Hermanus is widely considered the best place in the world to see whales from the shore. Put simply, Hermanus whale watching is an incredible wildlife experience for five months of the year.
Hundreds of southern right whales migrate to Hermanus from July to November. They join a resident collection of Bryde’s whales and humpback whales.
You can see these giants breaching just 50 metres from the shore. And you can’t miss them. Not only are the whales enormous, Hermanus has its own whale caller, who alerts everyone to every sighting.
The Basics of Hermanus Whale Watching
Where is Hermanus?
Hermanus is situated in the Western Cape Province of South Africa, a short drive away from Cape Town. It’s a paradise for sea lovers and whale watchers. It is one of the world’s best land-based whale watching spots.
Some visitors choose to come on a day trip from Cape Town. Hermanus is a charming seaside town with restaurants and cafes slung along the coast. It is well worth an overnight stop as well.
Note that Hermanus is only a 30-minute drive from Gansbaai, South Africa’s home of great white shark cage diving. You can easily combine marine encounters with whales and sharks in a single weekend.
When to visit Hermanus for whale watching?
The town can be visited any month of the year. You can see whales all year round.
However, the main whale season starts in July and ends in December. This is when southern right whales migrate to Walker Bay en masse. The peak time to watch them is August to late October.
How do you see the whales in Hermanus?
This is the good part. You don’t need a tour to see the whales. A promenade runs along the cliffs above Walker Bay, on both sides of the town. Just take a stroll and look out for a 15-metre giant leaping from the water!
What is the Hermanus whale caller?
An old man stands on the pier in Hermanus. He spends his days watching the water, waiting for whales to emerge. And then he blows.
This Hermanus whale caller blows on a special kelp horn. The sound reverberates across the town. At first it sounds like a ship announcing its arrival into harbour, a long hoot that causes everyone to listen. Then the whale caller plays different notes to indicate the whale that has been sighted.
This whale caller is not the first. Hermanus has a long history of men calling to female whales on kelp horns. This is brilliantly documented in The Whale Caller, a book by Zakes Mda.
What Whale Species Can You Watch in Hermanus?
Southern right whales
The most common whale in Hermanus is the southern right whale, one of the largest whale species in the world. They were named this way as they were considered the “right” whale type to hunt (i.e. one of the biggest and easiest to hunt).
They are slow movers, float when dead and are extremely rich in oil and baleen. That’s perfect for hunters, but not so good for the whales.
Southern right whales are so massive that their testicles weigh half a ton. Just let that sink in – a southern right whale has testicles weighing 500 kg! Each testicle is larger and heavier than a lion!
Adult males can reach lengths of up to 15.5 m, while the average length for females is usually one meter longer.
Southern right whales migrate to Walker Bay in Hermanus from July onwards. Females gather here to give birth to their calves in calm waters that have a consistent temperature. They will stay in the region until the young ones are big enough to journey back home, to the colder krill-rich waters of the Antarctic.
During their stay in South African territory (4-6 months), these whales will not engage in any substantial feeding. Imagine that – six months without eating and they still have to provide daily milk to their calf!
To make the life cycle easier, southern right whales breed soon after giving birth. Females arrive in Hermanus from July then large males appear from late-August. That is why September and October are considered the premier time for Hermanus whale watching.
Humpback whales also migrate around South African shores during the winter months. These humpbacks feed in Antarctica over the summer (November to March) but spend the rest of the year all around the South African coast.
They are commonly spotted around Hermanus between May and August. Humpbacks are smaller and faster than southern right whales, yet can still measure more than ten metres in length.
Bryde’s whales can be seen close to Hermanus all year round. These whales are so big they need to eat 600 kg of fresh fish every single day! Adult Bryde’s whales measure 12-14 metres and can weigh up to 25 tons.
Summer is the best time to see them close to shore, particularly December to March.
Hermanus Whale Watching Activities
The amazing thing about visiting Hermanus is that you can literally watch the whales from the coast, from only 20-50 meters away. The seashore is deep enough to enable very close encounters. At times it seems you can reach out and touch them.
Land-based whale watching
The most popular activity is to walk along the promenade and view whales from the shore. The promenade stretches along cliffs, so you always have an elevatd view across the water.
Southern right whales come to sleep and relax in small bays all along the coast. You can see them bobbing up and down, sometimes just 20 metres from the cliffs.
Water-based whale watching
Land-based whale watching is free. It is also possible to view different whales by boat or using kayaks.
Boat trips cover large stretches of Walker Bay and provide the most guaranteed whale close ups. Boats are allowed to come up to 50 metres from the marine giants. There are a number of different companies offering the same thing. Essentially 2-3 hours cruising through the bay, sighting whales and different behaviour.
Kayaking with whales is thrilling but the encounters are patchy. You paddle close to the harbour and cliffs, hoping that a large whale is in sight.
Unfortunately, the whales are not always seen in the places that kayaks are allowed to visit. Plus, if there is any swell it is hard to look across the water to see more distant whales. Still, if you are fortunate, this is an exhilarating wildlife experience.
One Africa Freak contributor tried the kayaking in October 2018. Although it was peak season for whales, he didn’t see any whales when in the kayak. But the very next day kayakers paddled close to four southern right whales.
When in Hermanus also consider a day trip to Gansbaai for some shark cage diving. Or try a smelly encounter with seals on Dyer Island.
Hermanus Whale Festival
In the last week of September, the annual Whale Festival is organized to celebrate the return of the whales. It continues for an entire week and lots of activities take place, including concerts, parades, food stalls, and whale themed parties.
Do note that accommodation during Whale Festival is very expensive and gets booked up far in advance.
Where to Stay
Hermanus is charming and has accommodation to suit all types of wallets. Choose from a large range of backpackers, hostels, bed and breakfasts, or up market hotels.
How to Spot the Whales in Hermanus
- Go say hello to the whale caller and learn his distinctive call – then you can listen to when whales have been sighted.
- Look for white patches in the ocean, where the water breaks on their bodies. These are smooth patches of water without any ripples. You could call them a whale’s footprints.
- Listen to the noise they make when they reach the surface of the water to breathe. This is known as spouting, as the mammals blow air through their two blow holes near the top of the head.
- Be patient, and take a good pair of binoculars so you can scan every inch of water.
Know Your Hermanus Whale Watching Lingo
• Lobtailing: The whale sticks its tail out of the water, swings it around for a few seconds, and then slaps it onto the water surface. This is usually done to play or communicate with other whale members.
• Fluking: A similar behaviour to lobtailing, except it is highly characteristic of when the whale is preparing a deep dive.
• Breaching: Most spectacular whale behaviour. The whale leaps out of the water and begins a series of 4-6 impressive jumps. Breaching is used to loosen the skin from parasites and any other bothers it might have. It can also be interpreted as a way of communicating.
• Spyhopping: Very funny to watch. The whale sticks its head out to say hello, or possibly to enjoy the view of the outside world.
• Logging: The whale simply lies idle, with its tail facing down. Part of the head and back are exposed to the surface.
Plan a Trip to Hermanus
Hermanus is just one destination to consider on a South Africa safari. It is one of the impressive wildlife encounters you can enjoy, in a country that every visitor falls in love with.