The small fishing village of Hermanus, two hours east of Cape Town, is one of the most accessible places in the world for land-based whale-watching. Each year, between June and November, the Southern Right whale migrates from the cold waters of the Antarctic to calf and mate in the warmer, more sheltered waters of the South African coast. The female Southern Right produces one calf every 3–5 years and remains with it until it is strong enough to make the return journey south.
These enormous marine mammals were called ‘Right whales’ because they were considered the ‘right’ whale to hunt because they often swim within sight of shore, are slow swimmers, full of oil, and buoyant after death. They were hunted to the verge of extinction in the 19th and early 20th centuries until a worldwide ban on Right whaling was agreed in 1937.
Despite the illegal whaling that continued in violation of the ban until 1973, the Southern Right is making a slow recovery and large numbers can be seen cavorting in the waves from Cape Town right along to Plettenberg Bay. That Hermanus is recognised as the whale-watching capital of South Africa is largely due to the facts that the town took the initiative and markets itself well.
There are plenty of shops and restaurants to fall back on when you want a break from whale-watching, and a number of cliff-top guest houses. You will find our favourites listed under ‘accommodation’.
In season, the cliff wall, high above the old harbour in Hermanus, is full of people looking intently out to sea, with binoculars or without. Unless the sea is very rough, you are fairly certain to have good whale viewing. You don’t have to stay in this spot for the best viewing. There is a seven-kilometre concrete cliff path all along the rocky shore of Walker Bay, from New Harbour to Grotto Beach, which marks the start of a long stretch of sandy beach.
This beach ends at the clifftop settlement of De Kelders, another excellent place for land-based whale-watching, and close to the superb Grootbos Nature Reserve, in our opinion the finest place to stay in the area.
Whale-Watching by boat
You can go out on a whale-watching boat from both Hermanus and De Kelders. The boats are strictly licensed and have to be careful not to disturb the whales. It is often pretty rough, sometimes too rough to launch the boats. The best time to go is very early in the morning. The boats also go to Dyer Island, where you will see penguins, a 60,000 strong Cape Fur seal colony, dolphins and many different seabirds.
Humpbacks also migrate through the region from May to December, and Bryde's whales are permanent residents of the waters slightly further offshore. Killer whales are seen occasionally.