10 incredible dive spots in South Africa: beginner to pro

Forget about lazing on the beach; rather strap on your scuba diving tank to see what South Africa’s gorgeous coastline offers beneath the waves.

Need a place to start? Try Aliwal Shoal off the coast of KwaZulu-Natal. Regularly rated as one of the top 10 dive sites on the planet, this remarkable spot has something for everyone, from The Pinnacles (at just 15 metres) for the novice to the wreck of The Nebo in a more challenging 30 metres of water.

Speaking of challenging: Protea Banks is one for advanced divers looking for excitement. Plunging down to 40 metres, this site is famous for its sharks: expect to find Zambezi, Tiger, Hammerhead, Dusky, Ragged Tooth and Black Tip sharks hunting on the Banks. If you’re lucky you may spot manta rays and whales cruising past. It’s a deep dive with a strong current, so it’s for experienced adventure divers only.

Sodwana Bay is more forgiving, and home to the southernmost coral reefs in the world. The pristine coral teems with a huge variety of marine life and, if you’re lucky, you could spot turtles, dolphins or even a whale shark.

Sharks of a different sort are the drawcard at Gansbaai, just two hours’ drive from Cape Town. Billed as the Great White Shark capital of the world, the 60 000 seals resident on Dyer Island and Geyser Rock just offshore from Gansbaai draw in these impressive Apex Predators. There are a number of cage-dive operators in Gansbaai, but White Shark Projects is one of the best. In False Bay, closer to Cape Town, Apex Predators offers responsible cage-diving excursions.

If you’re feeling brave, you can leave the cage behind and roll into the warm(ish) False Bay waters in just a wetsuit. Experienced divers should hop on a charter boat and head for the wrecks of Smitswinkel Bay. The five ships scuttled here were sunk in the 1970s to form an artificial reef, and are today covered with marine life.

Not far from “Smits”, A-Frame and Windmill beach are great options for novice divers. Easy shore entries and shallow waters allow you to relax and search for the resident dogfish and pyjama sharks. Close by, the dives with seven-gill cow sharks are also memorable.

If you’re feeling brave Whittle Rock in the middle of False Bay is an outstanding site, but is also popular with great white sharks so a quick descent is essential!

In the summer months you’ll want to dive on the icy Atlantic side of Cape Town, where the prevailing south-easterly wind ensures crystal-clear waters. Add a dash of glamour to a day of diving by suiting up at Justin’s Caves, an underwater playground of jumbled granite. The 12 Apostles Hotel across the road is perfect for an after-dive drink.

A quick guide to Cape Town’s mind blowing diving diversity

Dive conditions here are not consistent, but knowing when and where to go will make diving in the waters off the Cape Peninsula an incredible experience for divers of all levels.

On a good day diving in Cape Town is mind- blowing, but the unpredictable conditions and generally poor visibility deters many visitors, and locals, from taking the plunge. That’s a pity, as diving in Cape Town can be very rewarding for divers of all levels of experience.

The marine life is incredibly diverse and there are numerous wrecks, rocky boulders and swaying kelp (seaweed) forests to explore. Boats launch from protected harbours and many of the sites can be accessed from the shore.

The reefs are covered with colourful sponges, anemones, basket stars and many nudibranchs (marine molluscs noted for their extraordinary colours and striking forms) there are over 100 species of nudibranch in the Cape Town waters.

Crayfish (rock lobster), crabs and a surprising variety of fish, including endemic klipfish, are regularly seen on dives and if you’re lucky, you might even encounter shysharks and catsharks.

Big game fish, seals and cowsharks are encountered year round, while the second half of the year from June to December brings whales to the Cape coast. These are sometimes seen on boat rides to the dive sites.

Dive conditions are very affected by the wind and swell, but because there are two coastlines the Atlantic to the west and False Bay to the east you can usually find somewhere protected to dive. Generally speaking, False Bay has better visibility and calmer seas in the winter months from June to September, while conditions on the Atlantic side are better in the summer, from December to March/April. Conditions in spring and autumn are less settled.

Water temperatures in False Bay range from 12-18 degrees Celsius, while those on the Atlantic side are generally 8-12 degrees Celsius. So, although a thick wetsuit should keep you warm enough, you’ll be more comfortable in a drysuit. A hood, gloves and boots are essential and it is worth taking a good torch to bring out the vivid colours of the marine life.

Dive equipment hire, shore dives and boat charters can be arranged through the local dive shops.

For gauranteed good conditions, head to the Two Oceans Aquarium

You don’t have to brave the ocean to see Cape Town’s wonderful marine life up close. At the Two Oceans Aquarium, you can dive with sharks and other predators in a large marine tank.

Cape Town waters are cold, and fear of sharks puts many divers off taking the plunge into the open ocean. The good news is that if you really want to get up and personal with sharks, turtles and big game fish there’s nothing to beat a dive in the in I&J Predator Exhibit in the Two Oceans Aquarium.

After a short briefing you drop into the vast, glass-fronted tank as wide-eyed children and other visitors to the aquarium applaud your bravery from the viewing gallery. This is the easiest dive in the Cape, and one to add to your bucket list if you are a novice diver: there aren’t many places in the world where you can dive with sharks with just a Discover Scuba dive qualification! There’s no surge, the visibility is great, the water is (relatively) warm and there’s a wonderful selection of predatory fish all around you. Cheeky turtles come up to check you out, and after the initial adrenalin rush you soon find yourself comfortable and intrigued by the ragged-tooth sharks.

Divers with an advanced qualification can also feed the fish and check out the marine life in the surging kelp (seaweed) fronds of the Ocean Basket Kelp Forest Exhibit. The tank is home to galjoen (South Africa’s national fish), gully sharks, white stumpnose, black and white musselcracker, as well as crayfish and perlemoen. If you’re really lucky you might even spot a rockhopper or African penguin that has been released into the kelp forest for a swim. Although it doesn’t quite have the same kudos as diving in the predator tank, it’s nonetheless a fascinating insight into the marine life of the Cape coast.

To dive in the I&J Predator Exhibit you need to have a Discover Scuba qualification or higher. You can attain this limited qualification with the Two Oceans Aquarium onsite instructor. Divers with an Open Water qualification must present their dive card in order to dive.

Shore thing: Cape Town’s most accessible dives

One of the best things about diving in Cape Town is the number of sites that are easily accessible from the shore. Your choice of site will depend on weather conditions, but these are some of the best.

The MV Antipolis, which is almost in front of the Twelve Apostles Hotel (a few kilometres past Camps Bay along the Atlantic coast) is visible at low tide and makes a pleasant introduction to wreck diving. The portholes and engine parts of the old Greek oil tanker are still intact and at an average depth of only 10 metres (maximum 12 metres) it makes for some interesting photography. Try to dive this wreck in bright light when the sun’s rays filter through the wreckage and create the same effect as a strobe light in a disco.

Coral Gardens, which takes its name from the large areas of Noble coral, Allopora nobilis, found in the area, is another very popular shore dive on the Atlantic side of the peninsula. The marine life here is spectacularly diverse and the underwater landscape mirrors that of the surface topography, with large granite boulders providing interesting overhangs, caves and swim-throughs.

Pyramid, between Millers Point and Castle Rocks in False Bay, is one of Cape Town’s best sites for fish varieties, but it is the sharks that are the main attraction, particularly the huge cowsharks regularly encountered by divers. Puffadder shysharks, pyjama catsharks and leopard and spotted gully sharks can also be seen at this site.

All of these sites are within Marine Protected Areas and a permit is required to dive them. Dive operators will take you out to these sites. Or, if you are experienced, you can hire gear and buy a permit from one of the local dive shops, and go with just your dive buddy.

Underwater playgrounds: suit up and explore this awesome wreck dive

The waters off the Cape Peninsula offer a range of scuba-diving options, but it is the 500 plus shipwrecks that attract divers most of all. Here’s one multi-wreck dive well worth submerging for…

The Smits wrecks, which lie in the picturesque Smitswinkel Bay just outside the Cape of Good Hope section of Table Mountain National Park, offer some of the best diving in the country. Five vessels – two navy frigates (the SAS Transvaal and SAS Good Hope), a diamond dredger (the MV Rockeater) and two fishing trawlers (the MFV Princess Elizabeth and the MFV Orotava) – were scuttled in the 1970s to form an artificial reef, which today is home to a rich display of marine flora and fauna. Despite their depth (36-40 metres) the wrecks are close together, so if you plan properly it is possible to explore more than one wreck on a dive.

The sensation of swimming away from one wreck as the next appears in the murky depths is really quite dramatic. If you plan properly you can actually take in all the wrecks on one dive, but as each wreck is interesting it’s a pity to rush. It’s dark down there, so don’t forget your torch to fully appreciate the beauty and colour of the soft corals, sponges, gorgonian fans and colourful klipfish.

Wreck diving can be dangerous if safety rules are not observed so always dive with a qualified guide – and remember that penetration diving requires specialist training. Many of these wrecks are protected by law – please treat them all with respect and do not disturb, or remove anything from the wreckage.