Astounding marine life, cliff-top whale watching, shark cage diving – the eco-tourism options are endless


Hermanus and Walker Bay has always been famous for an astounding marine life. Although the unrivalled cliff-top land-based viewing of Southern Right Whales and shark-cage diving for intense encounters with Great White Sharks have made a few nights stopover in Hermanus a must for all visitors to Cape Town, the land and boat-based viewing of dolphins, seals, African penguins, and orcas are equally captivating. Protecting the marvels of our animal neighbours through funding generated by sustainable tourism, the passion, and motivation to ensure the survival of the unique marine, terrestrial and aerial life you can view during a visit to us are characteristic to all tourism ventures and excursions you can book through us at check-in.

The Floral reserves around Hermanus protect a unique localized collection of Fynbos flower species and hiking, mountain biking, or hang gliding in the mountains offer adventure tourists ample opportunity to enjoy the splendor of the mountains and valleys surrounding our town.

Surely the gusty winds and large lagoon must make the lagoon the perfect windsurfing and kiteboarding destination!

There is no equal to the diverse and top standard tourist attractions of our area but above all the friendly helpful inhabitants of the Overberg region will ensure that all visitors rate the area and its attractions as amongst the best in the world!


From early man’s first sighting of whales, humans have been fascinated by these huge creatures, so mysterious and enigmatic, subjects of myths, legends, superstitions and folklore, and perpetual wonder. Truly, whales are the essence of romance.

Whales are large marine mammals that evolved from terrestrial mammals over 70 million years ago and are found in all the seas of our planet. Whales comprise the order Cetacea (smaller members of the order are commonly referred to as porpoises or dolphins) and are grouped into two suborders—Odontoceti, or modern toothed whales, who feed on fish and squid, and Mysticeti, baleen whales—easily recognized by the thick mats of tough but flexible fibrous plates with their edges frayed into long bristles—much like a large, hairy doormat–attached to the roof of the mouth that act as filters or strainers when large amounts of water are enveloped, then forced through the baleen to retain the planktonic animals and plants or small crustaceans that are these whales’ principal diet.  One baleen whale, the blue whale, reaches a length of 30 meters and a weight of 150 metric tons: it is the largest of all the species of whale and is probably the largest mammal that has ever existed.

Whales have fusiform (tapered or spindle-shaped) bodies with tails that end in horizontal blades or flukes unsupported by bone that propel by undulatory vertical (up and down) movements.  Paddle or sickle-shaped flippers or fins provide balance and steering.  As warm-blooded mammals, whales, of course, are air-breathers, and although some whale species are able to dive to depths in excess of one thousand meters and remain underwater for as long as one hour, they must return to the surface where they breathe and exhale rapidly through “blowholes” typically located at the top of the head.  The familiar “spout” is caused by the sudden condensation of warm water contained in the breath when exhaled into cooler air.

Whales, especially the larger species, were until fairly recently, very valuable and commercially important.  Neolithic Scandinavian rock carvings show that whales were hunted as food and fuel sources as early as the Stone Age, and the settling of Iceland, (circa 1250) was encouraged by the prospect of hunting whales, generally from shore stations.  The Japanese hunted whales from boats, using large nets, as early as the 15th century, and when Europeans first contacted the North American Eskimos in the early 17th century they found these indigenous people hunting whales from skin boats.  By the end of the 19th century, several countries had built oceangoing factory ships to process whales killed by smaller catcher vessels.  Whale meat was considered a delicacy by some humans, and when dried was used as animal food.  Oils rendered from their fat or “blubber” were used for industrial lubrication, hydrogenated into margarine, converted into soaps and cosmetics—and until the exploitation of petroleum in the mid-1900s—provided a major source of oils for illumination.  The value of their products resulted in the extinction of some whale species, and serious depletion of many others—some, such as the blue whale, to the point that survival of that species is extremely perilous.

Fortunately, the rapid decline of these remarkable and wondrous mammals sharing our planet occasioned by modern whaling methods was halted by the use of alternate product sources and international agreements.  However, depending on the species, whales have a gestation period of one year or more, followed by a lengthy period of lactation and rest, so population recovery will be very slow.  The larger species of whales make remarkable seasonal journeys, 5,000 to 20,000 kilometers, between the colder waters where they feed, and the warmer waters where they mate and calve.  Whale calves are born tail-first as single offspring in a well-developed state—they have to be since they must be able to swim and follow their mothers immediately after their birth in order to reach the surface for their first breath of air.  Depending on the species, a whale calf may nurse as long as a year and is devotedly cared for by its mother, as well as being protected by companion females.

Perhaps the best and most accessible place to observe the awe-inspiring southern right whale is Walker Bay in the Western Cape region of South Africa.  These whales feed in the Antarctic and begin their northward migration in April, arriving at Walker Bay in large numbers in early June.  From June until November or early December the southern right whales use Walker Bay as their playground for calving and courtship.  These gentle giants of the oceans may be viewed easily from cliff paths or boat and helicopter tours.  We all may rejoice that the Great Whales are still with us—and thanks to our belated realization of their majesty and wonder, and integral place in our planet—always shall be.

Dolphins & Porpoises

Although the names “dolphins” and “porpoises” are frequently used interchangeably when referring to small toothed whales less than five meters in length, these marine mammals belong to different families. There are some forty-eight species within the genus delphinidae, the largest of which is the killer whale or orca that easily attains a length of seven meters and can weigh more than five metric tons. The “porpoise” is not a dolphin at all and belongs to the genus phocaena.  The common porpoise is a relatively small cetacean with a blunt snout, and seldom attains a length greater than 2 meters. The common dolphin is the archetypical dolphin, easily recognized by its long beak and rictus—a gaping, built-in grin that gives this dolphin a perpetual smile. Both dolphins and porpoises are found in all the warm and temperate seas—and there are even several species of dolphins that have adapted to living in freshwater.

In the fourth century BCE the Greek philosopher Aristotle accurately described dolphins as mammals and not fishes, and he was the first to observe that the horizontal flukes of dolphins (as is true of all whales) that undulate up and down were designed to propel dolphins underwater and them bring them to the surface regularly so they could breathe and exhale through the blowholes located at the tops of their heads.

The common dolphin was the species most familiar to the inhabitants of the Mediterranean and Aegean civilizations that first reduced their observations of dolphins to written or artistic depictions. The bonds between humans and dolphins are prehistoric, perhaps even older than the bonds between humans and dogs. Images of dolphins are found on early Greek and Etruscan ceramics and coins. As early as the eighth century BCE the Phoenicians portrayed a dolphin’s body intertwined with anchors and tridents—symbols associated with the Greek sea-god Poseidon and indicating that the dolphin was the master of navigation due to the dolphin’s prudence, wisdom, power, and speed as a swimmer. Given the gulf of some four thousand years and the absence of texts, it is impossible today to understand the symbolism the dolphin represented in Mediterranean culture—although some anecdotal testimonials have survived that illustrate the goodwill toward humans the Ancients believed dolphins possessed.  Tales abound of instances wherein dolphins actively nudged sailors who had fallen overboard to a safe shore or lead a distressed vessel to a safe harbor.

No seafaring person worthy of the name, regardless of nationality or the era in which he lived, is not familiar with dolphins.  Many readers of this note have themselves observed dolphins riding the bow waves of vessels—large or small—on which they have been embarked. From the time of Homer classical myths postulated that dolphins were actually humans who had been transformed into marine mammals. The Etruscans, Greeks, and Romans viewed the dolphin as a symbol of rebirth—an intercessor who rescued men from the seas and returned them to land—the guide who saved the shipwrecked and ferried them to port—that is, to salvation.

Dolphins are intelligent mammals—in their ways as intelligent as we humans. Dolphins know how to communicate with and please us, but sadly, we do not as yet know how to communicate with and please them. Dolphins are docile animals that may easily be captured, kept in enclosures, and taught to perform seemingly incredible feats—such as leaping through hoops, field thrown balls, and “walk” briefly on their flukes. Sadly, some dolphins have been taught to be underwater warriors. Several navies have trained dolphins to be submarine sentries patrolling harbors and dockyards, alert for—and trained to destroy—intruders. The United States Navy has trained dolphins to wear a harness that will clamp onto the body of an inert torpedo shot in exercises so that the inert torpedo may be winched to the surface and reused.

Some readers may have applauded the acrobatics of “tame” dolphins performed at large open-air saltwater aquariums—of which there are many—worldwide. But we must always bear in mind that dolphins evolved to swim great distances and live in complex social groups. Is it fair to these highly intelligent mammals to keep them captives in small, barren enclosures? Thankfully, many operators of open-air saltwater aquariums where dolphins have been trained to perform for the edification of crowds have realized that our seagoing cousins deserve to be released from their captivities and returned to their natural element of our planet’s oceans.

To observe dolphins living and playing in their true domains of the oceans is to observe dances as intricate as any performed by the world’s foremost ballerinas. To be near enough to see dolphins execute a perfect pas de deux or a fluid cetacean pirouette from the sheer joy of living is to see grace that will remain always with the observer. One of the world’s premier places to observe dolphins (and occasionally porpoises) swimming and playing in their natural element is in the waters off the southern coasts of South Africa. Walker Bay is an area particularly popular with dolphins because of the Bay’s temperate waters and the abundance of prey fishes upon which these small toothed whales feed. How much better to observe our seagoing cousins happily interacting with their social groups in the open ocean far removed from land-based cramped and sterile enclosures shared by perhaps one or two of their forlorn companions!

Intertwined Destinies of Humans & Sharks

Just mention the word SHARK and the majority of the planet’s human population will experience a frisson of inbred, subliminal fear. As terrestrial mammals we humans are both fascinated and repelled by sinister giant fishes that reputedly attack their prey with mindless omnivorous ferocity. However, the destinies of humans and sharks are so intertwined that we must endeavor to understand sharks and the roles they—and we—play in the Great Chain of Being that governs all that happens on and in the oceans we share.

Is a shark actually a fish? Yes: all other fishes have bony skeletons and belong to the class known as Osteichthyes, whereas sharks are vertebrate animals with a cartilaginous skeleton and belong to the class Chondrichthyes. Some ichthyologists have argued that sharks are more closely related to mammals than to the bony fishes. So, while it can be argued that sharks are not exactly fishes, the commonly accepted scientific view is that sharks are cartilaginous fishes.

How many species of sharks are there? To date marine biologists have identified some 440 species of sharks—but it is important to note that sharks are capable of hybridization—that is, the interbreeding of two related but genetically distinct species, with the resulting offspring being capable of reproduction. Ultimately some hybrid offspring may be recognized as distinct species.

All sharks have teeth, but the teeth are not fixed to the gums: rather, the teeth are attached to thick membranes inside the jaws. The mouth of a shark is under slung, and well behind the shark’s snout, but the thick membranes act as hinges, permitting the teeth to be thrust forward and protrude outside the mouth to bite and grasp more deeply. Sharks today range in size from the whale shark, a harmless giant that feeds almost entirely on plankton, and grows as large as 18 meters, to the dwarf lantern shark that grows no longer than 20 centimetres —small enough to fit easily inside a human’s palm.

Despite mankind’s primeval fear of sharks, sharks have been exploited for centuries. Every year multiple millions of sharks are caught solely for their fins and tails, highly prized in Chinese cuisine as the ingredients for “shark fin soup”. The bodies of these sharks, once their fins and tails have been cut off, may be processed into oils or fish meal—or in many instances—thrown back into the seas. If you have ever enjoyed the “fish and chips” so popular in the British Isles more likely than not, the white meat of the fried fish came from the spiny dogfish, a small shark whose populations around the British Isles have been greatly depleted by overfishing. (The gourmand adventurous enough to inquire into the origin of the fish would likely have been told that the fish was “huss” or “rock salmon”.) Italians consume millions of pounds of shark meat annually in the form of palumbo (smooth dogfish) and smeriglio (porbeagle). Steaks cut from the thresher shark are often found In upscale seafood markets in the United States.

Sharks and humans are apex predators. Small fishes and animals are eaten by larger fishes and animals, and so on up the food chain. When the numbers of smaller fishes and animals are reduced, the apex predators are affected. Sharks are early indicators of the health of the oceans.  When the populations of smaller prey fishes are over-exploited, or die in large numbers due to pollution by such mechanisms as agricultural runoff that produces algae blooms which literally suck all the oxygen from the water, there is less prey for the larger fishes. Overall, shark populations have diminished, with some of the smaller species facing extinction. Fortunately, although they remain very vulnerable, the planet’s oceans are still healthy enough to support large populations of the larger sharks. Incidentally, incidents wherein sharks are reported to have attacked humans are relatively rare. The Florida Program for Shark Research at the University of Florida’s Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, Florida maintains the International Shark Attack File. The Yearly Worldwide Shark Attack Summary for 2018 reflected 130 incidents of alleged “shark-human interaction”. Sixty-six incidents were confirmed as “unprovoked shark attacks” on humans, while 34 incidents were confirmed as “provoked attacks”. Nine shark attacks on boats were confirmed, and other reported incidents were not confirmed or rated as “doubtful” (one attack occurred in a public aquarium!). Five attacks resulted in human deaths. The United States had the largest number of unprovoked shark attacks (32, with one fatality) and two unprovoked attacks were confirmed in South Africa, but with no fatality.

The shark species that most likely attracts the most interest from humans is the great white shark (carcharodon carcharias) as popularized in the series of Jaws movies. The great white may grow as long as seven meters, but an ancestor, carcharodon megalodon, grew much larger. The Hall of Fossil Fishes at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City houses a plaster reconstruction of the jaws of megalodon based upon the size of teeth found in the fossil record. The reconstruction, which is eight feet high, measures nine feet across the jaws, with the largest teeth some six inches in height, was based on the tooth-jaw proportions of modern white sharks, and is probably one third larger than an actual megalodon. Nevertheless, the reconstruction makes for a frightening tableau in a popular photograph that depicts six men standing inside the jaws. Truly, megalodon reigned supreme as the savage sovereign of the seas some 25 million years ago!

While found in all the planet’s oceans, the great white is migratory and rarely seen. However, there is one place where great white sharks may almost certainly be viewed, and that is in the waters of Gansbaai (bay of geese), a fishing town in the Western Cape Province of South Africa. Viewing great white sharks from shark-proof steel cages lowered into the water from large boats began in 1995, and attracts large numbers of tourists to South Africa, numbers second only to tourists visiting the Kruger Park. “Cage diving” for great white sharks is not for everyone, but the rewards of viewing these great descendants of megalodon, whose destinies as apex predators are inexorably intertwined with humans are impossible to quantify.

eco-tourism in hermanus