Whale watching in Cape Town: Why it's an experience worth doing in South Africa

"They say that the sea is cold, but the sea contains the hottest blood of all, and the wildest, the most urgent," wrote D.H. Lawrence, of the creature revered for its grandeur and magnetism. 

He was speaking of whales, the gentle, intelligent leviathans whose June arrival in the bays and inlets of South Africa's Cape coast is much anticipated, not only as an affirmation of regeneration of this endangered creature and a chance to experience this mystical creature calving and cavorting up close, but also as a rich source of tourism dollars.

South African whale watching has become so popular during their June to December sojourn that whales have joined lion, elephant, buffalo, rhino and leopard to create the "big six" of African game viewing. 

Our whale safari trawls the southern waters of the Cape coast taking in "the whale route" – coastal hotspots of Cape Town's False Bay and Atlantic seaboard, the "whale capital" town of Hermanus, with arguably the world's finest land-based whale watching, and West Coast villages of Paternoster and Langebaan. The season is yet to begin but we're on a scouting mission.

The Cape of Good's Hope's strategic position between two major ocean currents – the cold Benguela and warm Agulhas – ensures a rich diversity of marine life, rendering it the Maldives equivalent for honeymooning whales.

We find cottages and lodges, from luxury to budget, that offer wonderful whale-watching opportunities. This might please whale-obsessed Australians who, as early as 2008, joined the US and Canada in the International Fund for Animal Welfare's "million watch club" – whale-watchers extraordinaire. 

CAPE TOWN'S FALSE BAY

Perched at the southern edge of the African continent is a wild and wonderful place, not for the faint-hearted. At Cape Point Villa, one of the last houses before the Point and within the Castle Rock Conservancy – the smallest and most remarkable on the urban edge – you truly enter the Tavern of the Seas, the Cape of Storms.    

The whole of False Bay spreads below, the mountain towers above and sea sounds permeate the house. You are in the domain of penguins, great white sharks and the giants of the southern seas – whales. Specifically, southern right whales (Eubalaena australis), "right" because they move slowly, are high yield and float when killed.    

Their "rightness" nearly brought extinction – about 20,000 were killed with only 100 remaining females visiting the Cape by 1935. Protected in South African waters since then, the world population (most of whom visit the Cape) is now back to about 4000.     

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"Viciously beautiful" is a visitor's book entry for ochre-coloured Cape Point Villa, a perfect whale-watching spot, with vistas from multiple points including main bed and bathroom. Mountain mist sliding off granite crags touches its roof. It's as if the elements are absorbing the house back into the landscape.    

Spring water filters through mountain sandstone, solar drives power – the villa is off the grid. Across False Bay, saw-toothed mountains straggle towards the bay's entry rock of Hangklip. The changing light on water paints a shifting panorama.     

Not just a sentinel of the bay with its aquatic bird's-eye view, the villa is also in the path of Cape Point's last baboon troop. 

Four "baboon dogs", including a blue heeler, are trained to see them off and obliging managers Sia and Tarasai assist guests on site. It's a steep climb from the road but once there, the villa sleeps five, the stone cottage three.    

A gentler option is The Milestone just down the road – a charming, historic wooden cottage crafted from the old Muizenberg Pier's timber. On a previous stay, the whales' low-frequency moans and noisy blows metres from shore (and us) captivated us at our moonlit barbecue. Baboons visit here too, so keep kitchen windows closed!    

Humpback and Bryde's (pronounced "broodess") whales also love the bay for its warm, sheltered waters.

HERMANUS, WHALE CAPITAL OF THE WORLD 

Hermanus, once a tiny fishing village between mountains and sea on the Overberg coastline, 120 kilometres from Cape Town, offers "champagne air" and arguably the best land-based whale watching in the world (Plettenberg Bay further east claims this title too). The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) names Hermanus one of the world's 12 best whale-watching destinations.

In season, the town's whale crier blows his kelp horn – different codes indicate whale locations – and thousands flood the town for September's whale festival.    

On a cliff overlooking the whale paradise of Walker Bay, at the eastern end of Hermanus, the chic, boutique Birkenhead House offers a whale of a time. 

The 11-suite lodge provides all meals and drinks, bay and mountain views, gorgeous living areas adorned with lavish flower arrangements, original artwork, antiques, glamorous decor by owner Liz Biden, bayview lounge, deck and infinity pool, bi-level courtyard and spa. It floats elegantly on a rocky promontory next to Hermanus' famous Voelklip beach, while behind towers the Kleinrivier mountain range.    

A pod of orcas – so-called killer whales but actually the largest dolphin – is terrorising the Walker Bay seals on our arrival just in time for a sunset glass of champagne. Then it's a fine French-Asian-inspired dinner that skilfully uses the Cape's abundant produce paired with excellent wines, and sleep to the sounds of the sea.    

Birkenhead House is the ultimate beach house – in fact, it's three beach houses joined and though five-star, has a relaxed, beachy atmosphere, with caring staff.     

At its doorstep is a 14-kilometre cliff path into town, through protected coastal fynbos of sour fig, milkwood, aloes and perfumed buchu, offering point-blank whale vantage points.     

The dramatic 90-minute whale route drive from Cape Town on the R44 is one of South Africa's most scenic coastal meanders through Gordon's Bay, the Kogelberg Nature Reserve, Betty's Bay, Kleinmond (many whale-viewing sites), Onrus then Hermanus. 

LLANDUDNO AND CAPE TOWN'S ATLANTIC SEABOARD

Why wouldn't whales come to Llandudno – everyone else wants to, reportedly including Madonna, Elton John, David Beckham and, wait for it, Robert Mugabe! 

Our celebrity sightings include a playful group of whales lobtailing (tail slapping) and blowing close to the rocks at the bay's northern end.    

Mind you, Llandudno is icy Atlantic, with the south-easter blowing warm surface water away from land, exposing deep, cold water, so you don't witness the full aquatic displays of warmer False Bay and Walker Bay.

But this is one of Cape Town's most beautiful beach suburbs and our little whale haven, Petit Paradis, is a Provencal-esque stone cottage set in fragrant native gardens. Wisteria, bougainvillea, Cape honeysuckle, fynbos, lavender, olive and lemon trees attract charming native birds.

Nestled in a valley with views towards the Twelve Apostles, Camps Bay, Little Lion's Head and Karbonkelberg, exclusive Llandudno is named for its Welsh counterpart. 

Petit Paradis has sea and mountain views from every window, French-inspired interiors of cream, peach, and pale blues with white calico and wood furnishings, plus underfloor heating and a gas fire for those chilly nights.

It's only a five-minute walk to the beach and owners Vicky and Graham Peinke, who live discreetly on the property, often walk there with a sunset bottle of champagne, though the sunset is equally exquisite from the cottage's stone patio.

It's hard to get a booking for this one – European and English visitors flock here – but if you can, it's worth it.

PATERNOSTER AND LANGEBAAN, WEST COAST 

Our final whale destination follows the migrating whales as they travel north up the Cape West Coast to the bays of South Africa and Angola.    

Huge, plump Saldanha Bay oysters and West Coast crayfish are on the menu at the Ocean Lounge, reflecting the richness of the Atlantic, which steams and crashes beyond our hotel restaurant's open doors.    

Eco-friendly Strandloper Ocean Boutique Hotel at Paternoster, 145 kilometres from Cape Town, is set among dunes at the very edge of the continent, at one with its surroundings, which include front-row seats for migrating whales. 

The whitewashed buildings with their fusion of beach style and contemporary elegance reflect the typical West Coast features of Paternoster's fishing village heritage. Exteriors blend with the area's wildness, but the sophisticated interiors reflect the hotel's "barefoot luxury" maxim.

There is a natural flow between inside and out in each of the exquisite suites with their organic lines, hues and textures of wood, stone and washed colours and their clever integration of the lovely surrounds – wild sea, unique fauna and flora (coastal fynbos and "owl houses" for the endangered African barns owls). 

Paternoster native Deon Brand and German-born Simone Jacke bought the three-kilometre coastal strip adjoining the hotel to prevent a high-density residential project and also pay tribute to the original "strandlopers" – San-derived, shore-dwelling hunters and gatherers.

Suites are enormous, with terrace or courtyard, folding doors, ocean or landscape views, handmade stone baths, outdoor showers, high ceilings and fireplaces. Original artworks, many by Simone's father, display this wild coast in all its hues.

Whales arrive later to this part of the Cape – from August to the end of December – and are best watched from the Paternoster Bay beaches of either Voorstrand or Mosselbank or at nearby Cape Columbine Nature Reserve – you can kayak closer if you dare. 

The sea-view suites or the Ocean Lounge provide excellent views of the offshore rock around which the whales congregate. Nearby, St Helena Bay attracts southern rights, humpbacks, Bryde's, orcas, Heaviside and dusky dolphins but is also notorious for mass strandings.

The intensely turquoise saltwater Langebaan lagoon, a bit closer to Cape Town, and part of the West Coast National Park, is a wetland of national importance. It's only six metres at its deepest, open to the sea – only one of three lagoons worldwide not fed by freshwater.

When the Atlantic is thundering against the outer peninsula, the lagoon is velvet smooth. From June to November, whales, particularly southern rights, enter nearby Saldanha Bay and the mouth of the 17-kilometre-long lagoon to calve. And a bonus - peak calving overlaps Langebaan's spring wildflower season.

The lagoon-front "Langebaan by the Sea" is a simple, seaside, two-bedroom cottage. The wind-protected front porch has lovely views of lagoon and island. If you don't see whales, there are boat and kayak trips that allow you to appreciate their beauty and strange humanity.

As one whale lover put it: "Whales are different. They live in families, they play in the moonlight, they talk to one another and they care for one another in distress. They are awesome and mysterious. In their cold, wet, and forbidding world they are complete and successful. They deserve to be saved, not as potential meatballs but as a source of encouragement to mankind."  

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

sa-venues.com/attractionswc/cape-whale-coast.htm

southafrica.net/za/en/articles/entry/article-southafrica.net-southern-right-whale-conservation

GETTING THERE 

Fly Virgin Australia from Brisbane/Sydney/Melbourne to Perth, then South African Airways to Johannesburg, and Cape Town. See flysaa.com/au

STAYING THERE

Cape Point Villa and Cottage. $89 a night for two for the villa. See capepointcottage.co.za

The Milestone. From $177, minimum stay four nights. See capestay.co.za/milestone

Birkenhead House. From $588 for two full board, Wi-Fi. See birkenheadhouse.com

Petit Paradis. From $134 for the cottage, with Wi-Fi. See capestay.co.za/llandudnocottage

Strandloper Ocean Boutique Hotel. From $182 for two with breakfast, Wi-Fi. See strandloperocean.com

Langebaan By The Sea. From $124. See langebaanbeachhouse.com

Alison Stewart was a guest of South African Airways, Cape Point Villa and Strandloper, and was assisted by Birkenhead House and Petit Paradis.

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