Did you know?
Common dolphins blow ‘nets’ of bubbles to corral sardines and catch them more easily.
There are nearly 10 dolphin species off the South African coast (and even more whale species – some of which are confusingly similar to dolphins). But the dolphins you are most likely to see are the ones that swim close inshore, often surfing the breakers.
These include the bottlenose, the humpback and the common dolphin. While you might have a lucky break and spot a spinner or a rare Heaviside’s dolphin, most of the other species swim in deeper waters off South Africa’s continental shelf.
A few, like the Fraser’s dolphin, have hardly ever been spotted by scientists in a country that has some of the strictest cetacean conservation laws in the world. Decades can and have passed between sightings.
Locals and visitors cherish sightings of dolphins.
By far the easiest to see is the bottlenose dolphin, made famous by the movie Flipper. Found along much of the eastern coastline of South Africa, bottlenose dolphins can sometimes be seen from the shore, surfing the breakers in jubilant unison.
You’ll seldom see common dolphins from the beach. They’re usually seen somewhat offshore right along the coastline (excluding the West Coast north of Lambert’s Bay), but when you do see them, they’re often in pods of a few hundred. During the annual Sardine Run (a massive seasonal migration that usually takes place sometime between May and July) along the eastern coastline, you might even see them in masses of thousands.
It’s a life-changing experience to see them surfing the bow-wave of your boat, turning in the water to see you, speeding alongside you with effortless grace. They have unusual markings – a mix of blue-grey and cappuccino colour.
Humpback dolphins are usually found very close to shore, but are not nearly as exuberantly flamboyant as bottlenose dolphins. They’re easily identifiable thanks to the fleshy mound in front of their dorsal fins, which are also much smaller than those of bottlenose dolphins.
They’re also unlike common dolphins in that they shy away from boats, and they’re far rarer than either of the other two species.
Travel tips & Planning info
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How to get here
One of the best places to reliably see all three of the more common inshore species is Plettenberg Bay. Apart from bottlenose, common and humpback dolphins, sometimes orcas are seen in the bay, and you might also be lucky enough to see Bryde’s, southern right and humpback whales, and seals. Another good spot to see humpback dolphins is Dyer Island off Gansbaai in the Western Cape. There is a resident pod, which is being monitored by Dyer Island Cruises.
Best time to visit
Unlike whales, which only frequent South African shores for 6 months of the year, dolphins are present all year round.
Although you can keep an eye peeled for joyous bottlenose dolphin shapes in the waves as you wander along the shore (the Kwazulu-Natal and Southern Cape coastlines are the most likely places you’ll see them), it’s best to take a boat trip.
What will it cost
If you’re going out on a boat charter, expect to pay a few hundred rand per person – depending on season and place.
Length of stay
A boat trip will take a few hours.
What to pack
It’s invariably colder at sea than on shore, so take something warm and weatherproof.