Whales and dolphins are some of the most spectacular species on the planet, and encountering them in the wild is an enriching and often emotional experience. Africa is home to some of the best whale and dolphin-watching destinations on Earth, from the tip of South Africa's Cape Coast to the straits that wash Morocco's northern shores. In this article, we take a look at ten of the best cetacean-watching spots on the continent.
Hermanus, South Africa
Frequently rated as one of the world’s top whale-watching destinations, the Western Cape town of Hermanus is located approximately 1.5 hour’s drive from Cape Town. It’s renowned for the quality of its land-based whale-watching, with the town itself overlooking Walker Bay, a seasonal breeding ground for the southern right whale. Hermanus’ Cliff Path offers several vantage points from which you can watch the whales playing as little as 16 feet/ five meters from shore, while the clifftop restaurants of Gearing’s Point are the ultimate destination for those wishing to sample gourmet cuisine whilst keeping an eye out for visiting whales.
Season: July - November.
Île Sainte-Marie, Madagascar
Also known as Nosy Boraha, the tiny island of Île Sainte-Marie is located off the north-east coast of Madagascar. During the southern hemisphere winter, the channel between Île Sainte-Marie and mainland Madagascar becomes a whale-watching hotspot. At this time, large numbers of humpback whales move northward from their feeding grounds in the frigid waters of Antarctica, to their breeding and calving grounds in the tropical Indian Ocean. Several operators offer dedicated whale-watching cruises, allowing guests to get a closer look at these magnificent leviathans. Humpbacks are the most acrobatic of all whale species, often breaching clear of the water.
Season: July - September.
A small, coastal town located approximately 110 kilometers/ 70 miles north of Mombasa, Watamu’s Marine National Park provides a safe haven for a plethora of marine life, including no fewer than ten recorded species of whale and dolphin. Although transient species including sperm whales, killer whales and Bryde’s whales have been spotted within the reserve, Watamu is best known for its winter humpback sightings. Like Île Sainte-Marie, the town is part of the whales’ annual migration route, giving visitors the chance to see them close to. Watamu’s whale-watching industry is still small-scale, giving tours a fantastic feeling of intimacy.
Season: July - October.
Port St. Johns, South Africa
Nestled amidst the cliffs of South Africa’s dramatic Wild Coast, Port St. Johns is the launch site for the country’s annual Sardine Run. Between June and July, huge shoals of sardines migrate northwards along a temporary corridor of cold water that opens up along South Africa’s east coast. The sudden bounty of food attracts a wealth of marine predators, including sharks, seabirds and multiple cetacean species. Those that follow the sardines are sure to see bottlenose dolphin, humpback whales, Bryde’s whales and even the occasional pod of killer whale. Most impressive of all are the super-pods of common dolphin, which often number in their thousands.
Season: June - July.
West Coast, Mauritius
The island nation of Mauritius is located approximately 1,200 miles/ 2,000 kilometers off the southeast coast of Africa, and provides yet another excellent destination for witnessing the annual humpback whale migration. More importantly, the west coast of Mauritius is home to a resident population of sperm whales. The whales can be seen year-round, although February through April typically offers the best sightings. Although the whale-watching is predominantly boat-based, it is possible to apply for permits to swim with the sperm whales. Whale-watching tours can also be combined with excursions to see the island’s wild spinner and bottlenose dolphins.
Season: August - September (humpback whales); February - April (sperm whales).
Marsa Alam, Egypt
Near the town of Marsa Alam in southeast Egypt lies the Red Sea’s Samadai Reef, an offshore lagoon inhabited by a pod of around 100 spinner dolphins. Although the dolphins are wild and sightings are therefore not guaranteed, Samadai Reef is commonly acknowledged as one of the best places in the world for natural dolphin encounters. The water is typically crystal clean, giving visitors an unclouded view; while the spinner dolphins’ characteristically playful and inquisitive nature means that they often come within touching distance. However, as with all wild animals, it’s best to respect their space and keep one’s hands to oneself.
Walvis Bay, Namibia
Namibia’s Walvis Bay may be better known for its outstanding birdlife, but it is also a great place to spot cetaceans and Cape fur seals. Harbour cruises around the bay offer visitors the opportunity to whale-watch in style, serving champagne and fresh oysters en route. From July to October, humpback and southern right whales can be seen in the bay; however, the focus here is undoubtedly on dolphins. Bottlenose dolphins are frequently sighted, while the endemic Heaviside’s dolphin is the top prize in Walvis Bay. This small, elusive species is found only in Namibia and off the west coast of South Africa.
Season: July - October (humpback and southern right whales); Year-round (bottlenose and Heaviside's dolphins).
Ponta do Ouro, Mozambique
Situated just north of the South African border, Ponta do Ouro is a popular beach destination with excellent scuba diving, fishing and snorkelling. It’s also home to Africa’s first structured wild dolphin swim program, Dolphin Encountours. The program enables visitors to make the acquaintance of the area’s resident bottlenose dolphins during a series of in-water encounters. Visitors can opt to snorkel or free dive, while those that wish to stay longer can enrol in a volunteer research program or sign up for one of the center’s therapeutic dolphin retreats. Other marine life sightings are possible from season to season, ranging from humpback whales to manta rays.
Boa Vista, Cape Verde
The easternmost island of the Cape Verde archipelago, Boa Vista puts West Africa on the whale-watching map. Between March and May, island cruises offer the opportunity to see humpback whales; however, these are not the same humpback whales that one might see at some of the other destinations on this list. Instead of migrating northwards from Antarctica, the Cape Verde humpbacks spend their feeding season in the cold waters of Iceland - as such, they are entirely distinct from the southern hemisphere humpbacks. They come to Boa Vista’s warm waters to breed and give birth, and are just as acrobatic as their southerly relations.
Season: March - May.
Tangier is separated from Spain by the Straits of Gibraltar, a channel just 9 miles/ 14 kilometers wide at its narrowest point. The Straits provide a habitat for several cetacean species, and although Tangier doesn’t have its own whale-watching infrastructure as yet, it’s a 35 minute ferry ride to Tarifa. From there, the Foundation for Information and Research on Marine Mammals (FIRMM) offers frequent whale-watching trips. Depending on the time of year, it is possible to see a variety of species including striped dolphin, common dolphin, fin whales and pilot whales. In July and August, FIRMM offers trips to see killer whales near the Tangier coast.
Season: Year-round; July - August (killer whales).