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As much as I love to be in the water, diving in South Africa always tests my limits – it is just too cold for me. When I went back this summer I decided on a different activity instead of diving to get my underwater fix: snorkeling with seals in Cape Town.
Of course, you can also go diving with seals in Cape Town but if you are not a certified scuba diver yet or prefer to stay on the surface in these cold waters, this might just be the thing for you!
The Ins & Outs of snorkeling with seals in Cape Town
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The best time for snorkeling with seals in Cape Town
You can snorkel with seals in Cape Town technically most of the year though I would definitely recommend the summer months – November till March. Or make sure to catch a really nice sunny day when you get into the water in spring or fall. Most seal trips don’t run in the winter between June and August as conditions tend to get too rough.
If you come later in the summer chances are you will get to snorkel with seal pups. In November and December it is mating season and seals can sometimes get a bit aggressive or territorial – when you go with a reputable operator they will make sure that you are safe and don’t get too close.
Here is the bad news: even if you pick the perfect day with good conditions, good visibility, and lots of sunshine the water will still hover somewhere between 10°C and 15°C. Yes, it is bloody cold. But I dare say, it is worth it…
Where to go snorkeling with seals in Cape Town?
Most seal snorkeling trips in Cape Town depart from Hout Bay harbor. Hout Bay is a beautiful coastal suburb and home to Duiker Island.
Duiker Island, Hout Bay lies just outside the bay, about a 5-minute boat ride from the harbor and his home to thousands and thousands of Cape Fur Seals. This is the place where you want to go when snorkeling with seals because there is pretty much no chance not to see at least a few – they are everywhere!
The boats launch from Hout Bay harbor. You will immediately see that seals are a big thing here. There are usually a few lounging on the pier getting fed by local guys, posing for pictures – honestly, it is not something that I support especially as it gives visitors a false sense of safety. Yes, the seals are incredibly cute (they are not called puppies of the sea for nothing!), but they are also big and wild animals.
So I say, rather go snorkel with them or join one of many Seal Island boat trips, Hout Bay. This way you can enjoy them from a little distance without having to get into that icy cold water. You will still get close enough to enjoy their wonderful stench.
Experience Cape Town Bucket List seal snorkeling
There are a few different operators you choose from but I did my seal snorkeling with Cape Town Bucket List and absolutely loved them.
They offer 4 launches per day at 9.30 am, 11 am, 12.30 pm & 2 pm. Each trip takes about 2-2.5 hours while you only get to spend about an hour in the water with the seals. While this may not sound as much, believe me, you will be very glad to be back on board after this time in the water.
Their office is right by the harbor and you will meet here before the trip to get your briefing. You will watch a short video telling you all about the Cape Fur Seals and how the snorkeling will take place. You will also meet one of your guides who will take you over to their gear storage afterward.
You can bring your own gear but otherwise, they will give you all that you need: a 5 mm long wetsuit with a hood, neoprene vest to wear under, and 5 mm booties. They have lockers for your valuables as well as hot showers for after. Once you are geared up you will make your way down to the pier where their zodiac awaits.
Once you are on your way the crew will give you fins, gloves as well a mask, and snorkel. I took my own mask because I think it is more comfortable but the equipment seemed to be in good shape. You can rent a GoPro at an extra charge or simply take your own.
Book your seal snorkeling experience with Cape Town Bucket List here:
What to expect when snorkeling with seals in Cape Town?
When everyone is geared up your skipper will choose a good location and you will jump in the water. Or rather glide. There is no need for a fancy backroll like you would do with scuba diving. Two guides are with you at all times and they know exactly where to snorkel and where not to snorkel. They also carry two buoys just in case and to attract more seal pups who are attracted to the bright yellow and the leash.
Snorkeling is done on the one side of Duiker Island, your guides making sure that you don’t get too close to the rocks, any seal bulls, or Dungeons, an area known for its massive waves and one of the most famous surf spots in the world. They will also guide you through the water to make sure you get as close to the seal action as possible without disturbing them.
The general rule: splash as little as possible and let them come to you. And don’t worry – they will come! Seals are generally playful and curious, all you got to do with wait and keep your camera ready.
You will stay in the water for about an hour. The skipper will function as your seal spotter so you don’t miss any of the action. Once it is time to leave the truly hard part starts: getting back on the boat. Honestly, this was the part I was worried about the most because I remember it from my time when diving in Aliwal Shoal. It is no fun since those rubber ducks don’t have a ladder. Luckily this time around it was super easy and yes, your guides basically pull you back on the boat. I was told if someone has mobility issues they can even get you up with a sling or such.
Back on the boat, the crew shines again as they pour hot water into your wetsuits to warm you up. Then comes the hot chocolate and the cookies as you drive back towards the harbor where a few more lazy seals pose for some final pictures.
FAQ Seal Snorkeling in Cape Town
Do I have to worry about sharks while snorkeling with seals?
Technically one should be worried but for some reason, there have never been shark sightings close to Seal Island. Apparently, there is a natural kelp barrier further behind the rocks which keeps them out. Also this isn’t False Bay, famous for its Great White sightings nor the Sardine Run.
I guess I just had faith that with that many seals around, any shark would go for them rather than me but either way, there was not a shark in sight.
How about the seals, are they dangerous?
I remember my first seal encounter while diving in Cape Town and they come pretty close. Sometimes they like to nibble on fins or anything tangling, but that is about it. As with any wildlife encounter, I keep my hands to myself and don’t touch them. If the animal wants to touch me, so be it.
Seal snorkeling operators don’t chum and encourage you to keep your distance, especially from the bulls. The Cape Fur Seals are quite strong and can get up to 300 kg. But as far as I know, there has never been a serious incident with them. As with any animals you are wise to remember: as cute as they are, they are still wild animals.
How old do you have to be for seal snorkeling?
You have to be 18 years old. Kids can come snorkeling from the age of 10 when accompanied by an adult.
Do I have to know how to swim?
Yes, you do need to know how to swim! Especially since the swell can be a bit rough at times. Your wetsuit will help you with the buoyancy though and the guides can support you if you need to swim a longer distance. This usually happens when the seals are moving to a different part of the island or if the big seal spotting boats come out.
What happens if I get cold?
Chances are, you will get cold. But if you have had enough you can always get back on the boat before the entire group returns, just let your guide know and they will liaise with the skipper. Don’t be stupid like I was and take your hood off. The hood is honestly the best part of your exposure suit and will keep you warm and somewhat toasty all around.
And with Cape Town Bucket List, they have hot water on board to pour in your wetsuit as well as hot chocolate for after your trip!
What is the pink stuff floating in the water?
Honestly, you don’t want to know the answer. I asked while we were in the water and I quickly wished I hadn’t.
It is seal poop. They feed on prawns and these are the leftovers. See, I told you, you didn’t want to know. But now you know and you won’t be able to ever forget. And yes, you can sometimes see whole prawn shells floating around….eeek.
Will I ever be able to get rid of the stink?
You will notice that as soon as you put on your rental wetsuits a certain smell just lingers. My scuba suits have seen a lot of action and they don’t smell like this.
Good news – you only have to put up with it while you snorkel and for a little bit after. Cape Town Bucket List has hot showers on their premises in the harbor and alternatively, you can just take care of it when you get home. I definitely recommend you immediately put your swimming costume in the wash though.
What do I need to bring/wear?
- Swimming costume/ rash guard
- Light towel – check out some great towels for traveling here
- Sunglasses (you can leave these on the boat with the skipper while snorkeling)
- Possibly a sunhat
- GoPro or waterproof case for your phone
- Tips in cash for your guides
- And remember that while the water is cold, South Africa’s sun is strong. Put on reef-friendly sunscreen on your face and hands at least 30 minutes before you get in!
Have you ever snorkeled or dives with seals?