Did you know?
Cape fur seals can dive down to 200 metres, and can stay under water for seven minutes.
Go out to sea along South Africa’s west or southern coastline, and there’s an excellent chance of sighting a sinuous and curious seal.
Seals are ballet dancers in the water, porpoising alongside boats and bobbing up to gaze at you with enormous eyes. They’re playful and will sometimes interact with divers and snorkellers. Sometimes they’ll loaf in the slight swell, flippers aloft, sunning themselves and keeping an eye out for a likely fish to eat.
There are around two million seals on South African and Namibian shores. It’s a staggering comeback for species that was thoroughly decimated a century ago.
That, of course, was in the days when sealing was rampant. Since then, sealing has stopped in South Africa and things have turned around completely for the Cape fur seals.
They used to be limited to breeding on islands to avoid land-based predators. But humans have caused the numbers of these predators to drop and now seals are breeding on the mainland, which has led to a dramatic population growth.
One of the biggest colonies is now at Kleinzee along South Africa’s West Coast, with up to 450 000 individuals.
There are other, smaller concentrations of them off and along Gansbaai, Hout Bay, Plettenberg Bay and Cape Town.
The great white sharks certainly aren’t complaining. This has become a major food source for them. A standard shark-attracting decoy is a cut-out seal shape used on most shark-watching operations in False Bay, Gansbaai and Mossel Bay.
The fishermen complain bitterly about the seals, but they are a pleasure to watch (although being downwind of a colony can be an assault on the nostrils).
Cape fur seals (also called South African fur seals) have small, somewhat comical, rolled up ears, which is why they’re also called eared seals. They’re fairly agile on land and climb rocks surprisingly well. They’re mostly brown, but shades vary from caramel to dark chocolate. The pups are born black and slowly grow lighter.
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Drumbeat Charters, Hout Bay, Cape Town
Tel: +27 (0)21 791 4441; +27 (0)82 658 7055
Simon’s Town Boat Company, False Bay
Tel: +27 (0)21 757 7760
Dyer Island Cruises, Gansbaai
Tel: +27 (0)82 801 8014
Ocean Safaris, Plettenberg Bay
Tel: +27 (0)44 533 4963
Offshore Adventures, Plettenberg Bay (this operator offers a swimming with seals experience)
Tel: +27 (0)82 829 0809
Ocean Blue Adventures, Plettenberg Bay
Tel: +27 (0)44 533 5083; +27 (0) 83 701 3583
How to get here
You can often see seals at the Cape Town V&A Waterfront, on boat trips out of Hout Bay, Gansbaai and Plettenberg Bay, and along the West Coast. The massive population at Kleinzee falls in a diamond area and special permits must be obtained. Some Cape Town diving operations also offer underwater experiences with seals.
Best time to visit
You’ll be able to see seals any time of year.
Tours to do
There are specific trips to see seals from Hout Bay, False Bay, Gansbaai and Plettenberg Bay, to mention just a few.
It’s easiest to see them by boat, but you can also see them on land, at places like the Robberg peninsula near Plettenberg Bay.
What will it cost
In certain places you’ll be able to see them without paying a cent – like at Cape Town’s Waterfront. But if you’d like to see them from the sea, you're likely to pay a few hundred rand per person for a trip of a couple of hours.