Dolphin and Whale Volunteer Research in Cape Town, South Africa

This is a fantastic opportunity to join a group of scientists and students to develop analytical skills, conduct projects or theses and experience real research. Based in Muizenberg, Cape Town in South Africa, research mainly focuses on the cetacean species and offers the chance to get involved with data processing and analysis, photo identification of animals and shore-based tracking of animals.

You can join the project for 1 month to 6-month durations and we have places throughout the year available.

Cost for supervision, training and ad hoc field research trips starts at; £895

Research mainly focuses on the cetacean species in False BayTaking photos to identify animalsThe project aims to determine the abundance of dolphins in False BayA whale swims along next to the research boatScanning the horizon for activityCollecting data on whale activity and movement from the boatVolunteers will also gain experience in shore based tracking of animalsVolunteers work to identify individual dolphinsView over Cape TownVolunteers and scientists recording dataHumpback whaleA volunteer taking photos for identification The Sea Search Africa volunteer programme is aimed at students and graduatesGetting ready to take the research boat out

About the Project

The Sea Search Research and Conservation group is a collective of scientists and students with a strong academic background in the area of marine mammal science. Our primary focus is the production of peer-reviewed scientific research and student training. We also provide specialist consultancy services and work with industry and government to promote conservation through effective management. The Sea Search volunteer programme is aimed at students and graduates looking for long term placements to develop analytical skills, conduct student projects or theses and experience real research.

Volunteer programme

Recording data of cetaceans in South Africa

Based in Muizenberg, Cape Town (South Africa) our research mainly focuses on the cetacean species in False Bay. Long term volunteers/ students can join the project at any time throughout the year but are expected to join the team for a minimum of 2 months up to a maximum of 6 months in duration. If your university requires you to undertake a short research project, we can help devise the project through discussion with team leaders who would then supervise your project. During this time you would mainly be involved with data processing and analysis with ad hoc fieldwork that contributes to our current projects.

Typical activities volunteers/students will gain experience in:

- Data processing and analysis
- Photo identification of animals
- Shore based tracking of animals
- Small boat work

Free Time for Volunteers

Volunteers work standard office hours during the week with weekday evenings and weekends available for recreational activities and travel. During field work days, volunteers would be expected to be ready to leave by 6h30 am although the exact time will depend on the weather forecast.

Project Background

A whale jumps from the water in Cape Town

Sea Search Research and Conservation was founded by a team of post doctoral cetacean biologists with a diverse array of research interests. Our aim is to fill the current knowledge gap on the distribution, abundance and ranging patterns of the various species of cetacean in False Bay, through sound research and collaboration. The waters in and around False Bay form the limit of the range of at least three species of dolphins, including Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus), Heaviside’s dolphins (Cephalorhynchus heavisidii) and endangered Indian Ocean humpback dolphins (Sousa plumbea). With this in mind, our research focuses on data collection for these three species, as well as dusky dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obscurus) which commonly use the areas off Cape Point and up the west coast into Namibia.

Current projects include:

- 1) the collection of historical and current data for all cetacean species found in False Bay to determine habitat use, seasonality and other baseline data;

- 2) a species-specific project to determine the abundance of humpback dolphins in False Bay and

- 3) the population linkages between this species in False Bay and other areas further east in its range.This information is of importance to the management of protected areas and species and is critical to guide prediction models on the influences of climate change on cetacea.

Out on the boat in South Africa

Dates and Costs

1st February to 1st May 2019
1st March to 1st June 2019
1st April to 1st July 2019
1st May to 1st August 2019
1st June to 1st September 2019
1st July to 1st October 2019
1st August to 1st November 2019
1st September to 1st December 2019

Project Costs

The cost to join the project is £895 for 1 month, £1595 for 2 months, and £2295 for 3 months. Cost includes lodging, supervision, scientific training and ad hoc field research trips in Cape Town, South Africa.  What is not included is your food, travel and insurance costs. It is mandatory for you to take out a medical/accident insurance for the duration of your time on the programme.

Lodging, Food, Travel and Climate

Accommodation & Food

View along the coast of Muizenberg, Cape Town

Accommodation is provided in clean and fully fitted Air B&B accommodation in Muizenberg and if the spaces are full, you will be placed in a nearby guest house/backpackers.   Food is the responsibility of each person and would be at your own cost.  Wifi is also available in the Air B&B Accommodation and if not, Internet access at the office is available for work purposes and emails. 

Interns often buy a SIM card for mobile phones, which are available at most supermarkets and you can easily buy pre-paid airtime. Muizenberg has ATMS, banks, food, and clothing shops, restaurants, pubs and a mall (Blue Route Mall).

Climate in Muizenberg

The weather in Muizenberg can be quite variable but typically the summers are warm, dry and windy (22 – 26 C/ 72 – 79 F) while the winter months (May to August) tend to be cold, windy and rainy (16 – 19 C/ 61 – 66 F) (

View over the harbour

Travel in Cape Town

There are a number of airlines that offer flights into Cape Town. Upon arrival various shuttle companies are available that could drop you off at our offices.

Visa information

Residents of some countries are exempt from visa fees, while those from certain countries do not require a visa. Please check with your local South Africa embassy for further information.

Insurance for Volunteers

Photo identification of whales

Medical and travel insurance are both necessary for the duration of your internship with the project. If you are bringing valuables such as laptops and cell phones please also ensure that they are insured.

Volunteer Requirements

Volunteer positions are open to current students (BSc or MSc) studying towards a Biology or Zoology related degree and recent graduates looking to gain research experience. Volunteers are expected to approach their duties with a mature and responsible attitude.

Interactive Map 

Below is a map showing the project location (please click the map to view an interactive version)

Sea Search Africa Map












About False Bay

South Africa is the southernmost country in Africa, neighbouring Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Namibia. With 2 798 kilometres of coastline, made up of habitats from both the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean, South Africa has very high marine biodiversity. False Bay, in the south west of South Africa, is known for its natural beauty and scenic landscapes. The waters of False Bay are home to a variety of animal life including great white sharks, African penguins, Cape fur seals and various dolphin and whale species. The southern peninsula and surrounds are known for its surfing, kite boarding, hiking, colourful seaside villages, museums, art galleries and picturesque wine lands. Part of the project study area is the Table Mountain National Park which is a natural world heritage site and one of the 7 new wonders of the world. This area is a conservation site for both terrestrial and marine habitats.

While many areas in Cape Town and surrounds are well developed with high population densities, there is still a drive towards conservation for areas with high biodiversity. As such there are 20 reserves and seven marine protected areas in the Cape Town Municipality alone with plans to increase the number of protected areas nationally over the next five years.

Volunteer Testimonials

Ilka Beith, from Germany, joined Sea Search Africa as an intern in 2016. Here she talks about her acoustic and photo-ID research on humpback whales: 

A photograph taken for identification researchDuring my internship with Sea Search Africa I worked on a set of photographic and acoustic data on humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) collected late last year. The goal of the study was to collect sounds of animals known to be feeding in the large aggregations of whales, which occur off the west coast in late winter and early summer. This data will then be used to help us identify sounds made on moored hydrophones as part of the E3C project. The data was collected around Hout Bay in November 2015 over 6 days in collaboration with Steve Benjamin of Animal Ocean who took us out to sea when we didn’t have our own boat.

Photo-Identification (photo ID)

Photo-identification is the practice of identifying animals from their natural marks (fin shapes, scars, injuries, colouration etc) from photographs of them. Important for photo-ID of whales and dolphins are shots of the dorsal fin from both left and right sides and for humpback whales, the underside of tail fluke, which has individually distinctive black and white patterning.

Photograph of a right dorsal finMy task was identifying all the individuals photographed over the 6 days by pulling out all the left dorsal fins (LD), the right dorsal fins (RD) and the tail flukes (TF). I identified every single individual and gave everyone a number and identified the ‘best’ image each side (and tail) of each whale for each day, essentially making three catalogues a LD, RD and TF catalogue. I drew the different dorsal fins and tail flukes of the whales on paper and I also named a few of them to remember them better, which is pretty helpful during the identifying process. On the basis of the best pictures I matched the left and right dorsal fin together to one whale where possible.

Some of the pictures I turned into black and white, because it is easier to see marks and it also highlights the shape.

Matching the tail fluke to the right and left dorsal fin was the hardest part. The main identifying feature used is the under-side but by using the many different angles photographed it is often possible to match a ‘side shot’ as below to both a dorsal fin and a good underside.


The most common low-frequency sound: a Humpback whales are known as the best singers in the ocean, but only the male whales sing. Most of the time they sing during mating season to attract female whales. But there are also social vocalizations produced by both male and female humpback whales which are heard on the feeding and breeding grounds and even surface-generated percussive sounds as breaches, pectoral flipper slaps and tail slaps (Dunlop R. A. et al., 2007).

During my internship, I did the first part of the acoustic analysis Adobe Audition. I converted the spectrograms to the right settings for viewing, noted the start and end time of each noise and quantified, classified and categorized the noises (mostly following the categories defined by Rebecca Dunlop and colleagues in Australia – Dunlop et al. 2007). All in all I found over 1500 sounds in the acoustic data of the first three days of research. Most of the sounds are between 100 Hz and 4 kHz and can be divided into low-, mid- and high-frequency sounds. Low frequency sounds are the most common, especially the “wop”, “grumbles” and “barks”. The most common mid-frequency sound is the “modulated cry” and the common high-frequency sound is the “shriek”.

Nicole Buss joined the project for 7 weeks. Here she shares her thoughts on Sea Search and Cape Town:

View of the Cape Town coast Doing this 7 week marine mammal research internship with the Sea Search Team based in Muizenberg, Cape Town was the best experience I've ever had! I've never seen so many passionate researchers in one place, always happy, helpful and full of knowledge about cetaceans to share! Drs Gridley and Elwen are a great and ambitious couple of marine mammal scientists, that created a pleasant working environment by always have a smile on their face and a friendly attitude. During my time I worked on a small research project on the prevalance of skin diseases, ecto-parasites, shark bites, entanglement and deformities of Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins around the South African coast. This provided me with an opportunity to improving my knowledge on the theoretical background and my data analysis skills in MS Excel. Drs Gridley and Elwen provided me with project relevant papers to read, involved me in field relevant talks of other local researchers from other institutes and provided me with the opportunity to participate in a stranding course. Besides data analysis, I also had the opportunity to experience marine field work out at sea, which was an experience I will never forget.

My best experience was assisting in data collection of humpback whales, attempting to collect photographs of their dorsal fins and tail flukes, as these parts are the best to use for photo-identification to identify individual animals. During my time quite a lot of humpback whales - so called super-groups - were around and there was nothing better being on the ocean surrounded by a hundred animals that were lung feeding, tail slapping, diving and breaching. Collecting behavioural data of so many animals was often quite a challenge! I also helped with setting up to record the acoustic behaviour of these humpback whales during their feeding events and it was such a great feeling coming home and listening to the noises these animals would make. But no matter if in the office, with the best crew one can imagine or doing field work on the water, every day was a surprise of learning something new and having great experiences. During my free time I tried to explore Cape Town and the area and I must say I fall head over heels in love with this beautiful country and with the always smiling people that live here. Cape Town is a city with a special vibe, full of different cultures, history, events and sights so that you'll never get bored and I definitely have to return as it is impossible to see it all during such a short period of time. From diving, snorkelling, bike riding, hiking no name but a few, Cape Town has so much to offer.

Muizenberg, where the office is based, is a lovely little suburb of Cape Town with a nice beach where I started my first little baby steps into
surfing, as the waves there are perfect for beginners but also for advanced surfers to enjoy. I learned so much here about how cetacean research is done and collecting the best experiences of my life being out there on the water. I really enjoyed and appreciate my time in South Africa making the most amazing friends and meeting loads of wonderful people within the Sea Search Team, knowing for sure that I definitely have to come back!

Julia Heiler joined Sea Search to write her master thesis. Heres what she had to say about her time with the project:

Dolphins swim past the research boatI came to Sea Search to write my master thesis on the acoustic behaviour of common bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus). As I had only 5 months, I could not collect my own data for my project but Dr Gridley let me analyse an existing long-term acoustic dataset on bottlenose dolphins in Namibia. Through her professional guidance I learned a lot about acoustics, dolphins and scientific writing. She taught me how to use necessary software and always helped, when I was stuck at any point during my thesis. The same applies to everybody in the Sea Search team where I always got advice when I needed it. I also had the chance to spend 3 weeks in Namibia and experience how my data was collected in the previous years, as I participated in the current surveys of the Namibian Dolphin Project. This was a great help to write the material/methods part of my thesis and a wonderful opportunity to see another beautiful African country.

Apart from my work at Sea Search, I was living in the shared student/intern accommodation right across the road which is nice and close to work, but also just a few meters from the ocean. A great opportunity to spend lunch breaks and spare time surfing. All in all, I had a wonderful stay and a successful outcome of my thesis and I would love to come back one day!

A whale diving back down into the ocean

How to Join the Project

If you are interested in joining this project, you will need to fill out the online application form (you can also print it out and email it to us) – to secure a placement on the project, please complete and submit the form including your application payment of £195. If for some reason, your application is not accepted, we would reimburse this payment fully. However for those who are accepted, 25% of the full amount needs to be paid within 10 days of being confirmed on the project,  with the remainder (75%) to be paid one month before arrival. Once your place is confirmed, you will receive a pre-departure package with all detailed information on your project, suggested items to bring etc.

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