False Bay, South Africa

False Bay, South Africa

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Photos: Tony Isaacson

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.

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Simon’s Town

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.

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We were wondering if a dive in kelp forest on the western fringe of False Bay would be cold and spooky with limited visibility.

For thousands of day trippers, 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.

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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 centimeter of rock had something encrusted, attached or nestled. It was a layer cake of sea life on sea life.

Watch a video of seven-gill cow sharks here:

Great white sharks

Mermaid purses tangled onto brilliantly coloured octo-corals prompted us to look for the shysharks 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 shysharks which I assumed to be one of several shysharks responsible for the mermaid purses. They kept a low profile because shysharks 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 7o to 12o C 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. For the largest shoal on earth to move along the coast all the way past Durban, the sea temperature must drop below 19oC. 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 suite 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.

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Be prepared for plankton-rich water which can reduce visibility. Dive with video lights or a 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.

Discover South Africa

Pisces Divers offers all levels of PADI dive training as well as diving equipment rental and sales. They offer dives to a variety of dive sites, from shallow shore entries with kelp forests to wreck and reef dives.

Looking for a challenging dive in Queensland> Try the SS Yongala dive for an adventure.false bay south africa

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As a PADI Scuba Diving Instructor, AWARE shark conservation specialist and adventurer, I have dived in some of the most amazing diving locations on the planet. I’ve logged over 3000 dives in more than 20 countries around the world and have explored the depths of the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic Oceans. I’ve documented the marine diversity in exotic locations like Komodo, Fiji, Vanuatu, Tahiti and the Galapagos Islands. I have been scuba diving since 1970 and have a Certificate IV in training and assessment. I am a registered teacher of marine studies since 1977. In 2002, I won the "Best School in Australia" for Marine Education and the BHP Science Prize for Marine Science Teaching. I was the inaugural President and a founding member of the Marine Life Society of South Australia. In 2013, I inspired Navy Clearance Diver and bull shark bite survivor, Paul de Gelder and a 60 Minutesfilm crew to dive with bull sharks at the Ultimate Shark Encounter in Fiji. I was a consultant on the making of documentaries on Leafy Seadragons (for Channel 9), The Great Barrier Reef (with Richard Fitzpatrick for the BBC) and filmed underwater footage in Indonesia and off the Queensland and New South Wales coasts for Travel2Next. Last year, I came nose-to-nose with a 4.5m tiger shark. Isolated from my diving buddy, the adult female swam directly towards me. I made sure I was vertical in the water and prepared to scream loudly, shove the camera, mounting and lights at the shark. Fortunately, I wasn’t destined to be on the menu that day! In July 2014, I will lead an international group of diving adventurers for big shark action, the sardine run and great white sharks from Durban to Cape Town, South Africa. I’m a great advocate for sharks, sustainability and ecotourism, and I regularly volunteer for Reef Check and Grey Nurse Shark Watch in Australia. Read more about my adventures on my blog DiveCareDare.

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