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Category » Cape Towns Attractions Whales and Dolphins of Cape Town and South Africa

November 29, 2018

Whales and Dolphins

These magnificent creatures have ruled the oceans for many of years and man has always been fascinated by the intelligence of these deep water creatures. Whales and Dolphins are mammals, sharks are species of fish.

Dolphins are classified as small whales. The biggest mammal is the blue whale at about 26metres long. Many years ago these fascinating mammals belonged to ancestors that lived on land, but because of spending much of their lives at sea their bodies have adapted to living in Ocean water.

Whales and Dolphins both need to come to the water surface for breathing air, and because of this they need to hold their breath for a long time under water before returning to the water surface for air. Bigger whales can hold their breath for over an hour.

Whales and Dolphins are known as cetaceans. Cetaceans are not fish but rather mammals, they are warm blooded animals with backbones and feed their young with their own milk. The coast of Cape Town is popular for whale watching. There are approximately 79 species of cetaceans around the world, but only about thirty eight are found in South African waters.

Cetaceans rely on their sharp sense of hearing, even though they have ears that are tiny holes on either side behind their eyes. These big mammals send out sound waves, where they whistle and make clicking sounds which reflects as echoes from objects around them. Hearing these sound waves the cetaceans can tell the size, texture, shape of objects and whether or not it is food, this is called echolocation.

Although its not common, a number of our guests have spotted whales at Cape Point on our Guided Tours.

During Whale Spotting season in Hermanus, Cape Coastal Tours can schedule a fully guided private tour to spot whales along the blue flag beaches of Hermanus


Whales have a thick layer of fat called blubber under their skin. This helps store food during long migration and to keep the body warm in icy seas. There torpedo-shaped bodies are propelled by their powerful broad tail-fin which helps them to move through the water and their flippers help them to steer for direction.

Whales are born tail first so that they do not drown. They rise to the sea surface to breathe air through their nostrils, known as blowholes on the tip of their head. Warm air is forced out their lungs through the blow holds. Moisture condenses as it meets the cool atmosphere and a "spout" of what looks like a spray rises into the air. This spray is not water, but a cloud of steam.

There are only some whales which have teeth, other whales have comb-like filters, and these are called baleen plates, which hang from their huge upper jaws. They then gulp in water and then squirt it out again, trapping the krill and straining the plankton against the baleen. Whales with teeth use their teeth to catch fish or squid which they swallow whole.

Sometimes whales swim to the beach. The animal suffocate because their lungs cannot expand when their heavy bodies collapse and they then die. Some whales will often leap clear of the water surface before twisting and crash-diving into the water.

These whales are seen near the coast of Cape Town:

The Blue Whale:-The largest commonly found mammal that feeds on krill weighs up to 110 ton and reaches 26 metres in length. They are found in the ocean all over the world, but is seldom seen. The long torpedo-shaped bodies are bluish-grey in colour.

Humpback Whale:- This mammal eats mackerel, sardines and krill and can weigh up to 40 ton and reach a length of 15-16 metres, and is a fast swimmer. The body is dark grey in colour with a pointed snout and it has fleshy knobs with a larger coloured chin, flukes and throat. They are seasonally common, found mostly in cold waters and breeds in warmer waters. These whales leap out of the water and land back with a big splash known as breaching.

Southern Right Whale:- This whale also feeds on small creatures like krill. They can weigh up to 60 ton and a length of 17 metres. They are rare mammals, but seasonally common. They are huge dark-grey with white patches of thick skin called callosities, these are found above the eye and on both jaws.

Bryde’s whale:-This mammal is smaller than most whales and feed on krill, small fish and squid. They weigh approximately 13ton and are 13 metres in length. They are locally common and are blue-grey colour with a lighter belly.

Sperm Whale:-This whale is found in deep waters and is 16 metres in length. It is long with a blue grey body. This whale is commonly found in deep waters and feed mainly on fish and giant squid.

Southern bottle nose whale:- These are found mostly in deep waters. They are 7 metres in length and can weigh up to 3 ton. There upper parts are dark fawn and under parts are light grey. They eat squid, Cuttlefish and Herring.

Blainville’s Beaked Whale:- These mammals are found mostly in warmer deep tropical waters. They weigh 1 ton and can reach a length of about 4.7 meters. They eat squid and fish. These mammals are grey in colour and usually have permanent body scars from fighting predators.

Melon-headed Whale:- These whales are fund in warm and cool waters. They are locally rare and feed on fish and squid and also attack small dolphins. They weigh up-to 180kg and reach lengths of 1.8meters. They are long and dark grey in colour with white lips and a patch of white on their chest.

Pygmy Killer Whale:- these whales are rare and eat squid and fish. They are found in warm waters and weighs up-to 225kg, they reach lengths of 2,5meters. Their bodies are dark grey to almost black in colour and are long and slim. They have light lips and a white patch on the belly and also throat.

Orca or Killer Whale:- These are the largest mammal of the dolphin family and the only one to prey on other mammals. They reach to approximately 8-9 meters and can weigh up to 8 ton. They are found worldwide. They feed on other dolphins, seals, birds, turtles and even sharks. They have a rounded dark body and a white belly with white patches on each side of the head. They may beach to attack seals and even attack baleen whales.

Short-fin Pilot Whale:- These mammals are classified a large dolphins. They reach the length of 6 meters and can weigh up to 3 ton. They feed on fish and squid and are found in warm waters. They are long and fat with a grey throat. Not really spotted close to Cape Town.

Whale Hunting This was once a very important industry in the past to fulfil basic survival needs. Whale blubber ‘fat’ was made into oil and commanded at very high prices. Every part of the whale was used after it was hunted. It was even used in soaps, Cosmetics, margarine, perfumes, detergents and the meat was used for human consumption. The oil was used to light lamps to from candle wax. People today don’t rely on whale oil anymore because petroleum is now used. Whale hunting no longer exists.

Dolphins are known as tooth whales, but smaller and their brains are more developed then whales. Dolphins are often seen by the human eye, leaping and diving through the ocean waves. They are often found in large schools, in this way they hunt to find prey and it protects them from predators, like sharks. These mammals feed a few at a time and will take turns to eat a meal. Dolphins use their teeth to catch fish or squid which they swallow whole.

These dolphins are found in South African waters

Bottlenose Dolphin:- This is a commonly found dolphin throughout the world and feeds on small fish, shrimp, squid and even eel. They are grey in colour and has a lighter belly. Their weight can be about 450 kilograms and reach a length of 3, 5 meters. This specific dolphin is known to have good communication skills and is familiar with human interaction.

Humpback Dolphin:- they are rare and vulnerable and found mostly in shallow waters. They feed on estuarine fish and their clear hump on its back makes them easy to distinguish. They are long with dark upper parts and light bellies. Their weight can be up to 280 kilograms and reach a length of 2.8 meters.

Common Dolphin:- these mammals are found throughout the world in both shallow and deep waters. They prey on anchovies, squid and sardines. They are dark grey in colour with some ligther grey and mustard on its sides. They can weigh about 150 kilograms and reach the length of about 2, 5 meters.

Stripped Dolphin:- these mammals are rare but found in deep waters and seldom spotted in South African waters. They are dark blue grey in colour with lighter under parts. They can easily weigh around 130 kilograms and a length of about 2.3 meters. These dolphins feed on fish and squid.

Risso’s Dolphin:- These are found in cool open waters and are common offshore. They are fat mammals weighing about 00 kilograms and about a length of 3 meters. They are also dark grey in colour with a light belly. These dolphins prey on squid and octopus.

Spinner Dolphin:- These dolphins are common throughout the world in warm waters but they too are not spotted in South African waters. They are thin with a dark grey body and a lighter stripe on each side and also a lighter belly. They can easily weigh around 75 kilograms and reaching a length of about 2 meters. These mammals eat off squid and smaller fish. They are known to leap out of the ocean, spin around and land again with a big splash. So you will know one if you should see them.

Spotted Dolphin:- they are common but only spotted in Kwazulu-Natal. They are slim with a darker grey upper covered with dark grey spots and lighter under belly. They weigh up to 95 kilograms and reach the length of 2,3 meters long. These mammals feed on squid and mainly flying fish.

Dusky Dolphin:- These dolphins are only common on the west of Walker Bay in South Africa. They grow to lengths of @ meters and can weigh 110 kilograms. They have a dark upper with a flash of grey on the sides and a white belly. These mammals feed on extremely small fish and also squid.

Fraser’s Dolphin:- these mammals are not commonly seen as they are in warm deep waters. They are blue grey in colour with a grey and dark stripe on either side or light under parts. They can weigh up to 205 kilograms and reach lengths of 2,5 meters. They feed on squid, shrimp and fish.

Heaviside’s Dolphin:- This dolphin is known to be the smallest weighing at about 70 kilograms and only 1.7 meters in length. They are found in cold waters on the Southern and Western coast of South Africa. These dolphins feed on a well-known fish called hake also enjoyed by people. These dolphins are fat and dark grey with black and white side markings.

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