Indo-Pacific Bottlenose, Common and Humpbacked dolphins are all regular visitors to the South African coastline. They do not tend to venture into waters much deeper than 30 metres, which is why human encounters are common. However, Humpbacked dolphins, easily identified by their distinctive hump below the dorsal fin, are a shy species and generally stay away from boats and human activity. The other two species often approach and even seem to relish the interaction, surfing and splashing nearby, playing in the wake of the boats that have come to find them, and generally satisfying their curiosity about human beings!
Plettenberg Bay, along the Garden Route, is a popular dolphin-watching destination and there are numerous places where you can view the creatures from the shore. They can also be seen from the shore in Cape Town – Simon’s Town and False Bay provide a good view. Alternatively, again, you can get closer on a dolphin-watching boat cruise, or by sea-kayaking. It is illegal to swim with dolphins in South Africa, so please avoid operators offering this experience here. Dyer Island, off the coast of Gansbaai, has a resident pod of Humpback dolphins – a highly endangered species. Fur seals also reside in this area and in turn attract sharks, making this a marine safari hotspot!
The annual sardine run, actually an enormous migration of millions of individual silvery pilchards, moving northwards along the east coast from the southern tip of South Africa, occurs from May and throughout July. The sheer size of this event creates a feeding frenzy along the coastline, a spectacle that is now a tourist attraction in its own right – during this two-month period, it is possible to see massive pods of dolphins following the migration! An estimated 18,000 dolphins, mostly the Common dolphin but also some Bottlenose dolphins, are largely responsible for working in teams to herd the sardines into huge bait balls that are 10–20 metres in diameter and extend to a depth of 10 metres, as the tiny fish bunch together for safety in numbers. These balls are short-lived, only lasting for a maximum of 10 minutes or so, but once the fish are rounded up, other predators, such as sharks, game fish and birds, take advantage of the opportunity to do some feasting. Truly one of nature’s greatest shows!