Hout Bay originally named Houtbaai (Wood Bay) by Dutch Settlers due to the surrounding wooded valley, has changed from being a small fishermen's village to a bustling little tourist town with fairy tale harbour views. This scenic village is located between the magnificent Chapman's Peak and a wide bay, just twenty-five minutes south of central Cape Town.
As Hout Bay is within an enclave, the water at the beach is very calm, ideal for a swim or stand-up paddle on those hot summer days. Go for a stroll along the waterfront to Bay Harbour and you'll find a diverse marketplace with over one hundred stalls, offering regional art and handicrafts as well as fresh seafood and organic produce. This market is open Fridays to Sundays and closed on public holidays.
Our charter boat and a visitor - Images: Elaine de Wet
Today, Hout Bay is the popular port of departure for scenic day trips to Seal Island, home to a colony of thousands of Cape Fur Seals. You can get to see the fur seals lounging around on the rocks, snorting and groaning with the larger males competing aggressively for dominance and others sliding off into the cold waters with fins held high as if waving to passing boats.
Breeding time for Cape Fur seals is usually during November/December but on Seal Island you can mainly see male seals waiting to 'come of age' for breeding. Seal Island is not a breeding colony as the waters around the island are very rough, which is risky as seal pups will be washed away. Cape Fur seals are found nowhere else in the world except around the southern African coastline. Seal Island lies within the Karbonkelberg marine protected area which is part of Table Mountain National Park.
There are a multitude of boat charters through to Seal Island, so one can shop around the harbour and most companies are quite negotiable due to the heavy competition. The cruises can vary from forty minute trips to an hour.
We booked our cruise tickets with Nauticat Charters, who were slightly more expensive at R80 ($8) per person, but were hoping that as the boat looked well maintained and was a bit bigger than the rest, we wouldn't be too affected by the rough seas once we ventured out of the harbour.
Once your tickets are booked, roam around the harbour. You'll come across seals happy to pose for photos (for a small donation to the men feeding them) - seals that I initially thought were statues, they were that still. Or browse the markets across the strip, and if you have time, grab a coffee.
Our charter cruise left on time and we were treated to stunning views of The Sentinel en route to Seal Island. On reaching our destination (which only takes about 20 minutes) the boat stopped so that we could admire the zillions of seals, all happy to interact with visitors. These seals are completely wild, not fed or trained.
One must remember that this is Great White Shark territory and I can only imagine there would be a feeding frenzy of seals, should one of these monsters of the deep decide to show itself. You can therefore understand my desire to obtain a sea-worthy, well maintained charter so as not to become shark-fodder ourselves. Though in expressing my fears, I must mention that according to those in the know, apparently Seal Island is not known for any Great White shark activity as it is surrounded by very cold water (8C - 15C) and shallow kelp forests, which is apparently a deterrent to Great Whites. I wasn't taking any risks.
Snorkellers braving the cold water - Image: Elaine de Wet
We were treated to the sight of a couple of inflatable boats with snorkellers, who were braving the freezing cold water, determined to enjoy their adventure of being nose-to-nose with these playful and inquisitive seals. Yep, people even pay for this adventure it seems. Animal Ocean are the seal snorkelling experts in Hout Bay and charge R800 ($80) per person for you to get up close and personal with the seals in their natural habitat.
On disembarking we were treated to some Cape Minstrels singing and dancing - a colourful sight of local, talented artists.
Hout Bay is famous for some of the best fish and chips in and around Cape Town. So, only having spent an hour or so on the charter to Seal Island, we were left with plenty of time to browse around and find the perfect place to have a seafood lunch. Watch this space for great spots to eat in Hout Bay.
An adventurous cruise to see the Cape Fur seals on Seal Island is definitely one to bookmark. The fact that it's inexpensive and in a stunning location makes it all the more worthwhile.