Whales, gannets, sharks, seals, tuna and dolphins are some of the marine creatures you’re likely to experience while diving South Africa, especially the oceans off South Africa’s Cape Point.
South Africa as a diving destination with a difference and if open water encounters with apex predators is not your scene, there are charters available to have you inside a cage.
The diving in South Africa is fantastic overall but bucket list dive is the Sardine Run. Billed as the greatest natural predatory show on earth, South Africa’s annual Great Sardine Run is the underwater world’s equivalent of East Africa’s Great Wildebeest Migration.
Diving South Africa
Aliwal Shoal Marine Protected Area
Divers do not venture to Aliwal Shoal for warm, high-visibility diving and calm seas.
Fossilised sand dunes are a soft base for a reef that has a mix of tropical and temperate water.
The sea life is similar to what we find along Australia’s Gold and Sunshine Coasts and in the Moreton Bay and Brisbane area.
It’s not unusual to find more than 30 grey nurse sharks in the caves that form in the soft rock.
These sharks are better known as raggies or ragged-tooth sharks in South Africa or sand tigers if you are from the Americas.
Being a volunteer for Grey Nurse Shark Watch in Australia, I can tell you it’s almost impossible to find 30 or more sharks chilling in a cave.
Aliwal Shoal and Protea Banks further to the south are top locations to see these labradors of the sea.
The season is from June to November.
There are seasonal visits by Zambezi or bull sharks, tigers, duskies, hammerhead and occasional visits by great white sharks.
Diving With Oceanic blacktips
Today’s viewing was all about oceanic blacktips (which should not be confused with blacktip reef sharks).
Oceanic blacktips are a fast, streamlined, open-water species that work with super pods of common dolphin and Cape gannets to feast on the largest shoal on earth – the sardine run.
Diving With Turtles
My turtle moment occurred at the end of a shark dive at Aliwal Shoal, seven kilometres off the KwaZulu south coast and about an hour by road to the south of Durban in South Africa in the Indian Ocean east of Umkomaas, which is a hot spot for cow whales.
My turtle moment gave me time to reflect on why we had backtracked from the Protea Banks.
We had seen hundreds of raggies, a handful of blacktips, a dusky and a couple of Zambezi sharks with our hosts for the sardine run, Roland and Beulah Mauz of African Dive Adventures.
My unlikely group of international friends had all dived with me and with sharks.
As a group, we had never been in circumstances where we were surrounded by 30 or more sharks coming at scraps of food from above, behind and all around.
That’s why we came back to Aliwal Dive Centre to experience close passes, the occasional bump and three-dimensional action that was to prepare us for the sardine run.
At Protea banks, one of our divers chewed through a full tank of air in 15 minutes on a deep dive to 30m with a cave full of raggies.
There was the wow factor: cool 20C water, eight to 10m visibility and a current to have most divers heavier on their air than usual.
But today we had arrived at Aliwal Shoal Marine Protected Area, where another charter had two divers at a baited shark buoy with a dozen snorkelers looking on and free diving to enjoy the oceanic blacktips.
I believe that the slow and purposeful way of the loggerhead turtle had it positioned for fish scraps that the sharks had missed.
It made sense to place our buoy and baited drums with the one that was already attracting attention.
We secured our baited top and bottom drums 20 to 30m up current from the snorkel group.
One of my favourite sequences shows a group of blacktips leaving our divers to check out what was happening at the snorkel buoy.
Finding their baited drums less than interesting, the whole group swam back to us and directly towards my camera.
Divers and snorkellers can enjoy the activity of oceanic shark species in a controlled environment knowing that small fish-focussed sharks could be joined by other sea life at any time.
For divers visiting South Africa for the first time, Nomad Tours and Lutwala Dive operate the Southern African Dive Safari between October and March in the South African Summer.
These tours are ideal for Dive Club trips as well as individual travellers to Africa.
I read an article about “the bay of plenty” in a South African Airways flight magazine en-route to join friends for a 2,000 km drive from Durban to Cape Town.
It seeded the idea that we could safely scuba dive with ancient seven-gill cow sharks and cape fur seals in False Bay.
I know the area to be a hotspot for great white sharks and I had not considered options beyond free diving or scuba diving with great white legends like Michael Rutzen.
By the time we arrived in Simon’s Town from our Airbnb base in Cape Town, we had been bumped by sharks at Aliwal Shoal, seen dozens of ragged-tooth sharks in caves off Shelly Beach, had close encounters with humpback whales, dolphins as well as sharks and Cape gannets off Coffee Bay.
We were scheduled for cage diving at Gansbaai with a guarantee to see great white sharks.
We were wondering if a dive in kelp forest on the western fringe of False Bay would be cold and spooky with limited visibility.
Diving at Cape Point Nature Reserve
For thousands of daytrippers, Simon’s Town is a café stop for the obligatory Instagram photo at the Cape of Good Hope and the famous jackass penguins at Boulders Beach.
Those locations are mapped on Google Earth but our diving spot off Partridge Point and Pyramid Rock near Cape Point Nature Reserve is more obscure.
The dive sites were a bouncy 20-minute boat ride south of Simon’s Town.
Both sites can be accessed as shore dives with a bit of effort.
We were impressed.
Watch a video of the Cape fur seals here:
For macro photographers, this place is a dream.
I know divers who would ignore ancient cow sharks and seals to look for the different colour, shape and form of over 80 species of nudibranchs amongst sea fans, soft corals, feather stars, bright yellow wall sponges, abalone, urchins, anemones and ascidians (solitary and colonial sea squirts).
Every square centimetre of rock had something encrusted, attached or nestled. It was a layer cake of sea life on sea life.
Mermaid purses tangled onto brilliantly coloured octocorals prompted us to look for the shy sharks that lay them.
We were not disappointed.
The wow factor was knowing that great white sharks were nearby but never seen by divers amongst the towering stems of the kelp forest.
Most divers will pause for the mesmerizing patterns of a cuttlefish and we were lucky enough to see one hunt and extend its tentacles to almost double its body length.
That was close to abalone nestled amongst holdfasts that anchored the kelp stipes to bedrock.
Without so much as a fin kick, we came across puffadder shy sharks which I assumed to be one of several shy sharks responsible for the mermaid purses.
They kept a low profile because shy sharks are prey for both seven-gill cow sharks and cape fur seals.
Now that I have seen the colour and diversity of sea life at two dive sites in False Bay, I understand why local divers believe it to be one of the top dive destinations in the world.
False Bay is warmer than the 7 to 12C on the Atlantic side of Cape Peninsula.
Only one diver from Johannesburg was wearing a dry suit for our dives at the end of July.
I was layered with a hooded vest and 5 mm wetsuit.
I travelled with a shorty and a 1 mm stinger suit in case extra layers were needed for warmth.
The Sardine Run
The sardine run that we came to South Africa to witness from Coffee Bay begins near False Bay.
It’s an annual natural phenomenon that occurs in June and July when massive schools of sardines migrate hundreds of kilometres along the eastern coastline of Africa.
Sardines spawn off the Southern Cape coast, where the adults breed in spring and early summer, then hug the shore as they make their way along the coastline of the former Transkei (northern Eastern Cape) and KwaZulu-Natal.
Shoals are visible from the surface of the ocean and are seething masses stretching for up to fifteen kilometres in length, three and a half kilometres wide and nearly forty metres deep.
That’s why it’s called the greatest shoal on earth.
The plankton in the cold currents along this stretch of coastline attracts the sardines, which are a target for predators.
There is an astonishing variety of sharks, such as bronze whalers, bull sharks, hammerheads, coppers and great whites.
The sharks and dolphins work together to employ a hunting strategy known as a “baitball”, where the dolphins herd the sardines into a tight ball and push them towards the surface, then pounce on them and gorge themselves on the tiny fish.
Diving with sharks in the middle of a feeding event, with whales, seals, gannets and other predators has its risks, which is why there are rules for the safety of divers and the marine life.
Divers are required to stay vertical in the water and remain in a group.
“A group of divers are not identified as food, much like a car full of tourists is not seen as prey on a safari through lion country,” says Isaacson.
Last year, the underwater adventurer came nose to nose with a 4.5m tiger shark. Isolated from his diving buddy, the adult female swam directly towards him.
“I made sure I was vertical in the water and prepared to scream loudly, shove the camera, mounting and lights at the tiger shark,” says Isaacson.
Fortunately, he wasn’t on the shark’s menu. The tiger shark was more interested in exploring the baited container that had broken from a 10m drift line sent to the ocean floor, 40m below.
For the largest shoal on earth to move along the coast all the way past Durban, the sea temperature must drop below 19C.
This year, it didn’t get below 20oC and the main shoal remained in deep water far away from the coast.
I might need an extra layer or a dry suit next time I dive in False Bay because it is best dived in the winter months when the Cape peninsula is less affected by the roaring forties of seafaring fame.
Be prepared for plankton-rich water which can reduce visibility.
Dive with video lights or torches because under the thermoclines, visibility opens up and in less than 20m you can see marine life that is usually found in much deeper, darker water.
For me, it was the brilliant red stems and the bright white, day feeding corals that caught my attention as hosts for intricately tangled basket stars.
What a sight they would be stretched out and feeding on the dense clouds of mysid shrimps that finned our way through.
False Bay is a bay of plenty and it is now on my list of favourite diving destinations. It would remain an unknown quantity had it not been for the article in the in-flight magazine.
Diving At Seal Island
Seal Island in False Bay, South Africa is known for great white sharks that ambush Cape fur seals with power that rockets them out of the ocean.
The breaches are spectacular.
We met with Chris and Monique Fallows who are shark diving operators for Discovery Channel, National Geographic and BBC. Seal Island is the patch for Apex Shark Expeditions.
The video opens with me ahead of Chris Fallows and dive buddies getting onto Apex Shark Expeditions boat at Simon’s Town wharf.
It cuts to a scene with divers being briefed aboard a Pisces Divers boat heading out from the same harbour to Partridge Point, near Cape Point Nature Reserve or Cape of Good Hope.
Don’t be confused, the boat with the shark cage was heading to Seal Island.
Anchoring off Seal Island, we saw thousands of Cape fur seals on the island.
Fur seals in the water had the safety of numbers and protection from ambush provided by dense kelp forest that great white sharks avoid.
We waited hours for a great white shark to show up and returned to Simon’s Town for relief from the sinus affecting the reality of being anchored down-wind from the pungent odours of Seal Island.
We jibed and bantered about swimming to Seal Island from the boat to interact with the Cape fur seals.
Even on days when great white sharks are not seen, Seal Island is not the place to be snorkelling or scuba diving with seals.
A commercial operator would lose their licence if snorkelling or diving outside of a cage at Seal Island was attempted.
You would need to make your own arrangements from a private boat, or go with Pisces Divers to Partridge Point, 10 kilometres south-west of Seal Island, just off the coast of Cape Peninsula.
Protected by the same kelp forests found around Seal Island, scuba divers can encounter Cape fur seals like the three sub-adults that found us as objects of their curiosity.
Several macro photographers were unaware that they were being approached from above and behind because there was so much to keep their focus on viewfinders.
Partridge Point is a colourful and interesting dive without Cape fur seals in the mix.
The wide view of our GoPro HERO cameras was better suited to interactions with seals.
They were interested in the bite-sized cameras that had flashing LED’s on the end of a stick.
Having more than one camera capturing the same behaviours gave us more options choices this video.
The scuba diving industry is known for brand rivalries and mistrust between operators that share hometown locations and diving options.
What was refreshing about Simon’s Town was the comradery observed between Apex Shark Expeditions and Pisces Divers.
My group of sardine runners who had gathered in Durban to drive 2,000 km to Simon’s Town for experiences in False Bay were unanimous with their praise of both operators.
If you’re wondering if False Bay is too dangerous, cold or gloomy for diving, take our recommendation and consider both Apex Shark Expeditions and Pisces Divers for at least two days of your itinerary at Simon’s Town.