South Africa’s Marine Big 5

posted 10th June 2019 by Danica Wilson in Work in progress

Marine Big Five

Did you know that South Africa has a Marine Big Five? It consists of

  1. whale
  2. shark
  3. seal
  4. penguin and
  5. dolphin

South Africa offers unique opportunities to view and interact with these amazing creatures all across the Western Cape coastline.

These are the most popular sea creatures in Southern Africa, and along with seeing the traditional Big Five, seeing the Marine Big Five will truly complete any holiday in this gorgeous country.

Below we delve into the magic of the marine species with information and videos thanks to South Africa Tourism and a number of tour providers.

Whale Watching South Africa

Southern Right Whales

Growing to lengths of 16 meters, the sheer size of these ocean giants is enough to amaze anyone. Whales can be seen all along the Western Cape’s coastline between June and December as they migrate to the warmer waters to calve. Sheltered bays such as False Bay and Hermanus are popular areas for the endangered Southern Right and Humpback whales.

Southern Right whales were named so as they were considered the right type of whale to hunt as they floated above the waterline after being harpooned. These beautiful creatures travel from the cold waters of the Antarctic to the warm South African coast, where they can be seen playing off shore, often waving their fins or tails. If you are lucky, you may even get to see one of them breaching the water, creating a massive splash with their 60 ton bodies.

If you feel like getting up close and personal with these gentle giants, an hour and a half drive from Cape Town will see you arrive at the coastal town of Hermanus, which features a 12 kilometre long cliff path from which you can view the whales as they swim just a few meters away. Hermanus also offers a variety of whale watching boat cruises, and you may get so close to the whales that you could reach out and touch them. Hermanus is also home to the famous Whale Crier who signifies the arrival of the whales in Hermanus’ Walker Bay by blowing on his kelp horn.

Great White Sharks Cape Town

Breaching or 'flying'

We all know that sharks are the top of the marine food chain, but it is undoubted that the Great White Shark holds the number 1 position. Great Whites are the largest species of fish on earth; adults can grow to 6 meters in length, weigh up to 2.5 tonnes, and can swim at speeds of 25 kilometres an hour. The combination of speed, agility, raw power, and of course, rows of razor sharp teeth make the Great White the most feared predator in the ocean… and a favourite for any ocean safari.

Without a doubt, seeing the most fearsome predator in the marine world up close and personal is one of the most adrenaline-filled and humbling animal encounters you can have on this planet.


The Western Cape is the best place to see these large hunters, especially Seal Island in Mossel Bay, Dyer Island and Geyser Rock in Gansbaai, and the notorious Seal Island in False Bay, where you may get a chance to see a ‘flying’ Great White Shark.

With immaculate safety first protocols, it is now more accessible than ever to get into the water to see these sharks in their natural environment. Companies like Apex and Marine Dynamics, operating out of Gansbaai, run eco-tourism opportunities where conservation is the main priority for all activities. This means that you get an adrenaline pumping experience with the Great Whites while contributing directly to keeping them safe and defending white shark populations.

Swimming with Seals

Cape Fur Seals

Famous for its soft brown fur, the Cape Fur Seal can be seen from Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape all the way up the west coast to Namibia. They are a main attraction in Cape Town at the Hout Bay and Kalk Bay harbours, as well as the Victoria and Alfred (V&A) Waterfront. There is something amusing about these melancholy-looking sea beasts as they sun themselves and plonk around on their clown-shoe flippers. But the moment they enter the water, you can get a true sense of their natures as they playfully speed around the water.

If you would like to dive with seals, you can do so on the Atlantic side of Cape Town at Duiker Islands, which is located in the Karbonkelberg marine protected area. The cool waters, shallow kelp forests, and lower seal population makes this the perfect place to engage with these agile sea animals.

Seals are infamous for being curious under the water, and often approach humans and swim with scuba divers.

If you would prefer to see the seals without getting wet, there are many boat trips to many of the colonies of seals. Gansbaai offers a real treat for marine lovers, where more than 60,000 Cape Fur Seals can be seen at Geyser Rock. If you would like to see even larger pod of seals, head up to Kleinzee on the West Coast, where you can witness over 350,000 seals, the largest seal colony in South Africa.

Cape Town Penguins

Up close at Boulders Beach

These little marine creatures, looking debonair in their black and white plumage suits, have recovered from the edge of extinction.

South Africa has quite a few well established penguin colonies in the Western Cape, including Dassen Island, St Croix Island, Robben Island, Bird Island, Dyer Island and Boulders beach.

Although St. Croix Island in the Eastern Cape boasts the largest colony in the world, and Robben Island is the most famous territory for these birds, Boulders Beach is the most unforgettable and perhaps easily accessible.

The colony at Boulders Beach has around 3,000 penguins, and they are visible from the board walk and the beach all year round.

Boulders Beach is located in Simon’s Town, about 45 minutes from Cape Town by car, and it has been rated by Lonely Planet as one of the Top 10 Unique Beaches in the world.

Not only does Boulders Beach boast a breathtaking view across False Bay, visitors can interact with the penguins up close, and swim with them in the ocean.

Dolphins in South Africa

Ten species to try and spot

One of the most loved marine animals is the dolphin, which is synonymous with the ocean. No trip to South Africa would be complete without seeing at least one dolphin. Luckily, South Africa has rich marine biodiversity along its coastline, and you should be able to catch sight of one of these amazing animals fairly quickly. Dolphins can be seen in both the Indian and Atlantic Oceans as they jump in and out of the water, playing among the waves.

Although South Africa is home to more than ten species of dolphin, the ones that you can expect to see swimming close to shore are the well-known Bottlenose Dolphin, the Long-Beaked Common Dolphin, and the wary Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphin. No other marine creature invokes as much excitement as dolphins as they frolic through the water.

The sardine run, which takes place from May to July, is the ideal time to see dolphins as they gather in large pods to take advantage of the great quantity of food. You can see the dolphins working together to herd the sardines together, pushing them to surface and then feed on them, much like sheep dogs herding sheep.

If you are visiting out of season, taking a trip to Plettenberg Bay on the Garden Route offers you many land-based viewing opportunities as well as boat cruises to get really close to these ocean mammals. If you are feeling more adventurous, you can take a kayak tour into the ocean, paddling among the dolphins. Due to South Africa’s strict regulations controlling interactions with sea life, and because human interactions adversely affect them, swimming with dolphins is strictly forbidden.

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