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How the West has changed

Dr Romala Govender, Curator/Scientist Cenozoic Palaeontology

Lets’ step back a few million years and visit the southwestern Cape coast during the Mio-Pliocene. About 6 million years ago (late Miocene) the coast was embayed having sandy and rocky beaches with warm sea surface temperatures. The development of the cold Benguela Upwelling System resulted in the decrease in the water temperatures and an increase in available nutrients. Miocene sediments were formed close to sea level along the southwestern Cape coast where marine waters breached a barrier to flood freshwater deposits.

Late Miocene beaches could have looked like this. (Photo R Govender)

Five million years ago (earliest Pliocene) the coast experienced a rise in sea level that formed islands from high points along the coast, including Table Mountain. Table and False Bays were linked by the submerged Cape Flats and the connection of Saldanha and St Helena Bays resulted in an archipelago in the Saldanha region. These islands were surrounded by shallow water and sheltered nearby lagoons and embayments.

Map showing the southwestern Cape Coast during the early Pliocene 30m contours based on 1:50,000 topographical maps (R Govender)

The west coast was occupied by true (phocid) seals (2/3 genus/species), four penguins species, three cormorant species, a small booby, two gull and tern species, and eight tubenoses species, an albatross, a storm-petrel, at least one prion species, 19 mysticetes (baleen whales, some are extinct) and 18 odontocetes (dolphins, beaked whales, sperm whales and a porpoise, some being extinct).

The presence of fledgeling bird bones and seal juveniles and pups suggest that they were also breeding along the coast on the numerous islands. The presence of young cetaceans suggest that the area was frequented by whale cow-calf pairings. These areas would have been available to individuals and young animals that wanted to rest either due to injury and/or conserve energy as they traversed the coast.

Clockwise – storm-petrel, Cape Cormorant, Albatross and sea gull

The varied shark community that included megalodon, white, mako, tiger, ragged tooth, and possibly Zambezi (bull) sharks; fed on whale carcasses to become beached and refloated leaching fluids that would have attracted sharks from as far as 10km away. Some seal bones also show signs of being fed on by sharks and were most likely scavenged as they floated in the channels between the islands and the mainland.  

There has been a complete turnover of the seal and marine avifauna along the coast with one seal, the South African fur seal (otariid), one penguin species, nine mysticetes (Baleen whales) and 28 odontocetes (dolphins, beaked whales, sperm whales and a porpoise). The marine birds only visit the coast today and live in the Antarctic and on sub-Antarctic islands while the closest relatives of the fossil seal(s) live in the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic even though the ocean temperatures along the west coast are colder today.  The coast changed as sea levels decreased through the Pleistocene; the islands were lost giving us the land surface we see now. How climate, geography and sea levels changes, and their consequences will be discussed further in the upcoming exhibition in 2026/2027 Ancient Seas: How water shaped our world.

South African fur seal – Kalk Bay harbour (Photo R Govender)

Exhibitions & Events

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Exhibitions & Events

Inside Iziko

Iziko Museums


Dear Visitors,

Please be advised that Iziko Museums’ Winter Operating Hours have been adjusted for weekends.

Winter Weekend Hours:

Saturdays: 08h30 – 16h00

Iziko Museums: Slave Lodge, South African Museum and South African National Gallery,

Bo-Kaap Museum and Iziko Planetarium and Digital Dome

Sundays: 08h30 – 16h00

Iziko Museums: Iziko South African Museum, South African National Gallery

and Iziko Planetarium and Digital Dome

Thank you,

Iziko Management

Dear Visitor 


Iziko Museums’ Winter Operating Hours Update. 


Please be advised that the weekend(SAT and SUN) operating hours have been adjusted. 

The museums will open operate from 08h30 to 16h00 on weekends during winter.


Saturdays from 08h30 to 16h00

Iziko South African Museum and Planetarium, Iziko South African National Gallery, 

Iziko Bo-Kaap Museum and Iziko Slave Lodge. 


Sundays from 08h30 to 16h00

Iziko South African Museum and Planetarium and Iziko South African National Gallery. 


By order 

Iziko Management.