Hermanus – Whale Watching Capital of South Africa
Hermanus is a pretty coastal town on the Indian Ocean and surrounded by mountains. Hermanus is the whale watching capital of South Africa where every year between August to November an estimated 100 Southern Right Whales will gather in the town’s Walker Bay. It’s all about the whales here, so much so, Hermanus hosts an annual 3-day Whale Festival in September. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has ranked Hermanus whale watching as one of the best places in the world to observe whales from land.
We’d just finished driving the Garden Route and the approach into Hermanus is really lovely too. Dozens of vineyards sit back to back in valleys and colourful canola fields which look just like rapeseed fields next to our house in England during the summer. Unfortunately we had terrible weather for our stay! it was cold, windy and very wet but it didn’t dampen our spirits or enjoyment.
The Main Event – Hermanus Whale Watching!
The Southern Right Whales spend their summer feeding on plankton in the cold waters of Antarctica. In the winter they migrate to the slightly warmer waters of the Southern Atlantic to mate and give birth to calves. It’s estimated around 2,000 Southern Right Whales will visit South Africa’s waters each year.
We’ve never done whale-watching before and thought it was brilliant! Its actually awe-inspiring watching huge whales lift their bodies out of the water and then come crashing down, again and again. When they breach out the water, they put on a great water acrobatic show (not the Seaworld kind!) However we learnt to be patient, constantly scanning the bay to gasps of delight when someone spots a whale in the distance, to sighs from us when we realised we’d missed it!
Whale watching is July to end of October, so we timed our visited in September perfectly. Hermanus is considered to be the best place in the world for land-based whale watching. We loved it especially when the whales came right into Walker Bay as they are much closer to the cliff edge and you can really see all the detail. Humpback Whales also migrate here, but we don’t think we saw any. Photographing whales is really hard though, for best results you’ll need a zoom lens, just take lots of quick-fire photos if your camera can do that.
The Southern Right Whales were hunted to near extinction, fortunately they are now a protected species when commercial fishing ended in 1935. The good news is numbers are growing at 7% each year, it’s estimated there’s now 14,000 in the Southern Hemisphere. However they still face threats from pollution, net-entanglement and collisions with ships. A complete contrast to the North Hemisphere where the North Atlantic Right Whale are critically endangered with only 300 animals left.
Southern Right Whale Behaviour
The whales demonstrate 4 distinct behaviour patterns, but little is known about it.
- Breaching – When the whale jumps out of the water and lands on its back. It’s assumed this repeated behaviour is to get rid of parasites and whale lice or to possibly communicate. Phil thought they do it just for the fun of it!
- Lobtailing – When their tail is repeatedly slapped against the water, this behaviour might be how they communicate, often seen between mothers and calves.
- Sailing – When the tail is held out of the water for a little while. Could be a form of temperature control.
- Spyhopping – When their head comes out of the water. They might just be curious about their surroundings.
Some Quick Whale Facts:
- Disinguished by callosities on their heads
- They have 2 blowholes making a distinctive V-shaped blow up to 3 metres high
- They give birth every 3 years, and the baby calf measure 5 – 6 metres.
- Females can weigh up to 80 tonnes
- Males weigh an average 40 tonnes and have the largest testicles of the animal kingdom!
- They can dive to depths of 300 metres.
- Average length is 13.9metres – that’s 10 elephants back to back.
- They live for 50+ years, exact figures are unknown.
- Unlike most whales they don’t have a fin on their backs.
- Their name comes from hunters who considered them to be the “right” whales to kill because they swim the slowest of all whales and float when dead.
Hermanus Whale Cruises
There’s loads of companies in the harbour offering whale watching cruises. Catamaran and cruise boats will get you closer to the whales without disturbing them. But sadly for us the weather was so bad it meant the swell was too dangerous, so every single boat trip was cancelled during our stay 🙁 We noticed some of the cruises offer photos and videos for sale immediately after your trip – we thought this was a genius idea for people with no cameras or if you just wanted to enjoy the trip.
Hermanus town centre
Hermanus centre is pretty small so east to navigate by foot. There’s lots of lovely art galleries, open air cafes and 3 museums. Our favourite time was having lunch at one of the cafes and still being able to watch the whales breaching, magic!
Due to some mix up with overbooking at our designated hotel, we got to spend the night on Voelklip Beach in a luxury suite at the Hermanus Beachfront lodge, what a result! It was amazing with uninterrupted views of the sea to wake up to! Talk about having a whale of a time in Hermanus!
Fernkloof Nature Reserve
We also took a hike in the Fernkloof Nature Reserve, it has stunning views over Hermanus and the bay. There’s various hiking trails and the mountains are covered in fynbos (South Africa’s indigenous vegetation). Garth was struggling with his fibromyalgia – with bad pain in his legs so we had to stop, even though the hikes here aren’t that demanding.
As we exited the car park these naughty baboons were so entertaining to watch stealing people’s food from cars! The rangers soon came out to see what all the commotion was all about, it was very funny! It reminded us of watching the barbary macaques in Gibraltar doing exactly the same thing.
Other Hermanus Activites & Attractions
- Hermanus Cliff Path – Fancy a nice walk? this trail hugs the coastline for 7.5 miles. There’s lots of benches for a spot more whale watching. It’s also wheelchair friendly.
- Marine Big 5 – You’ve probably heard of the Big 5 on safari, but Hermanus is a great place to see the Marine Big 5 – Whale, Great White Shark, Dolphin, Penguin and Seal.
- Great White Shark Diving – Not far from Hermanus is Gansbaai where thrill seekers can go in reinforced cages to get close to great white sharks! (umm, no thanks!)
- Bettys Bay Penguins – 30 minutes from Hermanus is where you can see a colony of African penguins, similar to Boulders in Cape Town.
Hermanus Practical Information
Phil and Garth’s Top 5 Hermanus Tips
Tip #1: Go on a long walk along the cliff path to get different viewpoints of the whales.
- Tip #2: It is illegal to cycle on the cliff top paths.
- Tip #3: Accommodation gets booked up and is expensive during the Hermanus Whale Festival in September.
- Tip #4: Serious about photographing whales? Go early morning when the light is best.
- Tip #5: Don’t forget to pack your binoculars, as you’ll need them.