Cape Cross is an overload for the senses. Seals in uncountable thousands. Smell, sound, sight. A constant bleating of animals; an all-pervading scent; a perpetual motion of writhing bodies. Cape Cross is also history; the fleeting foothold of the first Europeans on this desert coast; the site of the first short railway in Namibia. Now it’s a haven for seals.
TRAVEL TIPS - CAPE CROSS:
WHEN TO BE THERE:
• Cape Cross is open to day visitors all year
• Gate times 16 Nov.-30 Jun: 08:00-17:00; Gate times 1 Jul.- 15 Nov: 10:00-17:00
• Seal numbers are highest during the breeding season (Oct.-Jan.)
• Mornings are often foggy, with the sun coming out around midday
WHAT TO DO:
• Spend time watching the behaviour of the seals in the water & on land
• Spot interesting birds, black-backed jackals or even a brown hyaena
• Check out the stone pillars commemorating the Portuguese landing over 500 years ago
• Stop at the historic cemetery or the remnants of the historic railway line
WHAT TO REMEMBER:
• Stick to walkways to minimise disturbance of the seals
• The seals are accustomed to people, but should never be approached or touched
• The smell at such a large seal colony can be very pungent
• Many new-born seals die of natural causes & become part of the food chain
The name Cape Cross comes from the stone cross erected by the Portuguese explorer Diogo Cão in 1486. The cape subsequently became known as Cabo do Padrão and was already labelled as such on maps around 1500. The English version Cape Cross became widespread on maps after 1800.
A small hotel situated in the coastal town of Henties Bay.
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Situated in the beautiful town of Swakopmund, Eagle Eye Aviation offers the best in exclusive and luxury scenic flights across the Skeleton coast and the Namib Desert with sights like Kuiseb Canyon, Sossusvlei and Sandwich Harbour being some of the main a
It’s hard to imagine now, but Cape Cross was once a bustling little town, the economic hub of German South West Africa. The boom was brief, based on guano and seals. Once the resources were exploited, the bustle was gone. Little remains today beyond the faint parallel lines of rusted railway tracks, a few ruins and a cemetery.
‘The Father of History’, the Greek historian Herodotus, who lived in the fourth century before Christ, claimed in The Histories that Phoenician seafarers were the first to circumnavigate Africa around 600 years before the Current Era. The journey was never validated by other historical records. The first Europeans confirmed to have set foot on the southwestern coast of Africa were Portuguese sailors.
Like his predecessors, the Portuguese monarch Dom João II hoped to access African riches while opening a trade route around the continent. He ordered his trusted seafarer Diogo Cão to explore beyond the equator, at the time the furthest latitude of European knowledge of Africa’s Atlantic coast. On his first journey, Cão reached Cape Saint Mary in modern-day Angola in 1483. His second expedition ventured as far as Cape Cross.
Cão erected stone pillars as signs of Portuguese dominion, and placed one at Cape Cross in January 1486 (although the cross bears the inscription 1485). The cross, known in Portuguese as a padrão, was removed by German sailors in 1893 and is housed in a German museum. A simple replica was installed in 1895, and a more realistic version was put up close to the first in 1980.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, numerous German and British vessels explored the southwestern coastline of Africa. They knew of the Portuguese voyages and several reported seeing the padrão at Cape Cross, but weren’t able to land in the often-difficult conditions there. Captain von Raven planted a wooden signboard in the small bay north of the headland to proclaim German occupation of the coast in 1884. While exploring the seaboard in the same year, the German Captain Hoffmann provided the first definite record of seals at Cape Cross. Cape fur seals had already been recorded during Cão’s voyage, but far to the north, with no mention made of them at the peninsula.
In 1894, businessman Ernst Hermann sent the adventurous prospector Walter Matthews to scout for resources along the coast north of Swakopmund. Reaching Cape Cross, Matthews immediately saw the potential of the seal colony, as well as the guano deposits he found nearby. News of the riches spread and a settlement quickly grew to exploit them. This included a police station and customs office, one of the first regional post offices, and the first short stretch of railway line in the colony, built to transport guano to the beach. Numerous ships anchored nearby to load the harvests. For a brief time, Cape Cross became the busiest economic location in the German colony. Yet the guano was depleted by 1903 and the settlement soon stagnated. Only sealing continued intermittently, and a small annual quota is still harvested today under the auspices of the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources.
To stand at Cape Cross, looking out across one of the largest seal colonies along the southern African coast, and consider that the first Europeans known to have set foot on these shores landed here over 500 years ago – and apparently did not encounter any seals – puts our environmental outlook into perspective. Conservation must be seen in the context of history.
It’s impossible to accurately reconstruct the population numbers of Cape fur seals prior to the start ofcommercial utilisation, which began over 400 years ago. Massive exploitation of the seals, as well as of whales, soon led to population crashes. The estimated number of Cape fur seals had plummeted below 100,000 animals prior to 1900. This finally led to formal protection by the Cape Colony in 1893.
While whale populations have struggled to recover, seals have made an astounding comeback. Protected from human disturbance, a number of mainland seal colonies soon developed. After the discovery of diamonds near Lüderitz in 1908, the southern coast of South West Africa was declared a restricted area with no public access, enabling the establishment of several seal colonies here.
Cape Cross, far away along the infamous Skeleton Coast, was already well established by the late 1800s. New colonies developed at Kleinsee in northern South Africa, and at Atlas Bay and Wolf Bay in southern Namibia between the 1930s and 1950s. These four sites are currently the largest colonies, although other sites along the Namibian coast appear to be rapidly increasing. There are now around 40 breeding colonies in southern Africa, with about 25 of them in Namibia.
Significant growth of the overall seal population occurred between the 1950s and 1990s. Numbers have been considered relatively stable for the last 25 years. The current population is estimated at around two million animals, which is seen by many as a full recovery of the species.
The Cape fur seal is now listed as a ‘species of least concern’ by the IUCN, and is one of the most abundant seals on the planet. It is the only resident seal in Namibian waters, although vagrants of other species are occasionally recorded.
The seal population is monitored in a variety of ways, including tracking the movements of individual seals. Surveys are conducted at all larger breeding colonies using aerial photographs to count the numbers of seal pups, which are extrapolated to arrive at total population estimates. The censuses have been done intermittently for close to 50 years, though less consistently in recent years.
For Namibia’s seals, finding food has become one of the biggest challenges. The reduction of fish stocks through more than half a century of overfishing by man has left Namibian waters depleted. Pilchard, once the seal’s main food source, has been reduced to less than 10 per cent of historic numbers. Seals have had to shift their diet to other small fishes, and are moving farther north along the southern African coast, deep into Angolan waters. Pelagic goby, which is not targeted by commercial fisheries, is currently their main prey.
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