Cape Agulhas (Portuguese: Cabo das Agulhas, "Cape of Needles") is the geographic southern tip of the African continent, commonly thought to be the nearby Cape of Good Hope, and is defined for hydrographic purposes to be the dividing point between the Atlantic and Indian oceans. Historically, the cape has been known to sailors as a major hazard on the traditional clipper route and is sometimes regarded as one of the great capes. It was most commonly known in English as Cape Lagullas until the 20th century.
Cape Agulhas is the southernmost point in the continent of Africa. It is located at in the Overberg region, 170 kilometres (105 mi) southeast of Cape Town. The cape was named by Portuguese navigators, who called it Cabo das Agulhas — Portuguese for "Cape of Needles" — after noticing that the direction of magnetic north coincided with true north in the region. The cape is within the Cape Agulhas Municipality of the Western Cape Province of South Africa.
The cape is defined by the International Hydrographic Organization to be the dividing point between the Indian and Atlantic oceans. South of Cape Agulhas the warm Agulhas Current that flows south along the east coast of Africa retroflects back into the Indian Ocean. While retroflecting, it pinches off large ocean eddies (Agulhas rings) that drift into the South Atlantic Ocean and take enormous amounts of heat and salt into the neighboring ocean. This mechanism constitutes one of the key elements in the global conveyor belt circulation of heat and salt.
Unlike its better-known relative, the Cape of Good Hope, Cape Agulhas is relatively unspectacular, consisting of a gradually curving coastline with a rocky beach. A survey marker indicates the location of the cape, which would otherwise be difficult to identify. The waters near the coast are quite shallow and are renowned as one of the best fishing grounds in South Africa.
The rocks that form Cape Agulhas belong to the Table Mountain Group, often loosely termed the Table Mountain sandstone. They are closely linked to the geological formations that are exposed in the spectacular cliffs of Table Mountain, Cape Point, and the Cape of Good Hope.
The climate is extremely mild, with no temperature or rainfall extremes. The average rainfall is 500mm per annum, mostly received in winter (unverified, as closest data is from Bredasdorp). Temperature climate data is available for Cape Agulhas, averages are:
The sea off Cape Agulhas is notorious for winter storms and mammoth rogue waves, which can range up to 30 metres (100 ft) high and can sink even large ships. These conditions are caused by a number of factors. The naturally strong winds of the roaring forties, which blow from west to east, and the cold Antarctic Circumpolar Current flowing in the same direction, come up against the warmer Agulhas Current in the region of the cape. These conflicting currents of water of different densities, and the west winds blowing against the Agulhas Current, can create extremely hazardous wave conditions; these are further exacerbated by the shallow waters of the Agulhas Bank, a broad, shallow part of the continental shelf which juts 250 kilometres (155 mi) south from the cape, after which it falls steeply away to the abyssal plain.
These hazards have combined to make the cape notorious among sailors; the coast here is littered with wrecks. Arniston (1815), Cooranga (1964), Elise (1879), European (1877), Federal Lakes (1975), Geortyrder (1849), Gouritz (1981), and Gwendola (1968) are just a few of the vessels lost in the proximity of the "Cape of Needles." Owing to the hazards and following the loss of several vessels, notably the Arniston, a lighthouse was built in 1848, this being only the second one to be built in the country. The lighthouse now holds a museum and a small rustic restaurant.