In October 2022 I took the family whale watching in Hermanus, South Africa. We were travelling with 3 children aged 10 yrs, 8 yrs and 16 months. Seeing whales in their natural environment is such a humbling experience, I cannot recommend it highly enough as one of the best things to do in South Africa with kids. Here’s how we organised our whale watching South Africa so that it worked well for the whole family.
Whale watching with kids
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Whale watching Hermanus
Hermanus is probably to best known area of southern South Africa for whale watching. Cape Town is just under 2 hours away, so whale watching can be done as a day trip from Cape Town. However, if you’re travelling with children a 4 hour round trip might not work for you. We preferred to stay in Hermanus as it was on the way to our next destination (an epic family-friendly safari!) and save the extra driving around.
Whale season in Hermanus is from June – November. During this time of year you can often see whales from the shore so it’s great to choose accommodation with sea views. The kids can spend loads of time scanning the sea with binoculars. The best way to see the whales though is on a boat trip. There is a small number of companies running boat tours and they’re all fairly similar.
Observe, not disturb
Whale watching South Africa Tours run for two hours and follow the rule of only spending 25 minutes with the whale/s when you find them. The boats will not get closer than 50m to the boats but if the whale chooses to swim closer to you the boat doesn’t have to move away. The aim is to ‘observe, not disturb’ the whales. I recommend pre-booking your boat trip as tours are limited to protect these gorgeous creatures a little bit from being overrun by tourist boats.
We took our whale watching tour with Hermanus Whale Cruises based in Hermanus New Harbour. You’ll see a small number of tour companies operating from here. There is plenty of parking and a couple of cafes and restaurants for fuelling up pre/post your South Africa whale watching boat trip.
What to expect: whale cruise Hermanus
Arriving for your whale cruise, Hermanus
On arrival at Hermanus New Harbour for our whale watching trip we found parking easy and free. I popped into the well-signposted office of the tour company we were booked with (they’re all easy to spot and identify) to collect our pre-booked tickets for whale watching. South Africa is known for having Southern Right whales and Humpback whales and prior to boarding the boat, we were given a short briefing letting us know how to tell the difference between the two.
Whales: facts for kids
Humpback whales are completely smooth and dark coloured. Southern Right whales are covered in white barnacles. They’re not parasites as you might expect, they’re as much a part of the whale itself as your nose or ears! Another little whale fact for you – the Southern Right whales were named the right whales because when they were hunted they floated once killed. This made them the easiest to hunt and collect. Therefore, they became known as the Right whales. And yes, there are also Northern Right whales living further north in the Atlantic.
All aboard: whale watching South Africa
Once briefed, children were handed life jackets and 80 odd passengers boarded the open sided boat. There is a bit of variation between whale watching boats in Hermanus. If you have a preference, take a look at the different websites. We didn’t mind what type of boat we travelled on. We were advised that an open-sided boat without an ‘inside’ would be better for those who are prone to sea-sickness but with high winds and big swells, there were a lot of people looking very green about the gills by the end of our boat trip regardless of the lack of ‘inside’.
Finding whales in South Africa
The boat ride along the south coast of South Africa was fun. The kids enjoyed having the wind in their hair and the views are pretty spectacular too. It really didn’t take long to have our first whale sighting, maybe 25 minutes or so. Any longer and I think our 8yo might have started to get a bit impatient but as it was, the timing was perfect. Our first sighting was at a distance. We could make out there were two whales, a mummy and a baby. With binoculars the kids could see they were Humpback whales. This buoyed them up for continuing the exploration.
Shortly after we came across another two whales. Southern Right whales this time. These two whales happily played, rolled, waved and blew water next to our boat for absolutely ages. I took lots of photos with our “proper” camera with the long range lens and eventually the whales swam too close for me to use that camera! I had to switch to my iPhone. The binoculars we had were rendered useless.
Whales are big, but incredibly graceful in the water. They are awe-inspiring to watch and even our toddler loved watching them play in the water nearby us. No one got bored!!
Eventually the Captain told us it was time to head back and we said goodbye to the whales. The journey back to the harbour was choppy and uncomfortable. There had been high winds around the Cape for a week or so and this was impacting the waves. Quite a few people felt poorly including our 10 year old. She’s never been sea sick before and we really didn’t expect it! Next time I will be prepared with motion sickness tablets.
Packing list for whale watching
- Sea sickness tablets and wristbands (these work by pressing on acupressure points)
- Suncream – even if it doesn’t feel hot you get a lot of sun out there on the water
- A good camera
- Water and nibbles
- Binoculars are fun (these were my kids favourites), but not a requirement. You’ll get nice and close to the whales for a good view
And don’t forget to check out the rest of our South Africa itinerary with kids here.