10 Amazing Wildlife Experiences in and Around Cape Town
By Philip Briggs | Updated March 09, 2021
People don’t think of Cape Town as a wildlife destination. Although it boasts a stunning location at the base of Table Mountain, South Africa’s oldest and most beautiful city is best known for its superb beaches, rich cultural life, fascinating historic sites, bountiful vineyards and breathtaking viewpoints.
But, while Cape Town barely features when it comes to Big Five safaris, it is a great base for a wide range of incredible wildlife encounters. Many of these focus on marine creatures such as whales, dolphins, seals, sharks and penguins, but the terrestrial fauna of the Cape Peninsula also includes zebras, hippos, antelope, small carnivores and hundreds of different types of bird. What’s more, if you really want to tag a condensed malaria-free Big Five experience onto a Cape Town holiday, there’s always the Aquila Private Game Reserve, an admittedly rather contrived setup that nevertheless delivers when it comes to ticking off iconic large mammals.
Swim with Penguins at Boulders Beach
On land, African penguins are among the most comical of birds, waddling around like drunken tuxedoed waiters as they emit the loud braying call alluded to in their alternative name, jackass penguin. They’re altogether more graceful and impressive when they torpedo through the ocean to hunt down the fish on which they prey. You can see these likeable creatures in terrestrial and marine action at Boulders Beach, home to a penguin colony that established itself in the 1980s and now comprises at least 3,000 individuals. Although the colony is fenced off below a viewing platform, penguins often swim in the public beaches either side of it.
Hang with hyraxes on Table Mountain
Known locally as dassies, hyraxes are endearing guineapig-like creatures that weigh up to 10lb and divide their time between sunbathing languorously on the rocks and nibbling on the grass and leaves that form their main diet. Despite their unassuming appearance, hyraxes are relics of an ancient line of ungulates that dominated the African herbivore niche prior to the emergence of antelope, and their closest living relatives are probably elephants. Small families of these entertaining and photogenic creatures are often seen scurrying around the top of the Table Mountain cableway, where they’ve become very habituated to people.
Cruise from Hout Bay to the Cape’s largest seal colony
An estimated 75,000 Cape fur seals make their home on Duiker Island, an otherwise bleak rocky outcrop set 4 miles off the Cape Peninsula’s Atlantic seaboard. Setting foot on the island is forbidden, but boat cruises from Hout Bay allow you get close enough to enjoy the seals’ antics. Confusingly, the name duiker (a Dutch word meaning ‘diver’) has nothing to do with the antelope of that name, but refers to the diving ability of the seals – or possibly to the three species of cormorant that cohabit the island.
Look for aquatic birds in Rondevlei Bird Sanctuary
More than 230 bird species have been recorded in this small but tranquil wetland reserve on the Cape Flats east of Table Mountain. Pelicans, spoonbills, herons, grebes and many other aquatic species can be seen from a well-marked network of walking trails punctuated by hides and a viewing tower. Listen out for the grunting of hippos, which were introduced in 1982 to curb the spread of invasive grasses. Smaller mammals include the lynx-like caracal, a tiny antelope called the Cape grysbok, and various mongooses.
Watch whales breach from the cliffs of Walker Bay
June to November is whale season. This is when southern right whales migrate from their feeding grounds near Antarctica to breed and calve in a few select bays hugging the Western Cape mainland. The whales are often seen around Cape Town, especially in the sheltered waters of False Bay, but there’s no finer place in the world for land-based whale-watching than the more southeasterly Walker Bay. Here, the quaint small town of Hermanus offers clifftop views of mama whales and their enormous calves basking in the bays below, as well as oceanic cruises to see these magnificent marine mammals breach and lobtail in the open water.
Explore endemic fynbos flora and fauna in the Cape of Good Hope
The Cape of Good Hope sector of Table Mountain National Park protects a biodiverse tract of fynbos (a heath-like vegetation type unique to the Western Cape) at the southern tip of the Cape Peninsula. A key component of the Cape Floral Kingdom UNESCO World Heritage site, this pedestrian-friendly reserve is best known for the stunning cliffs and lighthouse at windswept Cape Point, which is also a good spot to lookout for pelagic birds. Fynbos endemics that roam the reserve range from Cape mountain zebra, bontebok and Cape grysbok to the long-tailed Cape sugarbird and dazzling orange-breasted sunbird, both of which feed on the nectar of proteas. This is probably the only place in Africa where you might see ostriches – the world’s largest bird – scuttling along a sandy beach.
Marvel at the diverse marine creatures in Two Oceans Aquarium
Probably the finest aquarium in Africa, this child-friendly landmark in the popular Victoria & Albert Waterfront is home to a unique kelp forest, as well as seals and penguins, giant rays and sharks, and all manner of smaller and more colorful marine wonders.
Cage dive with great white sharks in False Bay
The great white shark is the ultimate marine predator. Up to 20 foot long and occasionally weighing more than 10,000lb, this terrifying creature feeds mainly on seals and other large marine animals, but it also has a reputation as a rapacious maneater. The best – and safest – way to see these toothy apex predators is a caged shark dive in False Bay, where large numbers of great whites often congregate to hunt in and around the aptly named Seal Island. Dives usually operate from mid-May to mid-September only.
See up to 5 dolphin species on an Ocean Safari
Highly intelligent and playful, dolphins are often seen in pods of more than 100 individuals, jumping through the waves or following in the wake of a motorboat. The waters around Cape Town are home to five different species: bottlenose and humpback dolphins are most common in False Bay, while dusky and Heaviside’s dolphins prefer the cooler and choppier Atlantic coastline, and common dolphins tend to thrive further out to sea. Dolphin sightings are almost guaranteed on an ocean safari out of Cape Town. With luck, you might see the rest of the so-called Marine Big Five: seals, whales, penguins and the heavyweight sunfish.
Join a safari to Aquila Private Game Reserve
If it’s the conventional Big Five you’re hoping to see, the nearest venue to Cape Town is family-friendly Aquila, set in the arid Karoo 100 miles inland along the N1 highway. Aquila is a somewhat artificial and populist setup, closer in spirit to a European safari park than it is to the likes of the Kruger National Park. That said, the reserve’s confined nature means that you’re almost certain to see elephant, buffalo, rhino and lion, and the mountainous Karoo landscape is surprisingly authentic. A selection of all-inclusive day and overnight packages from Cape Town make it easy to add Aquila to your itinerary at short notice.