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Seal snorkeling in Hout Bay, Cape Town

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Snorkeling with Southern Africa’s famous Cape Fur Seals is one of the loveliest adventures in Cape Town! The nimble water pups twirl and race in the water, billowing bubbles behind them. They’re playful and energetic, and while sluggish on land, fantastically graceful in the water.

You can come across seals while snorkeling or freediving on your own, but this post is specifically about the guided seal snorkeling experience in Hout Bay. Because not only are guided tours the best way to be sure to see the seals, it’s also usually the most responsible option, as your guides have a lot more knowledge and experience with these beautiful creatures and their natural habitat.

This post includes our experience of the seal snorkeling, along with some information on these seals, the best time to go, and tips for responsible snorkeling. So that you can have the best experience possible – and so can the seals!

A bit about the Cape Fur Seal

All of the seals you find in South Africa are Cape Fur Seals. They’re native to our coast – and not dropped off here a couple centuries ago and overbred since.

These sea pups are actually not ‘true seals’, as they have external ears and a few other modifications that separate them from true seals – and allow them to move about much more easily on land.

About 2 million of these seals live along the coast of Southern Africa in both small and large colonies. Like all ocean life, they are affected by the overfishing and habitat destruction that threatens the natural world. But they have few predators, and Southern Africa’s marine life remains relatively strong, and therefore they continue to thrive.

Male Cape fur seals are about double the size of the far more delicate-looking females. It takes the males four to five years to mature, and females three to four. While you may struggle to distinguish the young males from the females, you’ll definitely be able to see who is a fully grown male!

Best time to go seal snorkeling

Because of their breeding patterns, we know that young seal pups start to venture out into the water around March – so the ideal time to go is in April – May! The young seals are incredibly active and graceful in the water, and they love to twist and twirl in the water. They also like an audience!

We found, when we went, that the young pups would lock eyes with us and twirl, and the guides told us to twirl in response. And with this little confirmation, the pups would keep up the acrobatics, often leaping out of the water and whirling to the depths again, streams of bubbles following them.

April/May is also when Autumn sets in, and it’s better to avoid the sunniest time of year for this experience. Of course, it’s worthwhile whatever the time of year, as your gear is warm and the seals stay throughout the seasons. They also take years to reach full maturity, so you’ll see youths throughout the year.

Tips for responsible snorkeling

When we join the seals in the water, it’s very important to be safe and responsible. The ocean is facing unprecedented damage and we don’t want to add to that – and our opportunity to witness the seals in their natural habitat shouldn’t damage that same habitat.

So, what should we keep in mind?

  1. Choose a responsible snorkeling tour – Some tours are focused on sustainable practices and protecting the environment, while others only focus on the money – while you can’t always be sure, a good sign is if they refer to responsible practices on their website, and receive good reviews.
  2. Don’t touch the seals – This is the most important thing to keep in mind – the aim is always to have the least impact possible on our surroundings when snorkeling, so while it’s fine to swim around with the seals, don’t try to touch them, as this can lead to stress, lessened attentiveness to predators, etc.
  3. Don’t try to chase the seals around
  4. Switch the boat off when you near the seals’ habitat – Guided tours will do this themselves, but it’s a good thing to be conscious about.
  5. Do not feed the seals – Again, this is something avoided in guided tours, but if you’re ever snorkeling on your own, keep in mind that feeding animals changes their natural behaviours and does more harm than good.
  6. Take away plastic and rubbish when you see it – This is one way we can have a positive impact while snorkeling! You can easily swim the rubbish over to the boat before heading back to the seals.
  7. No souvenirs – The rubbish and the memories should be the only things you take away with you.

Seal snorkeling Cape Town | The experience

If you want to know more about what to expect from the actual seal snorkeling experience, read on!

Getting your gear on

Getting your gear on for the snorkeling experience is surprisingly tricky! In addition to a nice thick wetsuit, you’re provided with a rash vest for extra warmth, with a fitted hood to keep brain freeze at bay, booties, gloves, flippers, and of course, goggles and snorkel.

You’ll put all the bulky things on before you get on the boat, but be sure to keep as much of it as possible rolled down or off till you’re ready to tip into the water. Even in winter the sun is quite strong, and you can start to feel like you’re boiling in that suit. So definitely keep your head and hands bare, at the minimum.

Boat trip out to Duiker Island

Once you’re all kitted, it’s time to head out to Duiker Island! We loved this part of the experience. You can see Hout Bay and the iconic Chapman’s Peak stretching out as you leave the bay behind. Seals laze in the sun even here, and fish can often be seen darting around.

As you round the bay, the Sentinel’s sheer cliff face comes into view, looking so much starker and larger than it does from land. And then, the seals!

Swimming with the seals

When the boat has stopped you’ll fit the last of your gear on, take a sip of water, and then tip over the edge of the boat and into the water! Then you have about an hour to swim around with the seals and watch them darting about. You can swim relatively close to the rocky island, but the guides will help you stay a couple of meters away, for your safety and the seal’s comfort.

When we went, we ordered the GoPro camera addition, so that we could document the fun. It was great to capture some of the acrobatics, while also spending some time without the camera. The seals really do watch you with curiosity, and it’s quite something to be able to look into their giant brown eyes without distractions.

I got a bit seasick from bobbing about in the water. So, if you have any tendency to get seasick, I recommend taking a pill for that!

Heading back with some hot chocolate and happiness

Once you’ve had your fill of snorkeling and seal-watching, it’s back onto the boat. You’ll slowly head back, watching the seal-covered island again, and then have the bay open back up as you round the corner.

We had lots of water and hot chocolate and cookies on the boat, which is just wonderful to recover from all the saltwater you’ve accidentally sucked up.

Last thoughts on snorkeling with seals

So, now you know everything you need to about this wonderful immersive experience! Of course, you’ll still need to find out what to bring and how much it costs, but that changes with the season and you can find the info you need here.

For more, check out my post on fun things to do in Hout Bay. And let me know if you go seal snorkeling and if you enjoy it! Despite my bit of seasickness, I thought it was just magical.

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