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The South African Whale Migration

There’s something about whales that makes them almost universally loved. Perhaps it’s their surprising grace for such enormous creatures, or their haunting songs that ripple under the ocean – or perhaps it’s the show they seemingly put on for people as they play off of the earth’s coast. One of the best places to see this show for yourself is along South Africa’s Garden Route during the annual whale migration.

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The Garden Route & the whale migration?

The Garden Route is on the southern coast of South Africa, and is a popular route for road trippers and adventure-seekers all year round. It is dotted with many beautiful natural sights, picturesque small towns and foodie hot spots. The route officially covers approximately 300km, from Port Elizabeth in the Western Cape, to Mossel Bay in the Eastern Cape, but as most people start or end in Cape Town it is generally used to describe the overall area in between there and Mossel Bay as well.

The R44 coastal road on the Garden Route - by Christopher Griner

Although the Garden Route is stunning all year round, there is an added bit of magic and charisma during the whale migration, when hundreds of whales leave the chilly waters of Antarctica in search of warmer respite off the shores of Cape Town. As a result, visitors to the Garden Route during whale season have the opportunity to see dozens – even more – whales, playing and swimming off of the coast. This is also the time when many baby whales are calved – another incredible experience. Whales have a long migration period in South Africa, which also coincides with wildflower season – all in all creating a mesmerising time to visit this beautiful part of the world.

When is Whale Season?

Helpfully, whale season is almost six months long in South Africa, running between June and November each year. The peak time to visit is during spring (September and October), when the weather is beautiful and the whales are particularly active. Even better, the main whale season coincides with wildflower season, meaning the always-pretty Garden Route is absolutely spectacular. It is worth noting that some whales – such as orcas – may be spotted off South Africa’s coast year-round. So, even if you happen to miss whale season – you might still get lucky and catch a glimpse of one of these incredible creatures off the southern coast of South Africa.

What whales can you see in South Africa?

There are many different species of whales that can be sighted off the south coast during the whale migration near the Garden Route. One of the most commonly sighted species is the spectacular Southern Right Whale, which can grow up to 15m in length and is a deep, charcoal colour. Their size is truly astonishing – a fully grown Southern Right Whale can weigh as much as eight elephants. You know you have spotted a Southern Right Whale if you see ‘callosities’ on their heads – they look a bit like big barnacles, and are individually distinctive. The most commonly sighted of all is the Humpback Whale, who are generally headed for the warm waters of Madagascar and Mozambique, which are their breeding grounds of choice. They are similarly enormous, frequently measuring in at lengths of 16m or more. Other sea life that are commonly seen include terrifying yet spectacular Great White Sharks (perhaps close your eyes if you’re scared of Jaws!), adorable African Penguins and playful Cape Fur Seals. Dolphins are often also spotted, and if you’re lucky you may even spot a shy yet gigantic Bryde’s Whale (pronounced ‘brewdus’).

What are the best places to see whales along the Garden Route?

The Garden Route offers many opportunities to stop and enjoy the natural beauty of South Africa. If you’re specifically looking for stops with the best chances to see elegant whales in action, here are some of our favourite places:

  • Hermanus: known as the whale capital of South Africa, there is a beautiful coastal path that gives ample opportunity to see these amazing creatures really close to the shore, but if you fancy getting up close and personal with them there are several reputable whale watching boat trips for you to join.

  • Mossel Bay: to the Eastern Cape side of the route lies Mossel Bay, which is also one of the premier spots for whale watching. If you have a little more time, it is also possible to do a daytrip to nearby Seal Island, where you can see (as the name suggests) seals, as well as have a great vantage spot to look for whales and dolphins.

  • Plettenburg Bay: this seaside spot is pretty confident – it also calls itself the “whale capital”, just like Hermanus. It’s no wonder, because the Bay is a great place to spot whales as well as other playful sea life. The bay is also home to many other water activities and a selection of great cafes and restaurants to enjoy.

  • Wilderness: a small, seaside town near to Knysna (more on that soon), Wilderness is a peaceful village with abundant natural beauty – and some great whale watching! In particular, the Map of Africa viewpoint is a great vantage point to look out for migrating or nursing sea life.

  • Knysna: a well know stop not far from Mossel Bay, Knysna is well-loved for its panoramic views out over the ocean – and therefore out over the whales’ territory! Venture to the lookouts at The Heads, Brenton-on-Sea and Noetzie for the best chances of spotting marine life.

All of these spots offer the opportunity to see whales from the coast, however there is also the option to go out by boat in the hopes of spotting these majestic creatures. These boat journeys depart from several stops along the Garden Route and know how to avoid stressing the whales so as to make it a good experience for you, and the wildlife!

Final Thoughts

Whales have a special place in the hearts of so many people, and the opportunity to see them close up – perhaps with calves in tow – is truly a dream come true for many. If this is you, look no further than South Africa’s beautiful Garden Route, which provides ample opportunity to stop and take in beautiful views out over the ocean and hopefully upon pods of playful sea mammals. Our Wonders of South Africa tour is the perfect way to take in this magical migration as well as the combining the beauty of the Garden Route with a fantastic safari experience in the Greater Kruger.


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