South Africa (here's the map), at the southern tip of Africa, is a vast country with widely varying landscapes and has 11 official languages, as well as an equally diverse population. And Cape Town's diving is no different. The meeting of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans results in a difference in sea temperature which promotes a huge diversity of marine life.
Just outside Cape Town, there are huge kelp forests, rising 12 metres to the surface, abundant reef walls and caves. Diving is year round, but the best time of year is April to September when the Great White sharks are active in their feeding patterns. Be warned though, the waters here are chilly to say the least, but well worth it. Diving in kelp is like walking in a forest. You float beneath the canopy where there is surprisingly colourful reef life.
Although diving in Cape Town is year-round, as the seasons change, so do the locations; 8 months of the year is spent diving False Bay and the rest, in the Atlantic ocean. False Bay is approximately a 25 minute drive from the V&A Waterfront and is on the way to Cape Point Nature Reserve and the Cape of Good Hope. It is the largest true bay in South Africa and one of the great bays in the world. Although, technically part of the Atlantic ocean, locally it is either referred to as False Bay or Indian Ocean. The reason for this is that the temperature difference between the two sides of the Cape Peninsula is really big, sometimes as much as 10C. This temperature difference is caused by the cold Benguela current that sweeps up from the Antarctic along the Atlantic coast, packed with plankton nutrient rich and provides excellent fishing grounds. The East coast has the north-to-south Mozambique/Agulhas current to thank for its warm waters. False Bay is stuck right in the middle of these two currents, which means you have the best of both worlds when diving anywhere in False Bay.
Late winter sees the migration of whales including Southern Right and Brydes whales. Dolphins, seals and penguins are also common. Click here to see the Whale Route.
Wrecks are scattered all over the South African coastline, with more than 2500 recorded. Many of these wrecks are diveable. The city of Cape Town has scuttled a couple of ships especially for recreational diving purposes, and caters for every diver's needs. Wrecks can be found as shallow as 5 metres up to depths of 60 metres or more.
But, the main reason that divers flock to South Africa are for the sharks. Dive sites include the Aliwal Shoal, Protea Banks, Sodwana Bay and the world famous sardine run off the KwaZulu Natal coast. A whole industry has been built up around these magnificant (and often persecuted) creatures, and South Africa was the first country in the world to fully protect the Great White Shark. Cage diving with chum (a soup of blood, mashed pilchard, and sardines which are thrown overboard to attract them) is widely available. There has been some controversey around this practice; critics argue that the sharks learn to associate humans with food. In Florida, they believe feeding sharks alters their natural behaviour, and a ban was put in place in November 2001. Since then it has been illegal to feed sharks in the wild. Click here to read an article from The Shark Trust, 'Responsible and Sustainable Shark Ecotourism'.
However, diving with sharks is a large contributor to much needed tourism in South Africa, where the animal has been given the status of Marine tourism species, a status already enjoyed by whales and seals meaning it may in no way be impaired or injured. This makes it possible to legally control tourism activities with these animals and disturbing these animals in their habitat must be reduced to a minimum.
Some diving with sharks trips are used to carry out research on shark behaviour, others are mainly for the entertainment of tourists, although they often claim to play an educational role. There are things operators can do to minimise detrimental effects, such as limiting the number of people diving in one location, preferably outside a large radius from the coast and other areas frequented by people, and providing lessons in shark biology for diving representatives.
Make up your own mind as to the ethics but, if this is an experience you want to try, please ensure that you dive with a reputable dive centre.
Thank you to Olivier Schori for all the photos and his input to Useful Stuff around diving in South Africa.
And a big thank you to Jan de Bruyn, a divemaster working in South Africa, for all his work to make sure the information on these pages is as accurate as possible!
- Wrecks in False Bay:
- Clan Stuart (Shore Dive)
- SAS Pietermaritzburg (Previously the HMS Pelorus) (18-22 metres deep)
- SAS Good Hope, MV Princess Elizabeth, MV Rockeater, MV Oratava, SAS Transvaal. (28-35 metres deep)
- Wrecks on the Atlantic Coast - Maori, Boss 400 (exposed wreck), Oakburn, Antipolis. (0-25 metres deep), Aster and Katzmaru (30 metres deep)
- Aliwal Shoal - reputed to be one of the best places in the world to see Ragged Tooth sharks (Sand Tiger sharks). This rocky reef is also visited by Tiger sharks, Brindle and Potato Bass as well as Manta Rays and Dolphins. Two wrecks also lie close nearby and this also makes for an interesting dive.
- Protea Bank - unique reef system along the Kwa-Zulu Natal coast which offers diving experiences second to none. The pelagic life is the main attraction with schools of yellow tail, kingfish, tuna and barracuda attracting a variety of top predators. The reef is especially known for it’s large “Zambezi ”(Bull Shark) populations and has been rated as one of the world’s top shark dives.
- Sodwana Bay - home to over 25 species of sharks and rays and a nesting site for Loggerhead and Leatherback turtles.
- Sardine Run - each year (in May and June), millions of sardines migrate north following the cold winter currents towards the Indian Ocean, attracting thousands of predators; dolphins, orcas, sharks, seals and whales. See the YouTube video from the BBC here:
- As the weather can change very quickly, most dive centers decide in last minute whether they dive in the Indian Ocean or Atlantic Ocean. The big deciding factor which determines which side to dive, is the prevailing wind. North Westerly wind means that the diving in False bay is usually good, and visibility will be more than 5 metres; if a strong North West wind blows for a couple of days, that can increase to up to 20 metres. However, if the wind blows South East, then diving the colder Atlantic Ocean will be better.
- If you dive with a dry suit, the winter season is best (April-September) as the air to water temperature difference is smaller.
- South Africa is not a liveaboard dive destination due to the rugged nature of the South African coastline and the severe weather conditions that are often experienced around the entire 3000 kilometre coastline. All diving in South Africa is shore based and is done from Zodiacs or RIBs. However, if the weather permits then you will find a 2 or 3 day liveaboard during the sardine run but they are private boats.
- The north-eastern areas of the country (including the Kruger National Park and St. Lucia and surrounds) are seasonal malaria zones, from about November to May. The peak danger time is just after the wet season from March to May. Check for up-to-date information before travelling.
- Cape Town and Marine and Coastal Management (MCM), along with Table Mountain National Parks (TMNP), has put a system in place for diving in Marine Protected Areas (MPA's). You can obtain a permit from your local Post Office at a cost of R75. Most of the dive sites that Cape Town divers frequent are situated in the MPA zones. Some dive centres have a permanent exemption and the dive leader will carry the appropriate paperwork. Every diver should have a permit if they dive by themselves (if not accompanied by a dive centre). The funds generated by the permits go towards maintaining and policing the Western Cape coast in an effort to stop the excessive poaching of abalone (locally known as perlemoen or the slang term perly) and crayfish.
- Fishing permits are also available at the Post Office. Spear fishing is only allowed in certain areas and there are certain species of fish that is not allowed to be speared. You are also not allowed to spear on scuba, this is purely limited to freediving! See MCM Link below.
- BE AWARE: Lariam (mefloquine) is an anti-malarial drug used in regions of the world where chloroquine resistant falciparum malaria is prevalent. e.g. East Africa, South East Asia. Possible side effects of lariam such as dizziness, blurred vision and a disturbed sense of balance are common and could cause problems for divers. These effects can often imitate or even worsen the symptoms of DCI. There could also be confusion between the side effects of lariam and the symptoms of DCI or nitrogen narcosis resulting in a misleading diagnosis.
|Language:||English and Afrikaans|
|Climate:||Mostly semi-arid; subtropical along east coast; sunny days and cool nights|
|Diving season:||Year round|
|Water temp (Indian Ocean):||20C/68F (Jan - March)|
|16C/60F (July - Sept)|
|Water temp (Atlantic Coast):||14C/56F (Jan - March)|
|8C/45F (July - Sept)|
|Air temperature:||9C - 32C (North)|
|27C - 35C (South)|