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

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Go for a safari—under the sea!

You may be familiar with the Big Five—a term coined by hunters to refer to Africa’s most prized and difficult game animals (the African lion, African leopard, black rhinoceros, cape buffalo, and African elephant). But while visiting Cape Town in South Africa you might find yourself seeking out a different Big Five altogether—a Big Five under the sea.

The place where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet just off the southernmost part of the African continent allows for one of the most diverse aquatic ecosystems in the world. In these waters, everything from the magnificent dolphin and southern right whale to the adorable cape fur seal and African penguin to the awe-inspiring great white shark not only converges, they thrive. And with its location right on the coast, Cape Town makes for the perfect jumping off point to embark on your Big Marine Five adventure.

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Cape Fur Seals

Few ocean-dwellers are cuter than the cape fur seal. (Well, maybe one, but we’ll get to that later in the list.) Luckily, if you’re looking to have an up close and personal experience, the shores and waters of Cape Town are brimming with these stone cold cuties. Whether you prefer suiting up and diving in alongside them or admiring them from a safe, dry distance there are plenty of options in and around Cape Town.

The easiest way to see cape fur seals doesn’t even involve hopping on a boat. Head over to the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront where they can be found napping and catching some rays along the dock or on their own special platform. (Though cape fur seals are very gregarious in the water the company of humans can make them very nervous on land so make sure to give them a wide berth.) If you’re interested in seeing the famous Seal Island, Simon’s Town Boat Company, which operates out of False Bay, offers a cruise that takes visitors out to view the home base of 64,000 seals.

But if you’re interested in really experiencing these creatures at their most playful (and graceful!) you’ve got to get in the water with them. Find a tour operator like Into the Blue Scuba Dive Centre or Animal Ocean Seal Snorkeling (out of Hout Bay, just south of Cape Town) that’ll take you snorkeling or scuba diving alongside.

dophins
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Dolphins

The waters around Cape Town are home to a wide variety of dolphin species. Bottlenose, spinner, common, Heavisides, dusky, and Indo-Pacific humpbacked are all known to make appearances, depending on the time of year. Their population is at its most robust during the annual sardine run. This stretch between May and July marks the migration of billions of sardines which, in turn, attracts as many as 18,000 hungry dolphins.

Of course, you can always pick up a pair of binoculars and take your chances and watch from the shoreline. While sightings from land are not the most frequent you might see one of the more playful species—bottlenose dolphins, in particular, enjoy surfing the breaking waves.

For your best chance at seeing dolphins—and the thrilling experience of being on a boat currently being flanked by a curious pod—get ready to set out for the open ocean. Book a tour with a company like Oceans Africa to observe these creatures at their most frolicsome.

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Penguins

Of all the ocean-dwelling animals on this list, the African penguins are truly the crème de la crème de la cute. While seals have the market cornered as far as dog-like friendliness goes the penguins have the very important distinction of being teeny tiny little guys. Maybe one day we’ll be graced with some kind of pygmy seal but until that auspicious day comes penguins, quite simply, rule.

One of the best ways to get a close-up experience with penguins doesn’t require a tour or anything. The penguins at Boulders Beach (located on the Cape Peninsula, about an hour south of Cape Town proper) are so abundant that the parking lot features a sign advising visitors to look under their vehicles for penguins. While you’ll see penguins year round many of the adult penguins are at sea September through October. The beach’s penguin population is at its highest during mating season (February through August).

If you’re looking for a unique and active way to see the penguins of Boulders Beach, check out Kayak Cape Town which offers a kayak trip that sets out daily from Simon’s Town.

right-whale
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Southern Right Whales

Further proving that people are garbage, the southern right whales are so named because they were regarded as the “right” whales to hunt. But the qualities that made them desirable to whalers (they are slow moving, live like to hang out near the surface of the water, and are very curious when it comes to human vessels) make them excellent for whale watching. The best time to see Southern Right Whales is during their mating season between June and October as they tend to spend the rest of the year feeding around Antarctica.

There are several land-based vantage points that will allow you to glimpse the Southern right whale from afar. Walk or drive along Boyes Drive, which overlooks False Bay, or head to Cape Point and grab a bite to eat (and maybe a cocktail) on the ocean view deck at Two Oceans Restaurant.

In order to see the Southern right whales up close hop on a whale watching tour with Simon’s Town Boat Company in False Bay. A boat trip is the best way to see these resplendent giants up close and if you’re really lucky, you might even get a rare glimpse of one of them “tail sailing.”

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Great White Shakrs

Maybe cute and/or majestic creatures aren’t for you. Maybe an aquatic adrenaline rush is more your style. Well, how does hopping in the water with great white sharks strike your adventure-seeking fancy?

The area surrounding Cape Town is one of the best places on the planet to seek out these toothy behemoths—especially since some of the animals previously mentioned are some of the great whites favorite foods.

If you’re interested in staying closer to Cape Town Shark Zone offers a cage diving trip that sets out from Simon’s Town between February and September. Though you’re likely to see great whites throughout the year,ha you’re most likely to see these shark in greater numbers when water visibility is better between June and September.

But if you’re willing to go all in on this great white business you have to head for Gansbaai. Gansbaai is about two hours southeast of Cape Town by car, but it’s worth the trip if you’re serious about getting the most out of your great white experience. The waters off the coast of this small fishing village are home to the famous Shark Alley, one of the largest populations of great whites in the world. Check out a cage diving operator like White Shark Diving Company, Apex Sharks Expeditions or Marine Dynamics Shark Tours in order to come face to face with one of the ocean’s most impressive predators.