Who needs a safari? Animals you can see in and around Cape Town
While spotting the Big 5 from the back of an open-top safari vehicle may be the ultimate dream for first-time visitors to South Africa, you need not head to the bush to experience spectacular wildlife moments.
Even if your holiday is limited to a week or two in Cape Town and surrounds, you could find yourself being treated to some truly memorable animal activity… if you know where to look!
Here are 5 commonly-seen creatures to spot around the peninsula and beyond:
Southern Right Whales
Between June and November every year, the Western Cape’s coastline becomes a playground for these giants of the deep.
Southern Right Whales are known to migrate from their icy feeding grounds in the Southern Ocean close to Antarctica to the warmer waters of the Atlantic on an annual basis. The cosier climate and abundance of shallow, protected bays offers the perfect mating and birthing ground, giving keen whale watchers ample opportunity to enjoy their elegant acrobatic displays.
What makes the presence of these creatures even more amazing, is the fact that just a century ago Southern Rights were driven to the very brink of extinction by whaling ships. They were considered easy prey and the ‘right’ whale to hunt, as they are slow-moving, rich in oil and baleen (used for soap and corsets) and float when killed. It is estimated that around 20 000 Southern Right Whales were killed at the beginning of the 20th century. They’ve been protected in South African waters since 1935, but you can still see the remnants of whaling stations all along the Western Cape coastline.
Best places to see them:
- False Bay absolutely teems with whales during the months of August, September and October. While you will no doubt be treated to magnificent sightings from anywhere along the coastline, Boyes Drive offers a delightfully elevated view, and so does Clarence Drive on the opposite side of the bay. If you want to get a slightly closer view, however, head out into the water with Simon’s Town Boat Company.
- Hermanus is known as the whale watching capital of South Africa, offering particularly good land-based viewing from its famous Cliff Path.
- If spotting whale calves is what you’re after, make a beeline for Witsand/Cape Infanta in the southern Cape anytime during July to November. Known as the whale nursery of South Africa, you will get to see moms and babies frolicking in the shallow, protected bay. If you like your whale watching with a bit of a challenge on the side, be sure to make a booking for De Hoop Nature Reserve’s ever-so-popular five-day Whale Trail.
Affectionately known as Jackass Penguins due to their uncanny donkey-like bray, these tuxedoed seabirds are endemic to the south western coastline of Africa. Living in colonies made up of breeding pairs, most have settled on an array of 24 islands dotted along the coast between Namibia and Algoa Bay. There are, however, three mainland colonies – two in South Africa and one in Namibia – where visitors can enjoy a closer look at their quaint and curious antics. But more about that in a bit.
African Penguins are flightless seabirds who nest on land, but head out to the open waters to forage for food. Normally swimming within 20km off shore, they hunt for fish such as pilchards and anchovies, as well as marine invertebrates like squid and small crustaceans.
They are monogamous (aaaand altogether now: d’aaaawwwww!!), with breeding pairs returning to the same site to lay their eggs and rear their young every year. Parental duties are shared equally between males and females, with tag-team style incubation of their clutch of two precious eggs lasting about 40 days. It takes between 60 and 130 days after hatching for chicks to fledge, depending greatly on environmental factors such as food supply and weather conditions.
African penguins can live up to 27 years in the wild, but with food shortages and habitat loss very few will reach this age. Currently listed as endangered by IUCN, these adorable fellows are in big trouble and need all the help they can get! One of the ways you can play a role is by visiting one of the following spots:
Best places to see them:
- Boulders Beach, Simonstown – Forming part of Table Mountain National Park, Boulders is home to a network of well-maintained boardwalks from where you can get an elevated view of the 2 000 or so penguins residing here. And guess what? If you’re willing to brave the cold water, you can even swim among them after picnicking on the rocks! Entrance is R60 for adults and R30 for children. Check out the Cape Town Tourism website for more details.
- Stony Point, Betty’s Bay – This quiet, seaside village located about 100km from Cape Town offers a brilliant alternative, especially if you’re not that keen on crowds. The colony is home to about 2 500 breeding pairs, making it roughly double the size of the one at Boulders. Entrance is R10 for adults and children. Check out the CapeNature website for more details.
- Two Oceans Aquarium – Apart from the in-house colony of African Penguins (who all have a name, by the way), the aquarium is also home to three rehabilitated Rock Hopper penguins that cannot be released back into the wild. Roxy, Hopper and Bubbles are rather tame and love hanging out with visitors. You can meet them by signing up for a Penguin Encounter, which costs R420 per adult and R360 per child over 8. Find out more on the Two Oceans Aquarium website
Great White Sharks
Striking fear into the hearts of many, Great Whites are often considered to be cold-hearted killers that prowl the shorelines of the world for prey. However, this is a grave misconception that needs to be remedied. Apex predators, for sure, but mindless killing machines? Not by a long shot!
These magnificent ocean dwellers are the world’s largest predatory fish and can reach lengths of up to 6m. They have several rows of razor-sharp, serrated teeth and are powerful enough to launch up to 1m out of the water while breeching. Their prey mainly consists of large fish and even other sharks, with seals being a favourite, warm blooded delicacy. While there have been various incidences of fatal Great White attacks on humans, researchers believe that curiosity more than blood-lust is to blame.
Great White sharks have a known lifespan of around 30 years, but studies reveal that some may get as old as 70. While you certainly would not want to find yourself unprotected in its territory, spotting a Great White out in the open ocean is a truly exhilarating experience that would leave even the bravest heart humbled.
Best places to see them:
- False Bay has become synonymous with sightings of Great Whites breaching. This spectacular phenomenon occurs mostly during June and July with various operators specialising in viewing trips from Simonstown harbour.
- Gansbaai – Located in the coastal Overberg about 150km from Cape Town, this seaside village is a shark viewing hot spot. It is, of course, best known for its shark cage diving experiences, however if you’d prefer to watch from a distance, opt for a Dyer Island Cruise with Marine Dynamics. From the double deck of the Whale Whisperer you will have the opportunity to see a variety of marine life, including whales, dolphins, seals, penguins and, yes, also sharks.
Also known as a rock hyrax, the most surprising thing about these cute and cuddly rodent-like creatures is that their closest living relative is, in fact, the… wait for it… ELEPHANT.
Wait what? How does that work, you may ask?….Well, when you consider its biological makeup, it shares many more traits with elephants and dugongs, than it does with rodents. Perhaps the sharp incisor-like front teeth and internal testes are the best examples of these traits.
While they may appear super cute and cuddly, they have a tendency toward aggression. Do not try to feed or touch them, because they will bite and then you will need a tetanus shot.
Best places to see them
You will find dassies in rocky outcrops all around the peninsula and beyond. They enjoy baking in the sun, but quickly retreat into crevices when feeling threatened. Lion’s Head, Table Mountain, Stony Point in Betty’s Bay, Hermanus Cliff Path, Cape Point are all good places to keep an eye out for them.
Highly intelligent, gregarious and always on the lookout for food, a number of baboon troops in and around Cape Town have discovered that humans are a quick and easy source of sustenance. It is no uncommon for baboons to break into houses and cars, or ‘steal’ bags filled with food off tourists’ backs, gaining for themselves something of an unfortunate reputation.
Despite their tendency toward mischief they are endlessly fascinating creatures that live in highly complex social structures, bearing an uncanny resemblance to human society. If you spend some time watching them (from a distance), you may notice babies being fawned over, older siblings getting involved in squabbles, large males strutting their stuff, females maintaining some sort of order – all while performing the important task of foraging for food.
There are currently 10 troops in and around the peninsula, comprising a total of 388 baboons. The City of Cape Town has an efficient baboon management programme in place that they run in conjunction with Cape Nature and South African National Parks (SANParks). The programme appoints baboon monitors in different areas to keep an eye on troops. They are normally armed with paintball guns, which they use to scare off the baboons if they get too close to a residential area. The loud bang is normally enough to give the primates a fright, with an actual hit being very rare.
As with Dassies, it may be tempting to approach baboons – especially the cute little ones. However, they are best left alone and admired from a distance.
Best places to see them:
On the drive to Cape Point – you will often find a troop foraging along the road just beyond Simonstown. If you decide to stop for photographs, be sure to keep your windows closed and LOCK your doors – we told you they were clever!
In Cape Point – While they are free to wander all over the park, their favourite hangouts include Olifantsbos, Buffel’s Bay and the lighthouse area.
Once you’ve ticked off these five Capetonian creatures, you can start keeping your eye out for some of these rarely seen species:
- The Table Mountain stag beetle
- Velvet worm – Kirstenbosch and Newlands Forest are good spots to look out for them
- Table Mountain Ghost Frog
- Table Mountain Disa + its pollinator, a beautiful butterfly known as the Pride of Table Mountain
- Caracal – if you’re very lucky, you may catch a glimpse of one of these gorgeous red-hued cats in the forests of Tokai or Newlands, and even in Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens
- Cape Clawless Otters – these guys are notoriously shy, but if you head to one of the more pristine beaches in the vicinity of Kommetjie/Scarborough/Cape Point at dawn or dusk, you may be rewarded with a sighting
- Porcupines – while it may seem unlikely, these prickly omnivores live all over the Cape Peninsula, but because they mostly come out in the wee hours of the night, it’s unlikely to see one scuttling about