Marine Big Five | When a whale, like this southern right, throws itself out the water, it’s called ‘breaching’.

Finding South Africa’s Marine Big Five

Top off your luxury South African safari with a once-in-a-lifetime viewing of the Marine Big Five: whale, shark, dolphin, seal and penguin. Near the southern tip of Africa, spend a day at sea trying to spot these magnificent creatures of the deep.

We were coming to the end of our luxury South African safari, during which we’d been lucky enough to see the Big Five. Now it was time to top it off with South Africa’s Marine Big Five: whale, shark, dolphin, seal and penguin!

To achieve this dream, we concluded our South African journey near the southern tip of Africa, one of the only places in the world that offers this extensive range of marine wildlife.

One crisp morning, my partner and I were collected from our lodge, bound for Kleinbaai, a little harbour near Gansbaai. Before heading to sea, the marine operator gave us a brief introductory talk about the route, safety and what to look out for. We were also fitted with comfortable life jackets and waterproof jackets.

Then we boarded the purpose-built, eco-friendly boat. The tour was hosted by marine biologists and guides who were only too happy to share their extensive knowledge with us. I was pleased to note how their emphasis was on the welfare and conservation of marine life.

It was a bright blue spring day and we motored through translucent waters towards Dyer Island, which lies a few kilometres offshore. The island is an access-controlled IBA (Important Bird Area), dedicated to the conservation of its many resident bird species.

Suddenly, dolphin appeared as if out of nowhere, surfing and breaching in the boat’s wake. Some cavorted just metres from our bows: leaping and diving in playful delight. What a VIP escort we were getting!

‘Two dolphin species are regular visitors to these waters,’ called the skipper above the grumble of the engines. ‘Indo-Pacific bottlenose and humpback. These beauties are bottlenose. Neither of the two species tend to venture into waters much deeper than 30m, which is why we encounter them so often. Bottlenose eat mainly fish, squid and octopus, using high-frequency echo-location to nab their prey. They can often be seen working as a team to chase down and herd schools of pilchards and anchovies.’

As we drew closer to the island, which rose like a brown-and-white tooth out of the emerald water, we noticed a second, smaller isle to the south of Dyer. ‘That’s Geyser Rock,’ called the skipper. ‘It’s home to a 60,000-strong Cape fur seal colony. Let’s go take a look…’

We motored close the rock, which seethed with sleek bodies, basking in the sun. They looked like oversize labradors with shiny pelts. ‘These guys are present here all year round,’ said the skipper. ‘The Cape fur seal is endemic to Namibia and South Africa and is the only resident seal in South Africa.’

We puttered through the channel between Dyer Island and Geyser Rock – the world-famous Shark Alley – where seal are on the menu of great white shark.  Some of the gregarious seal dived and swam around our boat, making for great photo opportunities. Be careful buddies, I thought, you’re playing in a mighty dangerous zone.

Cruising along the eastern shore of Dyer Island, we could make out plenty of birds, including various gulls, terns, cormorants and adorable African penguins. These black-and-white busybodies were perched on the rocks or gathered in sociable groups. Some dived into the sea and swam beside the boat looking just like winged torpedoes. They were certainly a lot more graceful in the water than on land.

We then went looking for whale. ‘With all our years of experience, not only do we know the best whale-viewing spots, but the whales have also learnt to expect us,’ said our skipper. ‘In fact, we have re-sightings of the same individuals year after year. They’ve become like old friends.’

After about 10 minutes, someone at the prow shouted, ‘Thar she blows!’ The skipper opened the throttle and we sped towards the spout. In no time, we were almost upon the southern rights. The skipper killed the engine and we sat wallowing some way upwind from the enormous cetaceans. Amazingly, the whale approached us, finning over to have a look. Everyone crowded to the railing, cameras clicking furiously as though in the presence of movie stars.

We spent a good while watching the gentle giants. Occasionally there’d be a raised fin or tail, to many ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ from the adoring fans on our boat. ‘More than 3,000 southern rights migrate from the Antarctic to our waters for winter and spring to calve, nurse their young and mate,’ said the skipper. ‘They are the Cape’s most honoured guests.’

Heading back to Kleinbaai, there was sudden flurry of excitement at the starboard rail. I rushed over to catch a glimpse of a fin breaking the surface and a huge dark object gliding into the depths. A great white shark! I must admit that for a moment my blood ran cold. The denizen of the deep. There could be no doubting who was boss in these waters. What a way to end our Marine Big Five tour…

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