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12 April, 2024
| Birkenhead House

Introducing the Marine Big Five – South Africa’s most iconic ocean wildlife

Written by: The Royal Portfolio
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South Africa has always been known as a wonderful destination for land-based safaris, but in recent years it’s also gained a reputation as a superb spot for marine safaris. That is, heading out to sea to encounter the incredible wildlife of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans.

Just like on land, certain species are especially iconic, and watching their natural behaviour in the wild is certain to be a highlight of your time here in South Africa.

In this blog, we’ll introduce you to the ‘Marine Big Five’ and share our top tips on where to spot them.

The Marine Big Five

  • Great White Shark
  • Southern Right Whales
  • Bottlenose Dolphin
  • Cape Fur Seal
  • African Penguin
A great white shark makes a splash
A bronze whaler shark glides along

Left: A great white shark makes a splash; Right: A bronze whaler shark glides along

The Great White Mystery

Still known locally as ‘Tommy sharks’ for the part they played in the original Birkenhead story, great whites are perhaps the most famous – or infamous – denizen of the deep. These apex predators have been thrilling visitors to Gansbaai and Fale Bay with their breaching acrobatics and unforgettable close encounters in the cold green water.

More recently, these sharks seem to have become scarcer locally – it’s believed that this is due to orcas (killer whales) moving into the area. Although it’s hard to believe that a great white could have any enemies, some orcas actually specialise in preying on large sharks.

Sharks are beautiful animals – if you’re lucky enough to see lots of them, that means that you’re in a healthy ocean. You should be more afraid if you’re in the ocean and you don’t see sharks

Sylvia A Earle

It’s often said that ‘nature abhors a vacuum’ and another shark species is now filling the gap left by the great whites. Bronze whalers (or copper sharks) have a beautiful, shimmery metallic look to them, and often congregate in large groups. Fast and agile, copper sharks can put on a breathtaking display.

Southern Right Whales

The Hermanus Coast is renowned for offering the world’s best land-based whale watching, and that’s largely due to the seasonal presence of these migrating whales. Southern right whales are the true gentle giants of the sea, but they are also capable of spectacular leaps into the air and crashing back down in a surge of spray.

These whales come to South African waters to mate and give birth, so it’s not uncommon to have joyful encounters with mother and calf pairs.

A Southern right whale off the Hermanus Coast

A Southern right whale off the Hermanus Coast

Bottlenose Dolphins

Playful and intelligent, you may just find that on your trip to Dyer Island, the dolphins come to you. They really do seem to have an affinity for humans, and love swimming just ahead of the boat, ‘dancing’ in the bow waves. There’s never a dull moment when you’re around dolphins, and seeing them will be a highlight not just of your ocean excursion, but of your entire time in South Africa.

Fun fact: Bottlenose dolphins get their name from the shape of their snouts, which resembles a bottle (although of course they breathe using the blowhole on top of their heads).

African Penguins

A highlight of any visit to Simons Town is the colony of African Penguins at Boulders Beach, who live in an environment quite different to that enjoyed by their cousins in Antarctica. These penguins also nest on Dyer Island, where they also count as one of the Marine Big Five.

Through The Royal Portfolio Foundation, we support penguin rescue and rehabilitation projects led by SANCCOB and the Dyer Island Conservation trust.

Bottlenose dolphins at play
African penguins waddle their way

Left: Bottlenose dolphins at play; Right: African penguins waddle their way

Cape Fur Seals

These seals were historically hunted for their fur, and their populations are still recovering to this day. Fortunately, Dyer Island provides a stronghold for them – as long as they can stay out of the way of the sharks! You may even see seals swimming in the harbour as you explore the V&A Waterfront.

Let the ocean be your guide as you encounter the majestic Marine Big Five, creating memories that will last a lifetime.

A Cape fur seal heads for the V&A Waterfront

A Cape fur seal heads for the V&A Waterfront

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