Cape Cross Seal Reserve
AddressCape cross, Namibia
The Cape Cross Seal Reserve occupies a remote headland on Namibia’s Skeleton Coast and is home to one of the largest Cape fur seal colonies in the world. Located 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Swakopmund, the colony is a popular stop for visitors traveling north, or as a detour for those traveling inland from Hentiesbaai towards Etosha National Park or the Caprivi Strip.
History of Cape Cross
Rock art depictions of seals and penguins at Twyfelfontein in Namibia’s Kunene Region suggest that members of the indigenous San tribe likely fished and hunted along the Skeleton Coast for centuries before the first Europeans arrived in the 15th century. However, the first recorded visit to Cape Cross was that of Portuguese explorer Diogo Cão, who landed there in 1486 on his second expedition south of the equator in search of a sea route around Africa to India and the Spice Islands. Cão staked his claim for Portugal with the construction of a padrão, or stone cross, which also marked the southernmost boundary of his adventures south. It is this cross that gives the headland its modern name. The original was removed by a German Navy commander in 1893 and now stands in Berlin’s Deutsches Historisches Museum, but two replicas can still be seen at Cape Cross today.
The Seal Colony
Although it is not known when the fur seal rookery at Cape Cross was established, it was the inspiration for the construction of Namibia’s first railway line in the late 1800s. Trains transported workers to Cape Cross, and returned laden with seal pelts and guano (seabird excrement) to the ships that would export them to Europe. The guano was considered a valuable fertilizer, and the pelts were much desired for their luxurious thickness and softness. In 1968 the Cape Cross Seal Reserve was proclaimed, ostensibly for the protection of the seals and seabirds that live there. However, Cape Cross still hosts one of the only sanctioned annual seal culls in Namibia, with pups killed for their fur and bulls killed to protect commercial fish stocks. This controversial practice is challenged by environmentalists, who claim that the fur seals have a negligible effect on Namibia’s fishing industry.
What to See
Visitors can use the reserve’s raised walkway to get a close-up view of the fur seals, which are found around the Southern African coast from Cape Cross to Port Elizabeth in South Africa. Members of the same species are also found in Australia, and though they spend much of their life at sea, they come ashore to mate, give birth, and nurse their pups. Depending on when you visit, you may see males fighting for their territory, or pups playing with each other in the sand. Seals aren’t the only attraction. Black-backed jackals and brown hyenas can often be seen preying on the pups, while birders can view greater and lesser flamingoes in addition to a wide variety of terns, teals, phalaropes, and other waders in the neighboring salt pans.
Of historic interest are the replica padrãos, and a stone inscribed with an English translation of the Latin and Portuguese text carved into the original cross. A small graveyard acts as the final resting place for workers who did not survive the harsh conditions of the 19th-century guano industry. There are toilets and picnic areas at Cape Cross, although you may find that the overwhelming smell of seal and seabird excrement is more than enough to put you off your lunch.
When to Go
In mid-October, fur seal males arrive at the colony to establish their breeding territories, fighting noisily for the best spots. With their attention consumed by the task at hand, the males do not have time to fish and can lose up to half their body weight by the time the females arrive in November. However, the sacrifice is worthwhile for males who secure the best territories, as they will have the right to mate with a harem of up to 60 females. The majority of the females arrive already pregnant with pups conceived during the last breeding season, and will also fight for birthing space within the territory of their chosen male. Once they give birth, they are able to conceive again within a matter of days.
Peak breeding season runs from November to December, and as many as 210,000 fur seals have been recorded at the rookery during this time. Pups stay on land until they are weaned (between four and six months), so December to June is a good time to visit if you want to see plenty of plump babies. Be warned that you may also witness the grisly spectacle of a jackal or hyena predation, although seeing these predators in action is a privilege in its own right. No matter when you visit, there will always be some seals to see as mothers and pups return to the rookery throughout the year. The reserve is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and permits must be purchased from reception.
Where to Stay
Most people visit Cape Cross as a stop on their way up the Skeleton Coast or inland, or as a day trip from Swakopmund or Hentiesbaai. However, if you wish to stay overnight there is one accommodation option: the Cape Cross Lodge. Located a five-minute drive away from the colony, the lodge offers 20 seaview suites, a self-catering seaside cottage, and 21 campsites with electricity and braai/barbecue facilities. All guests have access to the main lodge, with its restaurant, in-house museum, and essentials store.