False Bay
Valsbaai (Afrikaans)
Astronaut photo of Cape Town with False Bay
False Bay is located in Western Cape
False Bay
False Bay
Location in South Africa
False Bay is located in South Africa
False Bay
False Bay
False Bay (South Africa)
Coordinates34°13′47″S 18°38′43″E / 34.22972°S 18.64528°E / -34.22972; 18.64528
Ocean/sea sourcesSouthern Atlantic Ocean
Basin countriesSouth Africa

False Bay (Afrikaans: Valsbaai) is a body of water in the Atlantic Ocean between the mountainous Cape Peninsula and the Hottentots Holland Mountains in the extreme south-west of South Africa. The mouth of the bay faces south and is demarcated by Cape Point to the west and Cape Hangklip to the east. The north side of the bay is the low-lying Cape Flats, and the east side is the foot of the Hottentots Holland Mountains to Cape Hangklip which is at nearly the same latitude as Cape Point. In plan the bay is approximately square, being roughly the same extent from north to south as east to west, with the southern side open to the ocean. The seabed slopes gradually down from north to south, and is mostly fairly flat unconsolidated sediments. Much of the bay is off the coast of the City of Cape Town, and it includes part of the Table Mountain National Park Marine Protected Area and the whole of the Helderberg Marine Protected Area. The name "False Bay" was applied at least three hundred years ago by sailors returning from the east who confused Cape Point and Cape Hangklip, which are somewhat similar in profile when approached from the southeast.

False Bay is at the extreme western end of the inshore Agulhas marine ecoregion which extends from Cape Point to the Mbashe river over the continental shelf, in the overlap zone between Cape Agulhas and Cape Point where the warm Agulhas Current and the cooler South Atlantic waters mix. The continental shelf is at its widest in this ecoregion, extending up to 240 km (150 mi) offshore on the Agulhas Bank, but is considerably narrower off False Bay. This ecoregion has the highest number of South African marine endemics, and is a breeding area for many species. The transition between the Agulhas ecoregion and the cooler Benguela ecoregion is at Cape Point, on the western boundary of False Bay.

False Bay also contains South Africa's largest naval base at Simon's Town (historically a base for the Royal Navy), and small fishing harbours at Kalk Bay and Gordon's Bay.

Description and location

View of City of Cape Town showing the Cape Peninsula and Cape Flats from the International Space Station
The Cape Peninsula seen from the West, False Bay (right) and Table Bay, with Robben Island (left). Compilation produced by NASA from Landsat and SRTM data. Vertical scale exaggerated.
Aerial view of the eastern False Bay coast, looking somewhat south of east: Gordon's Bay (left) to Cape Hangklip (right)

The western side is bordered by the Cape Peninsula, and this stretch of coastline includes the smaller Smitswinkel Bay, Simon's Bay and Fish Hoek Bay. At Muizenberg the coastline becomes relatively low and sandy and curves east across the southern boundary of the Cape Flats to Gordon's Bay to form the northern boundary of False Bay. From Gordon's Bay the coastline swings roughly south, and zig-zags its way along the foot of the Hottentots Holland Mountains to Cape Hangklip which is at nearly the same latitude as Cape Point. The highest peak on this side is Kogelberg at 1,269 m (4,163 ft).[1]

In plan the bay is approximately square with rather wobbly edges, being roughly the same extent from north to south as east to west (30 km), with the entire southern side open to the ocean. The area of False Bay has been measured at about 1,090 km2 (420 sq mi), and the volume is approximately 45 km3 (11 cu mi) (average depth about 40 m). The land perimeter has been measured at 116 km, from a 1:50,000 scale map.[2][1]

The eastern and western shores of the bay are very rocky and even mountainous; in places large cliffs plunge into the water. Notable peaks associated with the bay include Koeëlberg (1,289 m (4,229 ft)), which rises from the water itself forming the highest point of the Kogelberg, as well as Somerset Sneeukop (1590m / 5217 feet) and Wemmershoek Peak (1,788 m (5,866 ft)) which are clearly visible across the bay. Some of the highest peaks visible across False Bay include Du Toits Peak near Paarl (1,995 m (6,545 ft)), Klein Winterhoek Peak near Tulbagh (1,995 m (6,545 ft)), Mostertshoek Peak at the Western extreme of the Michell's Pass (2,008 m (6,588 ft)) and Groot Winterhoek Peak North of Tulbagh (2,077 m (6,814 ft)). The northern shore, is defined by a very long, curving, sandy beach. This sandy, northern perimeter of the bay is the southern edge of the area known as the Cape Flats. The bay is 30 km wide at its widest point.[3]

Suburbs of Cape Town stretch right across the Cape Flats from Simon's Town halfway down the Cape Peninsula to the north-eastern corner at Gordon's Bay. There are also two small towns of the Overberg region on the east coast of the bay, Rooi-Els and Pringle Bay.

Coastal landmarks

Coastal landmarks visible from offshore in False Bay, listed clockwise from Cape Point to Cape Hangklip:[1]

Bottom morphology

Multibeam sonar map of the Whittle Rock area

The bottom morphology of False Bay is generally smooth and fairly shallow, sloping gently downwards at about 3 m per km from north to south, so that the depth at the centre of the mouth is about 80 m. The bottom is covered with sediment which ranges from very coarse to very fine, with most of the fine sediment and mud in the centre of the bay. The main exception is a long ridge of sedimentary rock that extends in a southward direction from off the Strand, to approximately level with the mouth of the Steenbras River. The southern tip of this ridge is known as Steenbras Deep.[2][1]

There is one true island in the bay, Seal Island, a barren and stony outcrop of granite about 200 m long and with an area of about 2 ha. It is about 6 km south of Strandfontein and is less than 10 m above sea level at its highest point. There are also a number of small rocky islets which extend above the high water mark, and other rocks and shoals which approach the surface. The largest of these, and the most significant navigational hazard in the bay, is Whittle Rock, a large outcrop of granite about halfway into the bay and a quarter of the way across from the Cape Peninsula (34°14.846′S 18°33.714′E / 34.247433°S 18.561900°E / -34.247433; 18.561900), which is about a kilometre in diameter and rises from a fairly flat sand bottom at about 40 m to within 4 m of the surface. There are smaller outlying granite reefs scattered to the south, east, and west of Whittle Rock, and more smaller granite reefs to the northwest. Most of these reefs on the western side of the bay are granite of the Peninsula pluton, but east of Seal Island they are generally sandstone, either of the Table Mountain series, or of the underlying Tygerberg formation.[2][5][1] Whittle Rock reef can refract large south easterly storm waves, increasing their size in the vicinity of Kalk Bay harbour.[6]

Other shoal areas include the granite reefs at Roman Rock in Simon's Bay, hard sedimentary or metamorphic rock at York shoal and hard sandstone at East shoal, and several isolated granite outcrops which are too deep to be navigational hazards in the western part of the bay.[1] The palaeo-drainage of the bay is split between the western side of the bay and the eastern side by the relatively durable contact zone between the Peninsula granite and the Tygerberg sediments, with deep valleys cut into the bedrock during the glacial maximum, which have since been filled with sediments. The drainage of the west side passed to the west of Seal Island, Whittle Rock and Rocky Bank. The east side was drained by a valley between Seal Island and East Shoal, and another valley to the east of Steenbras Ridge, which joined east of Rocky bank and exit the bay between Rocky bank and Hangklip Ridge.[7]: Ch2 

Outside the bay, but influencing the wave patterns in it, is Rocky Bank, an extensive area of relatively flat sandstone reef between 20 and 30 m depth on the top, sloping down on all sides, but mostly to the south and east, where the depth can exceed 100 m.[2][1] A long underwater sandstone ridge sweeps across the eastern side of the mouth from Cape Hangklip towards the southwest, that is believed to affect water circulation in the bay. On the west side, a relatively shallow area of granite reef extends beyond the Cape Peninsula, with one major navigational hazard at Bellows Rock and a lesser one somewhat closer inshore at Anvil Rock.[1][6]


See also: Table Mountain National Park Marine Protected Area § Bathymetry

False Bay Bathymetry from SA Council for Geoscience
Bathymetry of the Whittle Rock reef

The bathymetry of False Bay differs in character from the west side of the Cape Peninsula. The west coast seabed tends to slope down more steeply than in False Bay, and although the close inshore waters are also shallow, the 100 m contour is mostly within about 10 km of the west coast, while the entire False Bay is shallower than about 90 m.[8] The bottom of the bay slopes down relatively gradually from the gently sloping beaches of the north shore to the mouth, and has a fairly even depth from east to west except close to the shorelines, with three major features disrupting this gentle slope. These are Seal Island, Whittle Rock, and the Steenbras ridge. Just outside the bay, there is a large shoal area at Rocky Bank, and a large ridge extending south-west from Cape Hangklip, which channels cold, nutrient-rich water into the west side of the bay during upwelling events.[6]


Main article: Geology of Cape Town

The three main rock formations are the late-Precambrian Malmesbury Group (sedimentary and metamorphic rock), the Peninsula granite, a huge batholith that was intruded into the Malmesbury Group about 630 million years ago, and the Table Mountain group sandstones that were deposited on the eroded peneplain surface of the granite and Malmesbury series basement about 450 million years ago. The sand, silt and mud deposits were lithified by pressure and then folded during the Permian–Triassic Cape Orogeny to form the Cape Fold Belt, which extends along the western and southern coasts of the Western Cape. The present landscape is due to prolonged erosion having carved out deep valleys, removing parts of the once continuous Table Mountain group sandstone cover from the Cape Flats and leaving high residual mountain ridges.[5]

The Cape Peninsula shoreline in the case of (left) a 25m higher sea level that occurred around 5 and 1.5 million years ago, and (right) a 125m lower sea level at the time of maximum ice build-up during cold periods – the most recent being 20 000 years ago (after John S. Compton 2004)

At times the sea covered the Cape Flats and Noordhoek valley and the Cape Peninsula was then a group of islands, and False Bay and the Cape Flats a strait. During glacial periods the sea level dropped to expose the bottom of False Bay to weathering and erosion, the last major regression leaving the entire bottom of False Bay exposed. During this period an extensive system of dunes was formed on the sandy floor of False Bay. At this time the drainage outlets lay between Rocky Bank and Cape Point to the west, and between Rocky Bank and Hangklip Ridge to the east.[5][7]: Ch2 

Waves, tides, water circulation and temperature

Swell entering the bay is predominantly the product of the westerly winds blowing over the Southern Ocean. The prevailing swell is about 12 to 25 second period from the southwest with average height of about 3 m. It impinges directly on the east coast of the bay, amplified by refraction over Rocky Bank in the region near the Steenbras River mouth, where rogue waves may occur. Further west the swell refracts and diffuses around a fairly large shoal area around Cape Point, and is moderately to severely attenuated by the time it reaches the western shores.[6]

Waves along the north coast of the bay between Macassar and Muizenberg generally break by spilling as the slope is shallow. In summer, strong south-easterly winds blow over a fetch partly limited by the width of the bay and generate short period wind waves of around 6 seconds and 2 m height, and produce multiple lines of breakers along the north shore. Where the slopes are steeper rip currents may occur which are a hazard to swimmers.[6]

Northward propagating long period waves are focused in the northeast and northwest parts of False Bay by refraction effects over the shoal waters of Rocky Bank in the mouth of the bay, with measured heights of waves in the area between Steenbras mouth and Kogelbaai being up to twice the height of the waves in the Muizenberg to Strandfontein region for the prevailing southwesterly open ocean swell.[9] The focusing effect is mostly on swells with a period of 13 seconds or more, and a direction between 210° and 245° true.[10] The smaller and shallower reef at Whittle Rock towards the west side of the bay has a similar but lesser effect, and can focus longer period south-easterly waves on Kalk Bay. This is unusual and associated with a cut-off low pressure system causing the south-easterly winds to blow for an unusually long time over enough fetch to develop a sea sufficiently for it to be refracted by the shoal area.[11]: App3  Wave height of southwesterly swells decreases from west to east along the north coast of False Bay due to the effects of refraction and friction of the wave base on larger areas of offshore reef before reaching the shoreline.[11]: 16 

Tides are regular, semi-diurnal, and relatively weak, and there are no strong tidal currents. Maximum tidal range at Simon's Town is 2.0 m at highest astronomical tide, with minimum range of about 0.56 m at mean neap tides.[12] When large waves break at Macassar on a high tide the beach is known to be dangerous for swimming and beach erosion is increased.[11]: 16 

The circulation patterns of False Bay are variable over time, with seasonal and longer term cycles. There are cold-water upwelling events associated with south-easterly winds in summer, and periodic intrusions of warm water eddies from the Agulhas Current of the south coast, both of which contribute to the biodiversity.[6]

Four main surface circulation patterns have been observed in False Bay. Wind is the dominant forcing influence on surface circulation, with tidal and inertial currents of secondary importance, mainly when the winds are weak.[13] Gordon's Bay is in the wind shadow of the Hottentots-Holland Mountains for south easterly winds, and this causes a semi-permanent anticyclonic eddy and associated anticlockwise gyre, in the opposite direction to the usual cyclonic circulation of the main part of the bay.[6]

A clockwise rotation driven by the south-easterly winds mostly occurs during summer. This circulation is partly set up by west-north-westerly flow south of the bay splitting at Cape Point. The northerly component sets up flow towards the equator on the western shores. South-easterly winds cause this clockwise pattern to dominate. North-westerly winds cause an anti-clockwise circulation, with an eastward current flowing south of the Bay and entering at Cape Hangklip.[13] When there is no strong wind forcing, tidal forcing can occur on the incoming and outgoing tides. A fairly uniform northward flow occurs during flooding tides, and southward during ebbing tides, with bathymetry affecting the flow direction in shallow areas. These currents are most noticeable along the coastline and in the shallow northern parts of the bay between Simon's Town and Gordon's Bay.[13]

In the deeper areas of the mouth of the bay, tidal and inertial currents appear to contribute to the variability of the deeper part of the water column, along with the effects of wind forcing. Wave energy focused by the various shoal areas outside and inside the bay is a driver of nearshore currents, particularly in the northern parts of the bay.[13]

Charts of sea surface temperature in and near False Bay in summer and winter

In summer False Bay is thermally stratified, with a vertical temperature variation of 5 to 9˚C between the warmer surface water and cooler depths below 50 m, while in winter the water column is at nearly constant temperature at all depths. The development of a thermocline is strongest around late December and peaks in late summer to early autumn.[14]: 8  In summer the south easterly winds generate a zone of upwelling near Cape Hangklip, where surface water temperatures can be 6 to 7 °C colder than the surrounding areas, and bottom temperatures below 12 °C.[14]: 10 

In the summer to early autumn (January–March), cold water upwelling near Cape Hangklip causes a strong surface temperature gradient between the south-western and north-eastern corners of the bay. In winter the surface temperature tends to be much the same everywhere. In the northern sector surface temperature varies a bit more (13 to 22 °C) than in the south (14 to 20 °C) during the year.[6]

Surface temperature variation from year to year is linked to the El Niño–Southern Oscillation. During El Niño years the South Atlantic high is shifted, reducing the south-easterly winds, so upwelling and evaporative cooling are reduced and sea surface temperatures throughout the bay are warmer, while in La Niña years there is more wind and upwelling and consequently lower temperatures. Surface water heating during El Niño increases vertical stratification. The relationship is not linear.[6]

Water density dynamics are mostly temperature dependent, with only weak influences from salinity. The major influence on temperature distribution is wind driven upwelling and advection of cold water, which is most notable north-west of Hangklip, and less marked near Gordon's Bay, due to strong south-easterly winds, with insolation as a secondary effect, mostly in the shallow waters of the northern and north-easterly regions. Waves may have more influence on nearshore temperature than wind. Upwelling outside the bay along the coast east of Hangklip can also supply cold water to the bay[13]

Rivers and drainage

See also: Cape Peninsula § Drainage, Cape Flats § Drainage, and Helderberg § Drainage

Drainage into False Bay can be considered from four watersheds: The east-flowing streams of the southern Cape Peninsula, the Cape Flats, the Helderberg basin, and the south-westwards drainage of the Hottentots-Holland mountains of the Overberg, extending south as far as Cape Hamgklip.

The eastward draining rivers of the Southern Peninsula are generally fairly short and steep, and some, such as the Silvermine and Elsje rivers, have valley bottom wetlands at the coast.[15]: Ch15  The Buffels River flows from a small spring to its mouth in Buffels Bay, the Klawersvlei River[16] flows northwest from behind the mountains above Miller's Point over the plateau behind Simon's Town, before turning east over the escarpment and a high waterfall, entering the bay near the Simon's Town railway station, the Elsjes River[16] flows from the Red Hill plateau to enter False Bay from the Glencairn valley, and the Silvermine River,[16] originally known as the Esselstein Rivier, drains the valley south of the Steenberg mountains and flows east across the Steenberg Plateau, then south through the Silvermine Valley before crossing the coastal Fish Hoek plain to enter False Bay at Clovelly on the north side of Fish Hoek Bay. Between these short and fairly steep streams, rainwater runoff generally flows directly down the mountainside into the bay.

The Sandvlei catchment drains the east side of the mountains north of Muizenberg and south of the Liesbeek catcment into False Bay:[15]: Ch13  Sandvlei (Zandvlei) is the largest of eight estuaries on the False Bay coastline, with an area of about 155 hectares. It is fed by the Westlake, Keysers and Sand rivers. The Diep River flows from the mountains above Constantia to Little Princessvlei, which is drained by the Sand River, which flows into the northeast of Sandvlei. The Westlake River, also known as the Steenberg or Raapkraal River, originates on the slopes of the Steenberg and flows through the Kirstenhof wetlands into the north west of Sandvlei, and the Keysers River and its tributaris, the Grootbosch, Spaanschemat and Prinseskasteel rivers rise on Constantiaberg. The upper reaches of the Spaanschemat River are known as the Glen Alpine Stream, which originates below Constantia Nek and is joined by the Eagles Nest Stream.

Historically the Cape Flats was partly covered in wetlands, particularly during winter, and retained much of its rainfall. Many of these wetlands have been destroyed by canalisation and infilling to provide residential space. Many of the remaining perennial vleis are at the southwest side of the region. (Zeekoevlei, Rondevlei, Zandvlei etc.) and drain into the bay at Muizenberg through the estuary at Zandvlei. There is also groundwater seepage through the sand along the north coast of the bay. The Elsieskraal River and the Black River catchment drain to the northwest into Table Bay, and do not affect False Bay. [7]: Ch9  The Diep River catchment drains into Zandvlei,[7]: Ch11  and Zeekoevlei and its catchment also drain to Zandvlei at times.[15]: Ch12 

The Eerste River and its tributary the Kuils River, drain into False Bay on the north coast, west of the Helderberg basin watershed. They drain part of the Cape Flats, but most of the catchment of the Eerste River is in the Stellenbosch district, between the Helderberg and Stellenbosch Mountains, and the Jonkershoek Valley.[15]: Ch18 [15]: Ch16 

The catchment of the Lourens River is in the Helderberg region. It is the largest river of the region. The source is in Diepgat Ravine, in the Hottentots Holland Mountains. It is joined by minor tributaries from Landdroskloof and Sneeukopkloof in its upper reaches, The river flows in a south-westerly direction between the Helderberg and Schapenberg through Somerset West and Strand to a small estuary on the coast of False Bay. Its overall length is about 20 kilometres.[15]: Ch19 

The Soete River is a small river that may have originally been part of the Lourens River system, diverting floodwater through an alternative route to the bay.[15]

Sir Lowry's River drains the south side of Schapenberg and west side of the Hottentots Holland south of Schapenberg. It enters the bay in Gordon's Bay.[15]

The Steenbras River catchment is to the east of the Hottentots Holland mountains, and almost all of its water is retained by the upper and lower Steenbras Dams, which are a significant part of the municipal water supply to the City of Cape Town. Steenbras River mouth is south of Gordon's Bay.

The Rooiels River enters False Bay at Rooiels beach. It drains a small catchment area in a nature reserve in the mountains of the southwest of the Overberg district.

Water quality

The nutrient contribution to False Bay surface waters by upwelling appears to be greater than that of terrestrial sources by runoff and groundwater seepage, but pollutants from terrestrial sources can be persistent and can have adverse effects on coastal ecosystems and recreational activities. Mixing with offshore water has a significant effect on surf zone and inshore water quality, but the effects of microbial processes on inshore water quality and the relative contribution of anthropogenic sources of nutrients remains unknown, but likely to be increasing.[6]


Map showing the locations of False Bay and Table Bay

In pre-colonial times False Bay along with most of the Southern African coast provided sustenance to the Khoisan or Khoekhoen tribe who collected seafood from the shores and deposited the shells in middens along the coast which indicate usage over some 10 000 years.[6] Bartolomeu Dias in 1488 first referred to the bay as "the gulf between the mountains".[17] The name "False Bay" was applied early on (at least three hundred years ago) by sailors who confused the bay with Table Bay to the north. According to Schirmer, the confusion arose because sailors returning from the east (The Dutch East Indies) initially confused Cape Point and Cape Hangklip, which are somewhat similar in form. Hangklip was known to the early Portuguese seafarers as Cabo Falso, or False Cape, and the name of the bay derived from the cape.[17] Commercial fishing was started in the late 17th century soon after settlement by the Dutch.[6]

In 1672 the Dutch warship Goudvinck was stationed at the Cape and was instructed to survey False Bay, but it is not known how much was done before they were recalled. Simon van der Stel, appointed commander of the station in 1679, sailed False Bay in November 1687 on the ship De Noord, took the earliest recorded soundings, and described the islands, reefs and shoreline of the bay. By the end of the 17th century the general bathymetry was known.[18]

The Whittle Rock reef is named after a lieutenant Whittle of the Royal Navy, who surveyed parts of False Bay after HMS Indent was damaged off Miller's Point soon after the first British occupation of the Cape in 1795.[19]

Commercial fishing has been practiced in False Bay since the late 1600s. Over time a range of fishing methods have been prohibited in False Bay. Demersal trawling, purse seining and gillnetting were introduced in the 19th century, but have been stopped as they were depleting stocks, conflicting with other fisheries and users, and damaging the environment. Illegal gillnetting is still a problem.[6]

Penguin eggs were collected until 1968, whaling operations took place until 1975, seals were hunted for fur until 1984, and guano was collected until 1991. All of these activities had a severely detrimental effect on the targeted populations and are now illegal. Commercial abalone diving has been severely restricted as the resource was overfished but illegal exploitation of the resource continues. Recreational abalone extraction has been discontinued.[6]

There have been symposia, in 1968 and 1989, on the socio-ecological importance of False Bay, with reviews of the oceanography and biology of the bay and human impact on it.[6]


Over the years, a number of ships have been wrecked in False Bay, due to weather, war, errors in navigation, other accidents, or intentional scuttling. These include:[20]




See also: Cape Town § Climate

The climate is Mediterranean, with warm, dry summers and cool, damp winters. In winter, gales and storms from the northwest are common and can be ferocious. False Bay is exposed to southeasterly winds in summer and its waters are approximately 6 °C warmer than those of Table Bay, owing to the influence of the warm Agulhas Current. The La Niña phase of the El Niño–Southern Oscillation cycle tends to increase rainfall in this region in the dry season (November to April).[45]


The winds have a strong influence on the waves and water circulation and through it the sea surface temperature. The wind follows a characteristic pattern, which shifts in latitude with the seasons and follows the Rossby waves as they move eastwards over the southern ocean. A southwesterly wind follows the passage of a cold front as the anticyclone moves east and merges with the South Atlantic High, producing strong south-easterly winds. The high pressure cell moves further over the tip of Africa and splits off the South Atlantic high, with weakening south easterly winds, followed by a coastal low with north-westerly wind before the next cold front, bringing cool, wet westerly wind which passes around Table Mountain and converges as a northerly wind over the bay.[6]

The South Atlantic high shifts latitude with the seasons, following the sun, and this causes a large variation in the wind pattern over the passage of the year. In summer it moves south and the south-easterly winds dominate, and on average are strongest during January and February. During winter the northward shift allows the fronts to extend further north with stronger north-westerly winds and more frequent and heavier rain. The winter winds tend to be strongest in June and are generally northwesterly. The transition periods are April and September.[6]

Local variations in wind direction and strength are caused by interaction with the mountains on both sides of the bay. South-easterly winds are accelerated northwest of Cape Hangklip, and a distinct wind shadow can develop in the lee of the Kogelberg mountain. Northwesterly winds accelerate over Table Mountain and approach the bay from varying directions depending on the local topography. Temperature differences between land and water can also produce diurnal variations of wind speed and direction, particularly in summer.[6]

Ecology and marine life

See also: Table Mountain National Park Marine Protected Area and Marine ecoregions of the South African exclusive economic zone

False Bay is at the extreme western end of the inshore Agulhas marine ecoregion which extends from Cape Point to the Mbashe River over the continental shelf, in the overlap zone between Cape Agulhas and Cape Point where the warm Agulhas Current and the cooler South Atlantic waters mix. The continental shelf is at its widest in this ecoregion, extending up to 240 km offshore on the Agulhas Bank, but is considerably narrower off False Bay. This ecoregion has the highest number of South African endemics, and is a breeding area for many species. There are several important commercial fisheries in this region. The transition between the Agulhas ecoregion and the cooler Benguela ecoregion is at Cape Point, on the western boundary of False Bay.[46]: 103 [47]

There are two marine protected areas in False Bay: The Table Mountain National Park Marine Protected Area (TMNPMPA) lies on both sides of the Cape Peninsula, so is partly in False Bay,[48] and the Helderberg Marine Protected Area is off Macassar on the northern shoreline of the bay.[49]

Reef ecosystems

Six feeding groups have been identified among the common suprebenthic fish species of False Bay, based on a comparison of diets. These are generalised benthic carnivores. carnivorous benthic browsers, herbivorous benthic grazers, midwater predators on small invertebrates, benthic macro-predators, and predators on small benthic invertebrates. These groups appear to eat mostly reef-dwelling prey, with the small amount of sand-dwelling assumed to be from areas adjacent to the reef. Feeding occurs mostly when water temperatures exceed 13°C. There is some overlap of diet between species, but in most cases each species has a dietary niche of preferred food, which reduces competition for food between the species within the assemblage.[50]

Habitat types

The benthic habitat types listed for False Bay in the National Biodiversity Assessment are:[6]


Main article: List of marine animals of the Cape Peninsula and False Bay

The marine animals of False Bay are diverse and varied. The more popularly known species which are a tourist draw include white sharks, abalone, African penguins, snoek, yellowtail, and many over-exploited linefish species, west coast rock lobster, and abalone. Besides the resident species and several known migrants, the waters of the MPA are occasionally visited by vagrants carried in by the eddies of the Agulhas Current, which can bring tropical and subtropical specimens normally resident thousands of kilometres away.[51]


Further information: List of green seaweeds of the Cape Peninsula and False Bay, List of brown seaweeds of the Cape Peninsula and False Bay, and List of red seaweeds of the Cape Peninsula and False Bay

Seaweeds are thousands of species of macroscopic, multicellular, marine algae of varied taxonomic classification. The term includes some types of Rhodophyta (red), Phaeophyta (brown) and Chlorophyta (green) macroalgae.

The seaweed ecology is unusually varied for an area of this size, as a result of the meeting of two major oceanic water masses near Cape Point, comprising two coastal marine bioregions. The ecology of the west or "Atlantic Seaboard" side of the Cape Peninsula is noticeably different in character and biodiversity to that of the east, or "False Bay" side. Both sides are classified as temperate waters, but there is a significant difference in average temperature, with the Atlantic side being noticeably colder on average.

Algal blooms

See also: Algal bloom and Red tide

False Bay has a high incidence of dinoflagellate blooms that may produce toxins or accumulate as red tides. The water retention and stratification of late summer and autumn produce the environment most conducive to harmful algal blooms. Algal blooms tend to propagate clockwise with the circulation, and may become trapped in the Gordon's Bay eddy for more extended periods.[6]

Brown discoloration in the surf zone along the north shore is frequently due to persistent blooms of the non-toxic diatom Anaulus australis, which is provided with nutrients from groundwater seepage through the sand bottom and river outfalls containing waste water from the nearby sewage purification systems.[6]

Marine protected areas

See also: Table Mountain National Park Marine Protected Area and Helderberg Marine Protected Area

The Table Mountain National Park Marine Protected Area is an inshore marine protected area around the Cape Peninsula. It was proclaimed in Government Gazette No. 26431 of 4 June 2004 in terms of the Marine Living Resources Act, 18 of 1998.[48] The MPA is of value for conservation of a wide range of endemic species, and has considerable economic value as a tourist destination. It encloses a large number of recreational dive sites visited by local residents and tourists from further afield. The shark and whale watching tourist industries are also represented, and there are several popular surf breaks. The MPA is mainly a controlled zone where extractive activities are allowed under permit, with six small no-take zones. The MPA is administrated by the Table Mountain National Park, a branch of SANParks.

The marine ecology is unusually varied for an area of this size, as a result of the meeting of two major oceanic water masses near Cape Point, and the park extends into two coastal marine bioregions. The ecology of the west or "Atlantic Seaboard" side of the park is noticeably different in character and biodiversity to that of the east, or "False Bay" side. Both sides are classified as temperate waters, but there is a significant difference in average temperature, with the Atlantic side being noticeably colder on average.[52] This MPA contains culturally significant fish traps, historical wrecks and traditional fishing communities, and is also important for commercial fisheries. Part of the West Coast rock lobster industry takes place within the MPA – as well as recreational and subsistence fishers, and an illegal poaching industry mostly targeting abalone, rock lobster and territorial linefish from the no-take zones.[52]

The Helderberg Marine Protected Area is a small marine conservation area on the north-eastern side of False Bay between the mouths of the Lourens River in the Strand, and the Eerste River in Macassar. The Helderberg MPA is in the warm temperate Agulhas bioregion. The shoreline is sandy beach with mobile dunes, and the seabed is low sandstone reef with kelp beds and sand sediments. The areas nearest to the river mouths are in relatively poor condition due to pollution of the river water. The beach inside the MPA is the most pristine part of the north shore of False Bay.[53]

Economic value

The harbours and slipways support the South African Navy, a small fishing industry, and a larger recreational boating community, including yachts, recreationl fishing boats and recreational diving boats.

There are harbours at:

Other slipways

Extractive exploitation of resources

The only current commercial fisheries remaining in False Bay are linefishing for pelagic snoek and yellowtail and demersal species hottentot, kob, white stumpnose, geelbek and roman, trapping of West Coast rock lobster, and beach-seine fishing (treknet). There are experimental fisheries such as for octopus, but this has been controversial due to entanglement of whales in the trap recovery lines. The demersal shark longline fishery also occasionally operates on the southeastern side of the bay.[6]

Commercial line-fishing remains mostly hand-line fishing using baited lines. In the mid 1980s regulations and a licensing system were introduced. In the last decade of the 20th century linefish catches along the South African coast declined to the extent that emergency measures were declared to protect the remaining stock. Licensing systems were revised in an attempt to establish a sustainable commercial boat based fishery, restricted to 316 boats between Port Nolloth and Cape Infanta. Catch limits on most species apply, with the exception of snoek, which is now by far the largest part of reported catch. Catches have become relatively stable since the early 2000s, though white stumpnose have continued to decline.[6]

Recreational fishing is the largest and most economically important fishery in the bay. It includes boat based angling and shore angling both from the rocky coast and from sandy beaches, and angling in estuaries, spearfishing and cast netting. In the first part of the 20th century most shore angling was for reef fish from the rocky east and west coasts of the bay, but a decline in the targeted species on the shoreline reefs and availability of four-wheel drive vehicles led to a move towards beach angling from the northern shore and targeting kob, white steenbras and slender bellman . Catches have declined and elasmobranchs are increasingly targeted by sports fishers. There has also been a move towards catch and release, and recent limitations on catch and closed areas in marine protected areas have slightly relieved the pressure, but stock of the top five target species have continued to diminish.[6]

The beach-seine or treknet fishery has provided fish for over 300 years. For much of that time it has been in conflict with other fisheries, some of which have been discontinued. Before 1975 there were more than 100 licensed operators, but this number has been reduced and as of 2019 stands at only five. Despite claims that the fishery is detrimental to stocks, large quantities of juveniles and other bycatch are affected, and the nets damage the benthic ecosystem, an investigation found that the licence holders had a right to continue targeting traditional species and that the impacts on the ecosystem are insignificant. Traditional fishing communities account for a large part of the traditional line-fish, lobster, and beach-seine fisheries, as crew or rights-holders, or by illegal fishing. Snoek and harder are an important part of the informal trade system in the traditional fishing communities, and contribute towards local food security.[6]

Chondrichthyans were traditionally a minor component of the catch or were often bycatch, but have recently become target of the demersal shark longline fishery, and are now more likely to be retained in other fisheries, which has led to concern whether the exploitation levels are sustainable.[6]

The commercially important West Coast rock lobster fishery was historically concentrated on the west coast, but catches east of Cape Point have increased since 1990, partly due to eastward shift of the lobster population, and partly due to declines in the west coast stock due to over-exploitation and habitat degradation, but the portion caught in False Bay remains a small part of the total catch. The population has recovered slightly, but the long-term survival of the resource is compromised by extensive illegal fishing and excessive allocations by the authorities.[6]

The abalone fishery was historically concentrated east of False Bay, and a high level of poaching and ecological side effects of the lobster population shift have caused severe reductions in the abalone stocks, which led to the commercial fishery being closed between 2008 and 2009. The recreational lobster fishery has been severely reduced and the recreational abalone fishery closed altogether since 2003.[6]

Other invertebrates that are harvested in the bay under the permit system include mussels and clams, giant turban shells (alikreukel) and various limpets. Experimental fisheries have included whelks, crabs and octopus.[6]

The sea bamboo kelp Ecklonia maxima is harvested as whole kelp, kelp fronds, and stranded drift, for use as feed for farmed abalone and as a plant growth stimulant, in quantities considered far below the sustainable yield. No other seaweeds are harvested commercially in False Bay.[6]

All of False Bay, inside a line between the lighthouse at Cape Point and the lighthouse at Cape Hangklip is closed to trawling, purse seining, longlining and the use of lobster traps.[54]

Recreational pursuits and tourism

Surfers Corner; A popular surfing spot at Muizenberg in the northwest corner of False Bay

Fishing can be good in False Bay and at times there are large schools of snoek, an oily, barracuda-like fish that is much sought after locally, and Yellowtail. Angling from the rocky shores to either side of the bay is very popular, but can be dangerous. The shape of the seabed at the mouth of the bay creates interference patterns in the swells that come in from the Southern Ocean and these patterns occasionally combine to cause "killer waves" to rise up without obvious warning and to sweep the sandstone ledges well above the high tide mark.[9] A number of rock anglers have been swept away and drowned over the years, but this seems to have done little to dampen enthusiasm for the sport.

Sailing is also a popular recreational activity in False Bay. The sailing clubs in False Bay include False Bay Yacht Club in Simon's Town, Fish Hoek Beach Sailing Club at the main beach in Fish Hoek, Gordon's Bay Yacht Club in the Gordon's Bay Harbour, and Hottentots Holland Beach Sailing Club in Strand. The moorings at the False Bay Yacht club are well protected from south easterly waves as they are in the lee of the naval base harbour, and are in the lee of the peninsula for westerly waves, and the water is relatively deep. The marina at Harbour Island in Gordon's Bay is protected against swells from all directions, but the entrance and inshore approaches are exposed to large south-westerly seas. Gordon's Bay harbour is largely silted up by sand, and access by keeled sailing yachts is limited by draught and tide.

There is a small granite island in the bay called Seal Island, which is one of the main breeding sites for the Cape fur seal. The seals attract many great white sharks and some of the biggest sharks ever seen have been spotted in these waters. These sharks are famous for the manner in which they breach the surface of the water while attacking seals, sometimes jumping entirely out of the water. Despite this, swimming, surfing, sailing, scuba diving and freediving are popular pastimes around the bay, at centres such as Muizenberg, Kalk Bay, Smitswinkel Bay, Strand and Gordon's Bay. Shark attacks are uncommon but not unknown, with two deaths since 2010.[55] Sightings of great white sharks have decreased in recent years; it is believed that competition between the sharks and a population of Orca in the region may be responsible.[56][57]

Tourism relating to False Bay makes a significant contribution to the region's economy, providing revenue from whale watching, shark-cage diving and other water sports.[6]


Main article: Beaches of Cape Town § False Bay

Fish Hoek beach
Boulders Beach populated with African Penguins
Windmill Beach

A long sandy beach runs more or less uninterrupted for the complete width of False Bay from Muizenberg to Gordon's Bay, forming the coast of the Cape Flats. Along the rocky Cape Peninsula, there are several smaller beaches below the mountains which are more protected from westerly swells than the beaches of the north shore. There is also a long sandy beach on the east side of the bay at the foot of the Kogelberg.

  • Buffels Bay, Cape Peninsula
  • Smitswinkel Bay
  • Fishermans Beach
  • Froggy Pond
  • Windmill Beach is a small sandy beach below the golf course at Froggy Pond, Simon's Town. It is surrounded by large rounded granite boulders, and has two small coves separated by a group of large boulders. The south cove is relatively narrow and deeper, and opens to the bay towards the east. The north cove is wider, shallower and very protected from swell. It is a safe swimming area. The south cove is a popular site for scuba diving and is often used for entry level training as the water is protected and entry and exit are easy.[58]
  • Boulders Beach
  • Long Beach, Simon's Town
  • Glencairn
  • Fish Hoek
  • Kalk Bay
  • St James
  • Muizenberg
  • Strandfontein
  • Monwabisi Beach, Khayelitsha
  • Macassar beach
  • Strand
  • Gordon's Bay
  • Kogelbaai, south of Gordon's Bay


Further information: Surfing, Surfing in South Africa, and Cape Town § Surfing

False Bay is open to the south, and the prevailing open ocean swell arrives from the southwest, so the exposure varies considerably around the coastline. The inshore bathymetry near Cape Point is shallow enough for a moderate amount of refraction of long period swell, but deep enough to have less effect on short period swell, and acts as a filter to pass mainly the longer swell components to the Western shores, although they are significantly attenuated. The eastern shores get more of the open ocean spectrum, and this results in very different swell conditions between the two sides at any given time.

The fetch is generally too short for southeasterly winds to produce good surf.

List of named breaks in False Bay, clockwise from Cape Point to Hangklip:

Recreational scuba diving

See also: Table Mountain National Park Marine Protected Area § Scuba diving

Recreational scuba diving at Whittle Rock reef

Most of the recreational dive sites of False Bay are in the Table Mountain National Park Marine Protected Area. A permit is required to scuba dive in any MPA in South Africa. These permits are valid for a year and are available at some branches of the Post Office.[48] Temporary permits, valid for a month, may be available at dive shops or from dive boat operators who operate in an MPA. A personal recreational scuba diving permit is valid in all South African MPAs where recreational diving is allowed. The business permit to operate recreational scuba business operations in an MPA is restricted to a specific MPA. Diving for commercial or scientific purposes is also subject to permit.

Named dive sites

See also: Recreational dive sites

Map showing the distribution of most of the wreck and reef dive sites of the Cape Town local area

False Bay has a large number of rocky reef and wreck recreational dive sites which have been identified by position and named.[60] Some of them are listed here for the west coast of the bay from north to south (within the TMNPMPA), for offshore parts of the bay, and for the east coast of the bay, also from north to south, roughly following the coastline where relevant:

False Bay west:[60]

False Bay offshore:[60]

False Bay east:[60]

Naval base at Simon's Town

A historic 9 inch gun overlooking False Bay installed at Simon's Town in the 1800s by the British to defend the bay

The famous naval base of Simon's Town is in Simon's Bay, about halfway down the length of the False Bay coast of the Cape Peninsula. During the Second World War many heavy guns were mounted in concrete bunkers at various points along the mountainous shores of False Bay in order to deter attacks on Simon's Town. The firepower and defensive situation of these weapons were formidable and no attack was ever mounted. Although some of the guns were removed decades ago, a few large guns are still emplaced on the hillsides near the Redhill road. Lower North battery at the bottom of Redhill road is used for naval gunnery training and has a few examples of currently used weapon systems for this purpose.

Development and human impact

Although urban development of the coast is intense along some parts of False Bay, much of the shoreline remains relatively wild and unspoiled. The bulk of the development is residential; there is little heavy industry. There are a few exceptions, however: one of the largest dynamite factories in the world used to lie near the beach in a sparsely inhabited region towards the eastern end of the bay. The nitroglycerine plant at this installation blew up twice in the second half of the 20th century and sent massive shockwaves across the bay, breaking windows and rattling walls on the distant shores. False Bay is poor in natural harbours. Almost all protection for shipping and smaller vessels has been created by extending the small naturally protected bays by artificial means (e.g. at Kalkbaai, Simon's Town and Gordon's Bay).

During the critical water shortage of the 2018 Cape Town water crisis two reverse osmosis desalination plants were installed at Strandfontein and Monwabisi resort on the north coast of the bay. They were all operating by August 2018,[61] but there have been problems and shutdowns since then due to algal blooms, a natural phenomenon quite common in the area.[62] The locations were at least partly chosen for proximity to the suburbs of the Cape Flats, which could have been severely affected if the supply of piped water had failed.

The population of Cape Town has more than doubled since the 1980s, and pollution has followed suit. Over-fishing has caused major reductions in stock and catches of commercially and recreationally targeted fish and invertebrates, and poaching is widespread. A number of alien invasive species have spread into the bay.[6]

The environmental impact of recreational diving in False Bay has not been studied, but is estimated to be low, partly due to the relatively resilient temperate subtidal reef ecosystems, and partly due to the relatively low numbers of divers visiting each site, as there are a large number of sites available for both shore and boat access.[6]

Climate change

Winds that cause upwellings have increased, causing a cooling of the water in the bay, and possibly nutrient enrichment. The ecosystem has shifted as a result, with typical west coast species like kelp and rock lobsters expanding their ranges and populations eastwards. Sea level rise and exposure to more frequent storm surge has increased the erosion of low lying sandy shores, and increased risk to coastal developments.[6]

The rising sea level is cutting back the coastline near Macassar beach during high swell events at a rate in the order of 2 m per year. The sea level is estimated to have been rising at about 1.9 mm per year since 1958.[6]


Early oceanographic and biological research in the region tended to be top-down sector based, but this trend has changed since the last decade of the 20th century to systems-orientated research for integrated coastal management and ecosystem based conservation. Recent research has included the effects of climate change, population growth, and related issues of over-fishing and coastal development.[6]

On 25 September 1968, and again, 21 years later, on 11 and 12 September 1989, symposia on the environmental assessment of False Bay were held under the auspices of the Royal Society of South Africa in Cape Town. The proceedings of both symposia were published as dedicated issues of the Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa.[63][64] Subsequently, in 1991, the Society published the proceedings of the 1989 symposium in book form.[65]

A review paper published in August 2019 lists 310 relevant papers published on False Bay.[6]

See also


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  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak Pfaff, Maya C.; Logston, Renae C.; Raemaekers, Serge J.P.N.; Hermes, Juliet C.; Blamey, Laura K.; Cawthra, Hayley C.; Colenbrander, Darryl R.; Crawford, Robert J. M.; Day, Elizabeth; du Plessis, Nicole; Elwen, Simon H.; Fawcett, Sarah E.; Jury, Mark R.; Karenyi, Natasha; Kerwath, Sven E.; Kock, Alison A.; Krug, Marjolaine; Lamberth, Stephen J.; Omardien, Aaniyah; Pitcher, Grant C.; Rautenbach, Christo; Robinson, Tamara B.; Rouault, Mathieu; Ryan, Peter G.; Shillington, Frank A.; Sowman, Merle; Sparks, Conrad C.; Turpie, Jane K.; van Niekerk, Lara; Waldron, Howard N.; Yeld, Eleanor M.; Kirkman, Stephen P. (2019). "A synthesis of three decades of socio-ecological change in False Bay, South Africa: setting the scene for multidisciplinary research and management". Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene. 7 (32). doi:10.1525/elementa.367. hdl:2263/75633. Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0)
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Multibeam sonar images of Whittle Rock and other reefs of False Bay