill seekers gear up in provided wetsuits. No diving experience is required since the eight-person, stainless-steel cage is never fully submerged, so guests can simply don masks and snorkels to stare down the feared-and-revered marine beasts. You’ll have the company of shark experts, including a marine biologist, to field any questions and help locate the giant and formidable hunters. For guests who prefer to stay on the boat, the top deck offers a perch for viewing and snapping pics.

WHERE TO STAY

Grootbos Private Nature Reserve

From its perch between the marine wildlife meccas of Gansbaai and Hermanus, Grootbos Private Nature Reserve (a charter member of the recently launched National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World collection) is the perfect place to lay down your safari hat between ocean expeditions. With lodging, meals, and most activities included (from $318 per person, per night), guests at the upscale 39-room eco-resort can appreciate their time on terra firma, too, thanks to the lodge’s 6,200 acres of private and peaceful fynbos-covered grounds overlooking the marine-wildlife wonderland of Walker Bay. Sign up for activities like horseback riding, 4×4 “flower safaris,” and hikes through ancient milkwood forests. The roomy suites, split between two lodges (the family-friendly Garden Lodge and more sophisticated, adults-oriented Forest Lodge), come with separate living and sleeping areas, working fireplaces, and private balconies or decks overlooking the bay. 

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