The Marine Big 5

Dolphins in False Bay - Photo by: Jan Fleischmann

Many people go to South Africa in search of the Big 5… the lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and Cape buffalo. But have you heard of The Marine Big 5? They are just as intriguing. Mighty whales, toothy sharks and playful seals, penguins and dolphins that live in the country’s coastal waters make up this captivating bunch.

Whale in Hermanus


South Africa is home to a variety of breeds of these big guys, including the humpback whale and Bryde’s whale, but the one you are most likely to see is the Southern Right. In season, you can witness this spirited species breaching, poking up their heads to look around (skyhopping), and fluking, which is when you see that iconic tail emerge from the water.

During South Africa’s winter months – June through October – Southern Right Whales migrate in astounding numbers from Antarctica to the coastal waters of the Western Cape, making this area one of the world centers for whale watching. In the seaside town of Hermanus, the whales come so close to the coast that visitors can see them up close and personal right from the shore.

Great White Shark


Talk about a big fish! Sharks are the only fish classified among The Marine Big 5, the other sea creatures in this category are mammals. The Great White is the largest predatory shark on Earth and can grow up to 15 feet in length and weigh up to 5,000 pounds. Its usual prey includes sea lions, small tooth whales, and even sea turtles, but their menu fave is the Cape Fur Seal.

Dozens of Great White Sharks stalk the waters surrounding Duiker Island and will fly into the air to snap up a snack. Also known as Seal Island, Duiker is home to one of the largest colonies of Cape Fur Seals in the Western Cape – about 60,000-strong – and as such, presents an all-you-can-catch-buffet for the stealthy sharks.

Cape Fur Seals


What is fat, hairy, blubbery and smelly, yet incredibly cute? South Africa’s Cape Fur Seal is not only pursued by sharks, but also by camera-toting tourists. Board a Seal Island Cruise boat from Hout Bay harbor for the 40-minute ride to the island, which is actually a giant granite rock.

You will see thousands of these entertaining animals playing on the rock, splashing about in the water, and lounging in the sun – particularly the pups. They seem appreciative of human adoration and appear to ham it up for photos. Don’t let their devil-may-care antics fool you… they are acutely aware that they are in danger of being dinner. To avoid this unseemly end, they have developed a number of anti-predatory tactics, including darting in different directions to confuse their attackers, and riding on the sharks’ dorsal fins to keep out of reach from their jaws.



Those big birds wearing natural tuxedos not only reside in icy climates but also in the warm waters of South Africa. The African Penguin is also known as the Jackass Penguin because it makes donkey-like sounds. This species is smaller than its northern counterparts, growing to two feet tall and weighing an average of 8 pounds. Head over to Boulder’s Beach near Simon’s Town and you can walk, wade and swim with the friendly colony of cuties that call this area home.

Dolphin in False Bay


Seafaring legend has it that spotting a dolphin in your boat’s wake is good luck. If you happen to be in False Bay, you will be showered with it. Dolphins here number in the hundreds and sometimes even thousands. Of the several types of species in South Africa, the Common Dolphin is most prevalent. Unlike the Humpbacked Dolphin, which is notoriously shy, Common Dolphins are extremely sociable and approachable. Keep your cameras handy as you’ll no doubt have a boatload of photo ops with your charming coastal companions.