The bay is a safe haven for sea vessels because of its natural deepwater harbour, protected by the Pelican Point sand spit, being the only natural harbour of any size along the country's coast. Being rich in plankton and marine life, these waters also drew large numbers of southern right whales, attracting whalers and fishing vessels.
The Dutch referred to it as Walvisch Baye and the English as Whale Bay. In its eventual formal incorporation, it was named Walfish Bay, which was changed to Walvish Bay, and ultimately to Walvis Bay. It has also been referred to as Walwich Bay or Walwisch Bay. The Herero people of the area called it Ezorongondo.
A succession of colonists developed the location and resources of this strategic harbour settlement. The harbour's value in relation to the sea route around the Cape of Good Hope had caught the attention of world powers since it was discovered by the outside world in 1485. This explains the complicated political status of Walvis Bay down the years.
The town is situated just north of the Tropic of Capricorn in the Kuiseb River delta and lies at the end of the TransNamib Railway to Windhoek, and on the B2 road.
Walvis Bay, with its large bay and sand dunes, is an important centre of tourism activity in Namibia. Attractions include the artificial Bird Island, centre of a guano collection industry, the Dune 7 sand dune, the salt works, the abundant birdlife, and a museum. Kuisebmund Stadium, home to two clubs in the Namibia Premier League, is also located in the city. The beach resort of Langstrand lies just a few kilometres north. The Walvis Bay Export Processing Zone is an important facet of the local economy.
Portuguese navigator Diogo Cão reached Cape Cross, north of the bay, in 1485. There followed Bartolomeu Dias, who anchored his flagship São Cristóvão in what is now Walvis Bay on 8 December 1487, on his expedition to discover a sea route to the East via the Cape of Good Hope. He named the bay "O Golfo de Santa Maria da Conceição." However, the Portuguese did not formally stake a claim to Walvis Bay.
Little commercial development occurred on the site until the late 19th century. During the scramble for Africa, the British Empire occupied Walvis Bay with a small area surrounding the territory. They permitted the Cape Colony to complete the annexation of the territory in 1884, following initial steps which had been taken in 1878.
In 1910, Walvis Bay, as part of the Cape Colony, became part of the newly formed Union of South Africa. Subsequently, a dispute arose with Germany over the exclave's boundaries, which was eventually settled in 1911, with Walvis Bay being allocated an area of 1,124 square kilometres (434 sq mi).
The exclave was overrun by the Germans during the South West Africa Campaign early in the First World War, but South African Forces eventually ousted the Germans in 1915. Subsequently, Walvis Bay was quickly integrated into the new martial law regime established in South West Africa.
South Africa was later awarded control (a Class "C" mandate) over South West Africa by the League of Nations to administer the territory. Civilian rule was restored in South West Africa in 1921 and administration of Walvis Bay was transferred to South West Africa under the South West Africa Affairs Act of 1922.
Despite the territory never having been part of German South West Africa, the Act stated that: "the port and settlement of Walvis Bay, which forms part of the Cape of Good Hope, shall for judicial and administrative purposes be regarded as if it were part of the mandated territory of South West Africa". However, South Africa had also sought to annex South West Africa itself, and had presented such a proposal to the League of Nations. Consequently, in 1949, the Act was amended to give representation in the Parliament of South Africa to whites in South West Africa.
In 1977, following increasing international pressure to relinquish its control over South West Africa, South Africa repealed the Act, but transferred control of Walvis Bay back to the Cape Province, thereby making it an exclave. From 1980, it was represented in both the Provincial Council and the House of Assembly as part of the Green Point constituency in Cape Town, before becoming a separate constituency in 1982.
In response, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 432 (1978), which declared that "the territorial integrity and unity of Namibia must be assured through the reintegration of Walvis Bay within its territory".
In 1990, South West Africa gained independence as Namibia, but Walvis Bay remained under South African sovereignty, with South Africa increasing the number of troops. However, in 1992, the two countries agreed to establish a transitional Joint Administrative Authority for Walvis Bay and the Offshore Islands. The Authority was headed by two Chief Executive Officers, Nangolo Mbumba, then Secretary to the Namibian Cabinet, and Carl von Hirschberg, former South African Ambassador to the United Nations.
In August 1993, prior to the end of apartheid, the Multiparty Negotiating Forum in South Africa passed a resolution calling for "the incorporation-reintegration of Walvis Bay and the Off-Shore Islands into Namibia." The Transfer of Walvis Bay to Namibia Act was passed by the Parliament of South Africa that year. Following the signing of a treaty between the two countries, South Africa formally transferred sovereignty of Walvis Bay and the Penguin Islands to Namibia on 1 March 1994.
Walvis Bay has a number of public (government-run), semi-public, and private schools. Among them are Duneside High School, Duinesig Primary School, International School of Walvis Bay, The Dolphin Schools, Kuisebmond Secondary School, Walvis Bay Private High School and others. A number of kindergartens cater to young children.
The Namibian Maritime and Fisheries Institute (NAMFI) is a tertiary education institution based in town. International University of Management (IUM) and Monitronics Success College both have branches in Walvis Bay.
Walvis Bay is an important logistical port for the southern African region, providing port facilities for the import and export of cargo for the rest of Namibia, Zambia, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Botswana. Since the year 2000 when the Walvis Bay Corridor Group (WBCG) was established, cargo moving through the port has increased from 30,000 containers a year to 370,000 containers in 2016. As of 2017 the port was being upgraded to increase its capacity to move 1 million containers a year by 2019. Bureaucratic and logistical problems at the city's competitor port at Durban, South Africa have diverted traffic to the port at Walvis Bay. Ninety-five percent of all cargo hauled overland through Walvis Bay is carried by truck.
In Walvis Bay there are different fishing companies like Hangana Seafood, Caroline Fishing, Benguella Fishing Company, Etale Fishing Company, Cadilu Fishing, Etosha Fisheries, Kuiseb Fishing Enterprises, Blue Ocean Products, Benguella Sea Products, Consortium Fisheries, Talanam Fish Processor. These companies catch different types of fish like snoek, horse mackerel, anchovy, white steenbras, kabeljou, kingklip, hake, catfish, tuna and sardines. Hangana Seafood are processors and exporters of fish and fish products. As such, the fishing enterprise accounts for a major part of Walvis Bay's economy.
Walvis Bay contains open spaces, scenic beauty and unique marine and plant life. It is well suited for the outdoor lifestyle, boasting sports such as sandboarding, kiting, surfing, swimming, angling, sailing, golf and other indoor and outdoor sport codes. There is Walvis Bay Lagoon and Aquatic Activities, Kuiseb River Delta and the beach itself where people enjoy swimming and catching fish.
The 2-kilometre (1.2-mile) sand spit allows the adjacent water to remain smooth in very strong winds, ideal for record attempting vessels like that by the Vestas Sailrocket.
The ocean-facing side of the sand spit includes a world-famous surf spot known in the international surf media as "Skeleton Bay."
It is home to Eleven Arrows F.C. and Blue Waters F.C., local football clubs that compete in the Namibia Premier League. The Sparta Cricket Club Ground is also located in Walvis Bay.
Walvis Bay features the very rare mild variation of the desert climate (BWn) according to the Köppen climate classification. It is caused by the rain shadow of the Naukluft Mountains and the cooling effect of the coastal sea temperature by the Benguela Current. Walvis Bay receives only 13.2 millimetres (0.52 in) average precipitation per year, making it one of the driest cities on earth. Despite its dry climate, the city is relatively humid. Average relative humidity throughout the year remains above 80%. The warmest month is February with average temperature 17.9 °C (64.2 °F), while the coolest months are August and September with average temperature 13.2 °C (55.8 °F). The diurnal temperature range is also low, averaging only 5.7 °C (10.2 °F). As one of the effects of manmade climate change, there has also been considerable warming at the airport in recent years. On 17 May 2015, the temperature at Rooikop near Walvis Bay International Airport reached 37.4 °C.
Walvis Bay is governed by a municipal council that currently has ten seats.
The 2015 local authority election was won by the SWAPO party which gained eight seats (5,818 votes). One seat each was won by the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA, 565 votes) and the United Democratic Front (UDF, 433 votes).
Walvis Bay is twinned with: