Whale Route

A southern right whale crashes onto its back after breaching from the Atlantic.

The Whale Route is named for the remarkable number of whales that frequent the coastal waters.

Main Destination:
Hermanus
Whale Season:
June - November
Famous Feature:
Home to world's only whale crier
Other activities:
Shark cage diving
Things to do:
Wine tasting in the Heaven & Earth Valley

Introduction

South Africa is one of the best destinations for encounters with sea creatures, with annual visits from southern right and humpback whales between June and November who visit the coastal waters to calve. The southern right whales migrate from Antarctica to warmer climates and reach South Africa sometime in June. The Whale Coast is a route which stretches from Rooi Els to Quoin Point. Some of the best spots to see the whales are Hermanus, Gansbaai, Kleinmond, Plettenberg Bay and Stanford. Hermanus is a popular viewing area because of the ‘whale crier’ who announces the arrival of the whales. The whales come in particularly close, and Hermanus awaits the arrival of these whales with great anticipation, hosting an annual Whale Festival every year at the end of September. The first Whale Crier was Pieter Claasen, who first blew his kelp horn in 1992. He has since retired and was first replaced by Wilson Salakuzana, then Godleck Baleni and the current whale crier Eric Davalah.

One of the towns on the Whale Coast, Gansbaai, offers visitors fantastic sightings of the great white shark in addition to the southern right whale. The town also boasts a fantastic hiking trail up on the cliffs, providing hikers with fantastic views of the whales as they come into the protected coves. Witsand is an area along the Whale Coast which is regarded as a whale nursery, and huge numbers of whales come to this area to calve each year. There are boat trips offered which take one right up close to the whales, bearing in mind that in South Africa there is a restriction on getting too close to the whales. Boats are not allowed any closer than 300 meters from the whales without a permit. Towards the end of October, the southern right whales start leaving South African waters, though many holidaymakers still get to see some of the later stragglers in December. This is when the humpback whales arrive and stay until early January.

Reasons to Visit

1

Hiking in Fernkloof Nature Reserve

Immerse yourself in the diversity of the Cape Floral Region by taking on one of the hikes at the Fernkloof Nature Reserve. The journey includes beautiful scenic views of the mountains as well as the Indian and Atlantic oceans and an array of flowers and shrubs set within the fynbos will accompany you all the way. Be sure to look out for whales from the vantage point.

2

Whale Watching

This might seem a bit obvious, but it is truly one of the most remarkable experiences you will ever have. The southern right whales are so close, you almost feel tempted to jump in and join them. If it wasn’t for their movements creating waves of their own, and the fact that they are as large as small houses, you probably would jump in, too.

3

Beach Walks

A walk a day keeps the doctor away - that’s what the saying should have been. A daily walk on Grotto Beach rejuvenates the mind and gets the heart pumping just enough for you to enjoy the cool sea breeze. If you’d like, you can even take a swim in the ocean, the water here is a bit colder than further down the Western Cape, as it is situated primarily along the Atlantic Ocean.

Useful Info

Getting There
Plane

By Air

The Whale Route is situated along the western coast of South Africa close to Cape Town. Guests visiting the Whale Route will be assisted in transferring from OR Tambo International in Johannesburg to Cape Town International Airport if necessary. Flights to Cape Town are also available from other major airports such as Durban, if this is not the first destination on your tour.

Car

By Road

The Whale Route encompasses various towns and sections of coastline, and starts less than 20 minutes out of Cape Town. Guests will be met at Cape Town International, from where they will be transported in a private air-conditioned vehicle. The journey along the coastline means that you will be driving around the Hottentots-Holland mountain range from Gordon’s Bay to Hermanus.

Weather & Best Time To Visit

Whale watching season in South Africa officially starts in June, when the southern right whales arrive from Antarctica to calve and rear their young. The whales don’t all arrive together and can be seen along the coast until December, but in Hermanus the bests months to visit would definitely be September and October.

This is coincidentally also spring in South Africa, which means that the fynbos and flowers on the route are at their best. Those traveling further north from Cape Town to the Garden Route will also be able to experience the magnificent canola fields. Summers on the Whale Route can be extremely hot, and in winter the evenings can be cold. 

History

People have been fascinated by the world’s largest animal for thousands of years. Most of this time, whales have been exploited for their meat, oil and blubber. The first recorded whale hunts date back as far as 3 000 BC. The first method people used to hunt whales was by trying to ‘scare’ whales into bays and onto land, with very little success. Later a drogue - a semi-floating object that attaches to a harpoon - was used. The drogue tired out the whale, with drag and buoyancy, giving whalers a chance to come close and make the kill. The first attempt at whaling in South Africa was in 1653, when Commander Jan Van Riebeeck sent a hooker to Saldanha Bay, but was largely unsuccessful and the Dutch dropped the idea.

Commercial whaling started in South Africa in the late 18th century and increased drastically throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Half way through the 20th century, most of the larger whale species had been depleted, and the much less profitable small minke whale was the only whale left to hunt. Whaling was thus comprehensively banned in South Africa in 1979. In the 1990’s, whale watching became popular, and has been growing ever since. Hermanus has been recognized as one of the top 12 whale watching destinations worldwide. There are a number of excellent vantage points to observe these gentle giants from, including Siever’s Point, Kwaaiwater lookout and many more.

Wildlife

A large variety of whale species occur in the waters of the coast of South Africa, but only two of these species are regularly seen. The most commonly sighted whale would be the southern right whale. It was named the ‘right’ whale as it was easy to hunt, rich in oil, had high quality baleen and floated after being killed. Between June and November, the southern right whales come to shallow waters between Port Elizabeth and Cape Town, where females give birth and rear young in sheltered bays. They grow 15 meters long and weigh 47 tonnes. It is easy to identify them by the V-shaped spray when they breathe, short square flippers and wart-like white callosities on jaw, forehead and chin.

The other common specie is the humpback whale. They can be identified by long, narrow flippers and a single straight spray when they breathe. They overwinter on tropical and subtropical breeding grounds off the east and west coasts of Africa. The males produce melodious ‘songs’ that can be heard over vast distances underwater. Both the southern right and humpback whales breach with a spectacular leap and crash back into the water. Another specie, the Bryde’s whale, can be seen off the east coast during the sardine run. Killer whale or orca are seen around the coast of South Africa during the summer, where they feed on whales, dolphins, seals, sharks, squid, turtles and birds.

Vegetation & Terrain

Hermanus (originally called Hermanuspietersfontein) lies within the Cape Floral region, which has one of the highest plant diversities and endemism in the world. The Cape Floristic Region is the smallest of the six recognized floral kingdoms, and yet it is home to more than 9 000 plant species. Of these is the carnivorous Roridula, locally referred to as ‘vlieëbos’, which translates to 'fly bush'. It is largely unknown, even to the South African public, and can be found all around the region. It is the largest carnivorous plant in the world, can grow up to two meters tall, and is covered in hairs with sticky droplets, and are capable of capturing small birds.

For those who want to learn more about the various plant species, the Fernkloof Nature Reserve in Hermanus is the perfect place to go. The area includes the Botanical Centre buildings, a Herbarium and Nursery, well-kept gardens as well as several hiking trails. There are three plant species that are endemic to the reserve, and approximately 20 species endemic to reserve and the surrounding area. Visitors to Hermanus can also visit Grotto Beach, the largest beach in Hermanus, which has also been proclaimed a Blue Flag beach. Hoy's Koppie is another popular site.

Activities

The world-renowned Whale Route in South Africa attracts thousands of visitors each year to the charming seaside towns of Hermanus, Pringle Bay, Betty’s Bay and Gansbaai, to name a few. It is one of the best whale watching spots in the world, as the southern right whales and humpback whales migrate here to calve and mate. The Hermanus Whale Festival is an important event on the whale watching calendar, and offers a wide variety of activities for family fun such as the Eco-Marine Village, arts and crafts and live music. Best of all are the stars of the show - the whales - that can be spotted right off the shore, splashing about as they join in the celebration.

The Route does not, however, need to be visited during the Festival, and visitors can spot whales anytime during the whale season. Traveling along the route is also a great way to familiarize yourself with the fynbos vegetation for which the Cape is famous, and the area is especially beautiful in spring as the flowers start to bloom. If you want to get the blood pumping, try surfing lessons, sea kayaking or one of the various hikes offered in the area. For the wine connoisseur, the Hermanus Wine Route in the Walker Bay Wine district is an absolute treat, with fifteen small wineries that make premium wines on the R320 .

Experiences to be Savored

Walker Bay in the coastal Overberg of the Western Cape in South Africa.

Call of the Whale crier

Follow the horn of the whale crier, and not only will you be able to see the whales, but also learn about the only whale crier in the world. Shake the hand of the person who takes on the immense responsibility of locating and staying with the whales as they visit for the season.

Wine and Dine

The Cape Whale Route is set along the eastern coastline of the Western Cape, and offers some of the best dining experiences, especially in terms of seafood. It also encompasses the Hermanus Wine Route and Heaven and Earth Valley, which offer a diverse range of award-winning wines.

Town Hop

The Whale Route comprises of many small coastal towns of South Africa, and each has its own attractions and style. Guests have many options along this route, for example, a visit to the Harold Porter Botanical Gardens in Betty’s Bay, or the Kogelberg biosphere of Pringle Bay.

FAQ

Is the area suitable for people with physical disabilities?
The area is suitable for people with physical disabilities, and there are recreational activities are wheelchair-friendly.
Will I see any sharks?
There are shark cage diving opportunities available, and there is no need for any previous diving experience.
How big do the southern right whales get?
They can grow to around 15m, and can weigh over 48 tonnes. The largest whale recorded grew to 18m and weighed almost 80 tonnes.
What else is there to do nearby after whale watching?
There are plenty of activities to partake in, like exploring the southernmost wine route on the continent.
What is a whale crier?
The Whale Crier is the person who let's others know when the whales can be seen. If you follow the sound of the kelp horn, you will find whales.
When is the best time to view the whales?
The best time to view the whales is between in September and October.
Which towns also form part of the Cape Whale Route?
The major town include Hangklip, Betty’s Bay, Kleinmond, Gansbaai, Pringle Bay and Stanford.

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