Where to Find South Africa’s Marine Big Five

Wild bottle-nosed dolphins underwater
Madelein_Wolf / Getty Images

Anyone who’s ever been to South Africa is familiar with the Big Five. This collection of game park royalty includes the lion, the leopard, the elephant, the rhino, and the buffalo, and many tourists visit a reserve, mainly because it has all five. True safari aficionados may even have encountered the Little Five (a club of pint-sized insects, rodents, birds, and amphibians with similar names to their Big Five counterparts). Now, list-loving wildlife enthusiasts have another group of animals to check off their South African bucket list: the Marine Big Five. 

The term was coined in the Western Cape, where the cold waters of the Benguela Current and the warm waters of the Agulhas current converge to create one of the most biodiverse marine areas in the world. In places like Cape Town, Hermanus, Gansbaai, and Mossel Bay, ocean safaris allow tourists to come face-to-face with some of these animals. The most iconic are the great white shark, the southern right whale, the bottlenose dolphin, the Cape fur seal, and the African penguin. Together they make up the Marine Big Five. 

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Great White Shark

Great white shark approaches cage diving boat in Gansbaai, South Africa

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The great white shark is arguably the most iconic marine predator on Earth, and South Africa is one of the best places to see one in the wild. False Bay and Dyer Island are particularly famous for their dense white shark populations. The sharks are attracted to these areas by an abundance of their natural prey, the Cape fur seal, and you can see them in action by joining a cage diving trip out of Simon’s Town or Gansbaai. On the trip, you’ll be able to watch from the surface as experienced handlers use bait to draw the sharks close to the boat. If you’re feeling brave, you can jump into the cage and observe them underwater as well. A few minutes in the sharks’ environment will be enough to replace any fear you have with admiration for their incredible beauty and power. If you’re lucky, you may even see a shark breach clear of the water in pursuit of prey. 

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Southern Right Whale

Southern right whale, False Bay

Catherine Withers-Clarke/ Getty Images

Southern right whales (so named because early whalers considered them to be the “right” whales to hunt) are easily identified by their square-shaped pectoral fins and white callosities. Every year, thousands of these whales migrate northwards from their feeding grounds in the Southern Ocean to mate, calve, and raise their young in the warmer waters off South Africa. They can be seen both from shore and on whale-watching boat cruises in many parts of the Western and Eastern Cape provinces, but the most famous spot for southern right viewing is Hermanus. This seaside town is considered one of the best land-based whale-watching destinations in the world, with southern right whales coming within a few hundred feet of the shore to mate and give birth in Walker Bay. They can easily be seen breaching, fluking, and spy-hopping from the Hermanus Cliff Path. Alternatively, book a cruise with a company like Southern Right Charters

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Bottlenose Dolphin

Bottlenose dolphins playing in the surf off the Transkei coast

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Bottlenose dolphins are found in temperate and tropical waters all over the world. There are three subspecies, of which two can be seen in South Africa. These are the common bottlenose dolphin (seen on the west coast) and the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin (seen on the east coast). Both subspecies are known for their playful behavior. They can often be seen from shore, surfing the waves in large pods, scything rapidly through the water on a hunting expedition, or leaping clear of the sea in a show of incredible acrobatic skill. On ocean safaris, sailing trips, and long-distance cruises, boats are often joined by bottlenose dolphins joyfully riding the bow waves. As long as you’re on the coast in South Africa, you have a good chance of spotting dolphins. Keep an eye out for more elusive dolphin species as well, including the long-beaked common dolphin (synonymous with the Sardine Run) and the endangered Indian Ocean humpback dolphin. 

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Cape Fur Seal

Cape fur seal

Maurizio Lanini/ Getty Images

There are two distinct populations of Cape fur seal in the world; one in Australia and one in Southern Africa. The African population can be found on both coasts of South Africa and in Namibia as well. You can see these charismatic creatures (with their sleek coats, expressive whiskers, and limpid brown eyes) in many different places, whether they’re basking on the V&A Waterfront in central Cape Town or breeding in raucous colonies on uninhabited islands like Gansbaai’s Geyser Rock. Cape fur seals are usually spotted on shark diving or whale watching trips, but many companies also offer dedicated excursions for those that want to snorkel with the seals. These include Animal Ocean in Hout Bay, Cape Town, and Offshore Adventures in Plettenberg Bay. The seals are usually unafraid of people and will come within touching distance, playfully swimming circles around you with a level of agility that will make even the most accomplished swimmer feel clumsy in comparison.

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African Penguin

A group of African penguins, Boulders Beach
Jessica Macdonald

The tiny African penguin is a favorite amongst tourists and locals alike. And yet, these beautiful black and white birds are rapidly declining, with 95 percent of the global population lost to factors like habitat loss and overfishing since pre-industrial times. Now listed as endangered, conservation organizations like the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds are fighting desperately to save them from going extinct. You can support SANCCOB’s efforts by visiting their sanctuaries in Port Elizabeth and Cape Town, where rescued birds are rehabilitated after oil spills and other disasters and eventually released. To see the penguins in the wild, head to Boulders Beach near Simon’s Town or Stony Point Nature Reserve near Betty’s Bay. Both destinations are famous for their land-based penguin colonies. The largest breeding colony in the world is located on St. Croix Island off Port Elizabeth, and you can see it for yourself on a sightseeing cruise with local operator Raggy Charters.

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