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Meet the ‘Marine Big 5’ in South Africa

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Devryn Panaino

Safari Travel Planner

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 Devryn Panaino

Author: Devryn Panaino - 3 November 2023

Last Update: 26 April 2024

South Africa’s oceans, the warmer Indian and the cold Atlantic are both treasure troves of marine biodiversity, offering spectacular viewing opportunities for marine wildlife enthusiasts. South Africa’s coastal waters hold a rich diversity of species of which the ‘Marine Big 5’, a term coined in SA, are the most high-profile. This particularly illustrious company is made up of:

  • The southern right whale
  • The great white shark
  • The African penguin
  • The Cape fur seal
  • The bottlenose dolphin

Here are some insights into these extraordinary animals:

Southern Right Whale (Eubalaena australis)

These large, social, stately creatures can often be seen along the South African coastline. Their stocky black bodies can reach lengths of up to 56 feet/17 metres. Figures regarding their weight vary, but suffice it to say that they can weigh over 170,000 pounds, or close on 80 tons. Females are slightly larger than males, and have a gestation period of 12 months.

Southern Right Whales Spotted in Hermanus

These magnificent heavyweights of the sea can live up to 100 years and are known for their amazing breaching displays and the distinctive callosities on their heads. They don’t have teeth, but are filter feeders that use baleen plates with bristles to feed on zooplankton consisting of tiny fish and minute crustaceans like copepods, krill, and pteropods.

Habitat: The southern oceans, in which they travel vast distances between South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Chile. They’re frequently spotted along the Western Cape coast, particularly off the charming seaside town of Hermanus.

The town has become a prominent whale-watching destination for whale-watching enthusiasts from all over the world anxious to see these gentle giants in their natural habitat. Hermanus hosts a Whale Watching Festival in September each year. It even has its own permanent ‘Whale Crier’ who blows a kelp horn to signal when the whales are spotted!

Interesting Fact: Right whales rather grimly got their name as they were considered the ‘right’ whales to hunt because they float when killed and have a high blubber content!

Great White Shark (Carcharodon carcharias)

Great whites are our planet’s top and largest predatory fish, and are endangered. South Africa is one of the best places to see and even dive with them. Named for the pearly white colour of their undersides, they are slate-grey in colour.

Great whites are known for their great size, and their only predators are orcas. Average lengths for males vary between 3.4 – 4.0 m or 11 – 13 ft. Females are bigger, and average lengths range between 4.6 – 4.9 m, or 15 – 16 ft. Great whites breathe through gills and are believed capable of detecting a single drop of blood half a kilometre away! They’re endothermic, and are crucial for maintaining the ecological balance of the seas.


These fearsome stealth hunters normally attack at high speed from below their prey. They are so powerful that they can fling their entire 680 -1,110 kg/1,500 – 2,450 lb bodies clear out of the water! And their teeth? No fewer than 300, 2.5-inch-long serrated teeth that continuously regrow, are set in seven rows. Yikes!

Habitat: Great whites are found in all the oceans except Antarctica and the Arctic. They feed on seals, sea lions, tuna, rays, dolphins, squid, turtles, even other sharks and dead whales. In South Africa they are predominantly seen along the Western Cape at Gansbaai, Hermanus, Mossel Bay, and False Bay due to the abundant supply of Cape fur seals.

Interesting Fact: Apart from their exceptional sense of smell, great whites also have the ability to detect the electromagnetic fields emitted by their prey.

African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus)

This charismatic, endangered and protected species is known for its loud donkey-like bray, hence its previous name, the jackass penguin. International tourists flock to the Cape to see them. African penguins are flightless and have distinctive black and white plumage. Their streamlined bodies, thick coats of feathers and modified wings/flippers equip them superbly for the sea.

They have black webbed feet, a short tail, strong black bill, distinctive pink patches above their eyes and a unique, distinguishing pattern of black spots on their white chests. Adults weigh from 2.2 – 3.5 kg (6 – 9 lbs) and their height varies from about 60 – 70 cm, or 24 – 27 inches. Though clumsy on land they are streamlined little torpedoes at sea speeding along at up to 20 km/h/12 mph.

African penguin at Stoney Point penguin colony in Betts Bay.
African penguin at Stoney Point penguin colony in Betts Bay, South Africa.

They feed on sardines, pilchards, anchovies, herrings, horse mackerel, squid and crustaceans. They breed throughout the year, and incubation duties are shared by both partners who both have a breeding pouch. African penguins moult once a year.

Habitat: They occur only along the southern African coastal areas from the central Namibian coast to Algoa Bay in the Eastern Cape. They like both sandy, flat areas, or steep, rocky sites with vegetation. There are famous populations at Betty’s Bay, Foxy Beach, Boulders Beach and False Bay on the Southern Peninsula. They’ve even colonised some of Simonstown’s suburban gardens!

Interesting Fact: African penguins are monogamous. Breeding pairs return to the same nest, usually a burrow under vegetation or a rock, or a man-made nest, every year.

Cape Fur Seal (Arctocephalus pusillus)

These captivating, energetic, graceful and playful creatures are a great attraction in the Cape. They’re the only seals native to the southern African coastline. They have powerful fore flippers, rotational back flippers, a substantial layer of subcutaneous fat and an exceptionally thick double coat of fur.

These characteristics equip them superbly for the sea where they are extraordinarily graceful and agile. They spend most of their time at sea feeding on fish, crustaceans and squid. They mate and raise their young on land in approximately 25 breeding colonies along the South African coast. Males are much bigger than females and can weigh in at a whopping 360 kg (over 700 lbs), while females only weigh about 75 kg (just over 160 lbs).

Cape fur seals skeleton coast
Cape fur seals Skeleton Coast

The bulls come ashore in October to establish territories. They’re joined in November by about 50 females (their ‘harem’!) that are already pregnant, soon give birth, and then mate with the bull again. The adorable and completely dependent seal pups are fed on some of the richest milk in the world. Their main predators are orcas and great white sharks, though on land Namibia’s desert lions, hyenas and jackals also prey on them.

Habitat: They’re found in colonies on rocky shorelines and islands from Algoa Bay in South Africa to Cape Fria on the Namibian coast. These include a large colony on Seal Island in False Bay in the Western Cape.

Interesting Fact: Cape fur seals are curious, friendly and intelligent creatures who’ll often interact with snorkellers and divers. But watch your fingers – they can nip!

Common Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus)

Known for their intelligence, playful behaviour and interaction with humans, bottlenose dolphins are a joy to observe in their natural habitats as they ‘surf’ the breakers. They occur all over the world, but some of the best sightings are off South Africa which has some of the most stringent conservation laws in the world to protect them.

Bottlenoses are the most numerous dolphin species off the South African coast. Their name derives from their shortish beak-like snouts or nostrums. These streamlined slender grey mammals can grow to about 2.5 m/8 ft in length, and weigh in at about 275 kg or 600 lbs. They live for about 40 years, and live in female-led pods that can vary greatly in size.

During the annual ‘Sardine Run’ in South Africa in May – July, enormous pods of dolphins are seen leaping the waves as they follow the shoals of sardines. Their main predators are various shark species and orcas.

Habitat: They’re found all over the world in tropical and temperate waters. In coastal waters they live in harbours, gulfs, estuaries, and bays, as well as in deeper waters. They’re frequently seen along the South African coast, with prominent sightings in Plettenberg Bay in particular, as well as along the Garden Route.

Interesting Fact: They behave in a friendly and curious way towards researchers and tourists, and will often surf the bow waves of boats.

The Marine Big 5 in South Africa are all draw cards that boost South African tourism and act as amazing ambassadors for the country. Many excellent safari tours offer both locals and tourists the chance to engage with these marine creatures in a meaningful and exciting way.

As acknowledged African safari experts, Discover Africa has long supported sustainable and responsible tourism to conserve our stunning wildlife for future generations. Contact us to arrange an unforgettable safari experience to meet our magnificent ‘Marine Big 5’!

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