If you are a fan of marine wildlife, South Africa marine safaris would definitely appeal to you. These safaris give you the chance to swim right next to The Marine Big 5 like the Great White Sharks and Cape Fur Seals.
The first images that normally come to your mind when “South Africa Safari” is mentioned, would be that of Lions, Giraffes, or Elephants. Many fail to realize that can include the Great White Sharks, Cape Fur Seals, and even Crocodiles!
Marine safaris in South Africa is often an overlooked aspect for first-timers to South Africa. Much like many beginners, my research during my first trip was mainly focused on planning for land-based safari.
It was only when I delve deeper into the “What to-do list” in the beautiful coastal towns in Southern South Africa that I chanced upon the possibility of marine safaris. South Africa borders the Atlantic and Indian Ocean, thus making it a heaven for spotting marine wildlife.
The Marine Big 5 is the Southern Rights Whale, Great White Shark, Dolphins, Cape Fur Seals, and Penguins. Marine animals do not limit to these big 5 though, as crocodiles and hippopotamus in their natural habitat are just as fascinating as the Big 5.
In my post on “4 Things to Do When Traveling to South Africa”, you would have read up on the different ways you could enjoy a marine safari. Though if you are looking for a completely immersive experience, the best way to enjoy marine safaris in South Africa would be to join the animals in the water!
Yet, you would not be left out if you are not able to swim well, as many other options ranging from a cruise to coastline views still exist.
A complete marine safari adventure can actually be planned along the well-traveled route from Johannesburg to Kruger National Park, to Cape Town. With a bit of luck in weather conditions, the routes enable you to experience the complete marine wildlife diversity on offer in South Africa.
Unlike land-based safari which is enjoyable all-year-round, certain South Africa marine safaris are more seasonal. The mystery of the vast ocean is also not visible to the naked eye. This causes unpredictable patterns in sightings such as the sudden dropping in Great White Shark sightings from the Gansbaai’s Shark Alley for the past 2 years
That said, you should still give these activities a shot as it is not everywhere that would have such an abundance of marine safaris like in South Africa.
Marine safaris in South Africa in 6 days
- 1 Night in St Lucia
- 1 Night in Durban
- 4 Nights in Capetown
- 1. St Lucia Estuary-Where Hippos Roam
- 2. Shark Snorkeling in Aliwal Shoal, Durban
- Off to Cape Town
- 3. Snorkeling with Cape Fur Seals
- 4. Crocodile Cage Diving
- 5. Kayaking with Dolphins
- 6. Penguins at Boulder Beach
- 7. Cage Diving with the Great White Shark
- 8. Whale Watching
1. St Lucia Estuary-Where Hippos Roam
Traveling to St Lucia from Kruger National Park
Do a search on google for “most dangerous animals in South Africa” and see what pops up! The St Lucia estuary is home to over 800 of them.
There are two ways to drive from Crocodile Bridge Rest Camp at Kruger National Park to St Lucia. The first way is solely on South Africa’s roads, while the second is a shorter route through Swaziland to St Lucia. Having tried both roads before, I would suggest taking the Swaziland road as it can save you around 45 minutes. Swaziland also has some magnificent landscapes for your viewing pleasure!
The only difference is that you may have to pay a small fee to your car rental company and do a border check at Swaziland. The border process is fuss-free and relatively simple. Just make sure you have the relevant documents from your car rental company and you would be good to go.
St Lucia is situated in the KwaZulu-Natal province. With outstanding natural wetland and coastal sites, it is also where iSimangaliso wetland park is located. The Hluhluwe–Imfolozi Park, widely known as the oldest game reserve in South Africa and home to the world’s largest population of White Rhinos, is also located near St Lucia.
St Lucia Estuary
Due to its exceptional biodiversity and unique mosaic of ecosystems – swamps, lakes, beaches, coral reefs, wetlands, woodlands, coastal forests, and grasslands – the area supports an astounding diversity of animal, bird and marine life.
Thus with the estuary and lake lands unique ecological processes, it is actually inscribed as a World Heritage Site.
Staying on Mckenzie Street would be a good choice as it contains restaurants, groceries, and souvenirs all lined up next to each other.
We stayed at Flamboyant House which was really value for money, especially so for its centralized location. Their apartments’ design is basic and maybe dated, but the space is HUGE. We had a living room, kitchen, 3-bed rooms for a very competitive price. It also comes with a swimming pool for our downtime in this resort-like city.
Due to St Lucia being home to around 800 hippopotamus, you could even catch one roaming in the streets during the day! Just be careful as Hippos account for a few hundred deaths every year, even more than sharks. So it is always wise to keep a distance from them.
Hippo and Boat Cruise in St Lucia
St Lucia Estuary is home to more than 800 hippos, but also to more than 1200 Nile crocodiles. It is probably the only place in South Africa where you could view so many hippos and crocodiles up close.
There used to be a kayaking company, St Lucia Kayak Safaris, that runs kayaking trips on the very river the Hippos and Crocodiles reside in, but sadly it has ceased operations due to some licensing issues. Thus explains how dangerous these hippos and crocodiles can be!
Heritage Tours and Safaris operates an excellent Hippo and Boat Cruise. At around 15 USD, one would enjoy a 2-hour long boat cruise along the estuary. With a 2-storey spacious cruise, you would be able to enjoy panoramic views of the landscape.
The captain doubles up as a tour guide, explaining biodiversity in St Lucia. I must emphasize that a good captain is necessary as some may not be able to navigate their cruise swiftly to ensure everyone gets a good glimpse of sightings.
Bull sharks also exists in the estuary! Keep a lookout for the Nile Crocodiles hidden in the tall grasslands. Hippos on the other, gather in herds and if you are lucky, you would be able to see them come out fully from the shallow waters.
This is one of the few marine safaris in South Africa that appeals to all kinds of crowds be it you are a swimmer or not. Thus you should really not miss this out even though it may be a little out of the way from Johannesburg. But if you plan this trip with our next item, the time spent on the road will be worth it.
2. Shark Snorkelling in Aliwal Shoal, Durban
As I was researching on the popular Great White Shark Cage Diving in Capetown, I chanced upon how you could actually snorkel(or even dive) cageless with sharks in Durban’s Aliwal Shoal.
Not for the faint-hearted, this is probably one of the most thrilling (yet safe) marine safaris in South Africa you can do. These sharks are not as large compared to the Great White Sharks, but still, they are big enough to excite your senses.
Durban is about a 2.5 hours drive from St Lucia, while Aliwal Shoal is about an extra hour of drive from Durban. Except for Sibaya Casino and the Entertainment Kingdom in Durban, there is not many tourist attractions for you to enjoy.
Together with its high crime rate, I would certainly advise you to skip Durban city and drive straight to Aliwal Shoal and stay for the night.
We stayed at The Elephants Tusk in Aliwal Shoal. Airbnb style, the room was situated on the second storey and was spacious with a modern design. There was even a swimming pool for guests to enjoy.
As tourists frequent Aliwal Shoal for its water activities, there is nothing much going on when night falls. As such, do give yourself a little splurge on a good seaside accommodation to wind down during this leg of the trip.
Blue Wilderness is the go-to shark snorkeling and diving option in Aliwal Shoal. Having gone on my first trip with them in 2017, they have grown in size and shifted to a much larger accommodation in 2019. Other than conducting trips, they contribute knowledge and do research on shark conservation efforts too.
Contrary to common misconception, sharks actually do not attack humans if unprovoked. As long as you do not touch them unnecessarily or startle them, you would be safe.
Personally, I would still stick to the shark snorkeling option even though I have a diving certification. As most of the shark bait would be distributed at near-surface, the sharks would be circling around the surface instead of deep underwater.
Be in your dry clothing and bring along a swimwear. Wet-suits would be provided, along with your snorkeling gears. Snacks are also provided before and after the trip (very tasty sandwiches). An option of purchasing a video of the whole trip would also be made available if you did not bring along your underwater camera. You could also rent the underwater camera for a small fee. Hot shower facilities are also provided for the post-trip.
After a short briefing, we hopped onto a lorry of sorts, taking us to the beach. Here, we loaded up their speed boat which took us to about 1km away from shore.
Do take note that the ride is very bumpy. As someone who is not a fan of rollercoasters, it is probably the worst part of the trip for me. Bring along some sweets or take your sea-sick pills beforehand!
Once we reached our objective, the guide will proceed to throw shark bait into the water to attract sharks. Not before long, you would see fins circling around your boat! This is also the time where we started to jump into the water.
This is where you would spend a good 30 minutes to an hour (depending on your fitness) being in the middle of circling sharks. The sharks would get so close that their body and fins would brush against you. Keep your hands to yourselves as it has been mentioned in the briefing so as to not be mistaken for shark bait.
You could have the option to swim around yourself, or if you find the waves too bumpy, you could hold onto a log and hang on there for a more consistent view.
The smoothness of your tour in the water really depends on the weather conditions. My first trip was fuss-free with calm and steady waves, while my second time doing it was riddled with heavy and bumpy waves.
Having watched movies like Jaws during my childhood, I never imagined I would one day be able to swim alongside them. At any one time, as many as 20 sharks would be circling around you.
You are able to witness up-close how they interact during feeding and their graceful and elegance movement through the water. One of the most thrilling marine safaris in South Africa you could do, I highly recommend trying for it together with the Hippo and Boat Cruise in nearby St Lucia.
As sharks are an endangered species, do register with companies that are reputable. This would ensure they operate within conversationalist laws and protect these amazing creatures from extinction. Blue Wilderness is a good go-to option, and I guarantee you would not regret your trip with them.
Off to Cape Town
If you have time, you could opt for the Garden Route drive to Cape Town from Aliwal Shoal. Otherwise, taking a budget flight from Durban would save a lot of time.
Cape Town is famous for its picturesque scenery and its natural landscapes. What many do not know is also the diversified marine wildlife on display around its coasts. From cute penguins to the cage diving with Great White Sharks, Capetown is a gold mine for marine safaris in South Africa.
As marine safaris in requires appropriate weather conditions, I would suggest arranging activities that require you to head out to the open sea at the earliest possibility. This is so that if the weather does turn bad on the day of your tour, you would have extra days to make up for the experience.
As such, I had planned for a full 4 nights in Capetown. Together with the marine safaris would also be sightseeing which I would cover in my next blog post. One would need about 3 days to complete the marine safaris depending on your fitness and energy level, leaving an extra 1 day as precaution for bad weather.
Snorkeling with Cape Fur Seals
Duiker Island is an island off Hout Bay in Cape Town. It is a small island of an area of only about 0.4 hectares. It is also home to about 5000 Cape Fur Seals.
You could go on a Duiker Island Boat Trip to view these seals onboard, but I would recommend swimming/snorkeling with them. That is if you have the fitness level and swimming ability to do so as you would have to be a decent swimmer to contend with the tides. For a much more tame experience, you could even catch seals at the V and A Waterfront in Cape Town.
Animal Ocean prides itself on being the best service provider of snorkeling with Cape Fur Seals and they certainly did not disappoint the experience. Again, with snacks and snorkeling gear provided, all you have to do is buy a ticket and turn up.
This is the only place in South Africa and one of the only few in the world where you could snorkel with this much Cape Fur Seals. Marine safaris in South Africa do not get as much fun as swimming with these cute seals!
Upon gearing up, you would be taken on a speed boat ride to Duiker Island before your snorkel. Just like the earlier shark snorkeling trip, the ride would be bumpy too, so get those sea-sick pills and sweets ready.
Once you reach Duiker Island, it is snorkeling time and you would have unrestricted swimming time for about an hour or so. You could even attempt to swim near Duiker Island if the waves are not too challenging. Just take note that unlike sharks, seals are actually more aggressive and tend to bite when feeling a little bit threatened. So as cute as they look, do keep a safe distance and respect the animals!
Swimming near Duiker Island takes a bit of skill due to the waves that accompany the area. The seals roam everywhere and anywhere, and you can catch them underwater or swim along the surface.
Unlike the sharks in Aliwal Shoal, they are much faster and swifter, so getting a picture with them would require some strong balance in the water.
If possible do go for a wristband gear that holds your underwater camera in place, as the waves are strong and may sweep your camera away. Better yet a seal may bite it too!
Crocodile Cage Diving
African Crocdive is located in the heart of the Winelands on the world-renowned Le Bonheur crocodile farm, housing more than 1000 crocodiles, approximately 30minutes drive from Cape Town. You could also book a transport directly from them to take you to and fro Cape Town. Many tourists also take the chance to do a tour of the Winelands while doing the crocodile dive.
The crocodile farm is like an educational museum of sorts, detailing facts about crocodiles and displaying exhibits.
Crocodile Cage Diving, together with the Great White Shark Cage Diving is definitely the closest you can get to dangerous animals in South Africa marine safaris. With only a cage separating you and these carnivorous animals, it is a must-do for thrill-seekers.
After the briefing, you would be guided to the platform of the crocodile cage are. Here, you can slowly descend to the bottom of the cage through a ladder.
The water is shallow, and you would be able to have your head above water if you stand. Anytime you want to peek at the crocodiles, you just take a dive, hold your breathe, and stay underwater.
The water is EXTREMELY COLD! So my advice is other than the wet suit they provide, bring an extra full thermal suit to enjoy the maximum experience. As I did not have one, it shortened my viewing experience to just about 10 minutes. Any more I would have felt near to hypothermia!
The guide would proceed to throw meat near the cage, attracting the crocodiles to feed on them right next to you.
Unlike the Crocosaurus Cove where the viewing platform is fully covered up, the cage here is literally just a cage. The small holes in the cage create a more up-close yet, intimidating atmosphere with these crocodiles. Do keep your hands inside the cage at all times!
You do not need to have much swimming abilities to do this tour. Just basic underwater breath-holding skills coupled with water confidence. What is more important is your courage to withstand the cold water and be up-close to these magnificent reptiles. If you are able to, you would definitely have a thriller of time among you marine safaris in South Africa.
5. Kayaking with Dolphins
For people who want to get some exercise in and do not mind a good work out, you could sign up for a kayak tour in Cape Town. Our pick was to do so with Kaskazi Kayaks.
During this 2 hours long kayak, you would not only be able to witness a glimpse of dolphins and other marine animals swimming around you. This is done while you kayak right next to the magnificent Table Mountain. With the splendid views on offer, the guide will guide you to the mid-point before taking a u-turn back to shore.
You need to have good fitness to do this! Out of all the marine safaris in South Africa, this was by far the most tiring one which was more like a sport than tour.
Even though we were tired with the non-stop paddling about half an hour in, we still had to carry on kayaking to keep in touch with the pace of the group. You would need to do this for 2 hours! We were so tired we could barely react fast enough for a photo of the dolphins and penguins swimming beside us.
You do not need to have previous experience with kayaking, but swimming abilities are a must even though you would be on lifejackets. This is because the tour actually brings you quite far away from shore and for your own safety, make sure you can swim well.
6. Penguins at Boulder Beach
It would be best to include this marine safari when you are doing your must-see Cape Peninsula tour. Along the way, you would pass by Simon’s Town, the home of Boulder Beach. A small conversation fee is needed to enter the area.
Wandering freely around the beach, the penguin colony has settled down here since the 1980s. You could take a short walk or a longer hike around the park which is made up of broadways, and penguins may pop out from everywhere!
Do take note that you are not allowed to touch or come into direct contact with the penguins as they are a part of the Marine Protected Area.
For a clearer and up-close view, you should attempt to reach Foxy Beach from one of the broadways.
The penguins have their nest sites at Foxy Beach, and a viewing platform here gives you an elevated view of the penguins socializing. If it is wintertime and you are lucky, you may even spot migrating humpback and Southern Right whales in the bay.
7. Cage Diving with the Great White Sharks
I believe everyone would have seen a movie or a show or two about the dangers of the Great White Sharks. Compared to a regular shark, they are often considered as the most fearsome creature to find yourself within the ocean. This was supposed to be the most thrilling marine safaris in South Africa together with Crocodile Cage Diving.
We had booked our Great White Shark Tour with Shark Cage Diving by Brian Mcfalane. Rated as one of the top few cage diving tours in Gansbaai, we anticipated the best that would come with the trip.
Gansbaai is considered the top spot for sightings of Great White Shark, and is routinely termed as ” Shark Alley”. There was no better way to experience a Great White Shark up close than here!
Yet we were caught with some pretty bad news during our shark snorkeling tour earlier in Aliwal Shoal. It had come to the light of shark divers, that Great White Shark sighting has been reduced to almost zero in ‘Shark Alley’, Gansbaai, in the past few days.
A Great White Shark carcass was also found on the shore. The resulting investigation was that the presence of Orcas had appeared, more commonly known as the killer whale, and they were feasting on the Great Whites.
I hoped in anticipation that our tour would go on.
One day before our trip, we received a message from Shark Cage Diving that the news was confirmed and sightings are indeed down to a few over the week. We could still take the chance to go ahead with the trip, and as the website had promised previously if there were no sightings, we would have a full-money-back guarantee.
Very disappointed, but nonetheless we decided to take our chances with nothing to lose.
We were up early at 4 am where a van picked us up from Cape Town and dropped us off at Gansbaai. Here we were served a sumptuous buffet breakfast before our briefing. The boat that we boarded was spacious, and also loaded with snacks and drinks. The service was splendid just like the reviews described.
After a short bumpy boat ride, one of the workers proceeded to throw a special chum mixture into the ocean. This was, as a read, a mixture of fish guts and other fishy part, all designed to attract the Great Whites to our boat.
Instructions was given on how we were to be deployed. We would simply enter the cage in about groups of 4. We would be able to breathe when we stand straight. Just like the Crocodile Cage Diving, all we had to do was to hold our breathe and lower ourselves down underwater for the sightings.
Yet it was really not our day! The water was very murky and as much as the guide tried to use the chum to attract the sharks, we did not get any to come at all. One Great White did appear around one hour into the trip, but it was only for a sporadic moment and it left afterso.
I had read that the week that I was there, was also the exact week that begun a long disappearance act by the Great White Sharks in Gansbaai. Since then, the Great Whites sightings have never fully recovered. Recent checks also show that many of the cage diving companies do not offer money-back guarantee anymore.
It was indeed a near-perfect trip with perfect weather so far. I was able to complete all my marine safaris in South Africa, yet this one came up short. It highlighted to me how unpredictable wildlife is, and we have got to appreciate the chance for any beautiful sightings that come our way.
Fortunately, the news is that Great White Sharks sightings are still present, and copper sharks are more of the frequent sightings now.
Dave Bouskill and Debra Corbei of the Planetd and Matthew of Expert Vagabound has a fantastic write up with pictures on their lucky sightings of the Great White Sharks. They had done their dives with White Shark Projects and Marine Dynamics, both reputable companies in the region which you could also choose from. Do give their successful trip a read-up.
8. Whale Watching
Within a short 1.5 hours drive away from Capetown is Hermanus, one of the best spots worldwide for whale watching. Whale watching season though, only runs from June to October, with good sightings only really springing up in July. As such, I missed participating in the sightings as my trips have always not met the months.
That said, if you are lucky and you happen to be in Capetown or traveling along the Garden Route, this would be a great addition to your marine safaris in South Africa.
You could either do a tour with one of the more popular cruises, Southern Right Charters , where they would take you to Walker Bay where the whales are commonly spotted. Or you could even splurge a bit to go all aerial with Oceans Africa or Percy Tours where you would be taken on a helicopter ride and fly ride above the whales.
Marine Safaris in South Africa, unlike land safaris, allows you the opportunity to dive and swim right next to the marine animals. This is to the point where they can even brush or touch you. Land safaris on the other hand, would only allow you to be up-close via your vehicle at most.
As such, the thrill that comes with participating in marine safaris in South Africa is unlike those on land. Being able to venture into the marine animal’s habitat and partake in their movements together brings you into nature on another level.
That said, as mentioned before, the ocean is a vast mystery. It is unpredictable and many occurrences are not seen by our naked eye. Sightings are more infrequent and seasonal.
Events like the famous Sardine Run (commonly known as the great marine migration) only occurs between May to July, while Whale Watching season is only between June to October. Sometimes you may get unlucky and Orcas will drive away your Great White Shark sightings like me!
With some luck and some detailed planning of season, you can definitely increase your chances of experiencing the best marine safaris in South Africa.
Are there any other methods or spots that could increase your chance of better Marine Safaris that I have missed out? Together with those who were lucky to experience the Great White Shark cage diving or the Sardine Run recently, do comment, share, and fill us with more travel tips.