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.

Great white shark cage diving has put Cape Town on the map

The chance to get up and close and personal with great white sharks (from the safety of a cage, of course) is as good a reason as any to come to Cape Town! After all, it’s one of only three places worldwide where you can do this…

Cape Town is one of only three places in the world where you can go cage diving with great white sharks — the others are in south Australia and Isla Guadalupe, off Mexico.

It’s no surprise, then, that the shark cage diving industry has put the southern Overberg town of Gansbaai, to the east of Cape Town, firmly on the world adventure map. But few people know that you don’t have to go all the way to Gansbaai to dive with these awesome predators.

During the winter months (mid-April to mid-September) shark cage diving operators, run trips from Simon’s Town harbour to watch great white sharks breaching and hunting for seals off Seal Island in False Bay.

The seals at Seal Island become the only food source for the great white sharks in the cooler water temperatures of winter because the migratory fish species leave False Bay at this time. Sharks are attracted to the boat for close viewing from the the cage by using seal decoys and bait. Once you’ve enjoyed the view from the boat you can put on dive gear and hop into the cage in the hope of getting up close and personal with the great white sharks.

April, May and June are usually the best months for seeing sharks around the boat so this is the prime time for cage diving. If you want to see natural predation (the sharks hunting seals), July, August and early September are best.

The summer months (December to May) offer a different shark viewing experience: the opportunity to view pelagic sharks (sharks that live in the open ocean, far from land) such as mako and blue sharks, in the Agulhas current off Cape Point. The best months are December and January, when the warm water is closest to shore and a variety of sharks are sighted, including large smooth and scalloped hammerhead sharks. May is a great month to plan a combination of pelagic-shark trips and great-white-shark trips.

Six other sharks that call South Africa home

Great whites get all the glory, but South Africa is home to an incredible variety of shark species, most of which pose little threat to people…

Shark species play a vital role in keeping marine ecosystems in check. Most of these pose little or no threat to humans, but there are one or two fins you should keep your eyes peeled for.

1. Cow shark

Cow sharks are the most primitive shark species surviving today and make up the Hexanchiform genus of sharks. The rare sevengill cow shark is found in colonies around Cape Town and can grow up to 3,5 metres in length. They look quite fearsome, especially when they gather in a group to feed, but are generally not aggressive and pose little threat to humans. That doesn’t mean they’re not highly effective predators: sevengill cow sharks regularly snack on seals and other sharks and are also known as the “wolves of the sea”, thanks to their remarkable habit of “hunting” in packs. These species prefer shallower, rocky habitats close to shore, making them a major diving attraction around Simonstown (a 50 minute drive from Cape Town’s Central Business District), where they can be observed in channels in the kelp forests. Don’t expect to see a dorsal fin breaking the surface though – they don’t have one. Other evolutionary anomalies include seven gills on each side of the head as the name suggests – most other shark species only have five.

2. Zambezi shark

The multi-taskers of sharks, Zambezis have the unique ability to alter their body chemistry to survive in freshwater and are generally found around river mouths and estuaries, where they hunt for food. Known as bull sharks elsewhere in the world, Zambezis typically occur along the South African coastline from the Eastern Cape to KwaZulu-Natal but in 2012, a huge pregnant female was found over five kilometres up the Breede River in the colder Western Cape waters, prompting scientists to rethink their habitat. Zambezis have rounded, blunt snouts and are grey in colour with a well-developed dorsal fin. They can grow up to four metres and are aggressive predators. That said, they pose little threat to divers but have been responsible for numerous attacks on swimmers and surfers. Best avoided by not swimming around open river mouths, especially where the water is murky.

3. Ragged tooth shark

A pronounced overbite and rows of protruding teeth give ragged tooth sharks a fearsome appearance, but these bucktoothed beasts are in fact a docile species and a favourite amongst divers. Ragged tooth sharks grow up to three metres in length with thick, rounded fins and have a copper-coloured body with spots that fade as they get older. Affectionately called “raggies”, they gather in large numbers on the reefs of Aliwal Shoal and Sodwana Bay in KwaZulu-Natal but they are also found as far south as Cape Town. Unlike other sharks that rely on their swim bladder to stay afloat, raggies have to regularly take a gulp of air from the surface to allow them to stay afloat and prefer shallower waters.

4. Whale shark

Despite their enormous size, these majestic creatures pose no threat to humans and are a bucket list item on any diver’s itinerary. Whale sharks are filter feeders who jut out their enormous jaws to suck in water and siphon plankton through a set of filtering pads that stretch across their huge throats. They are easily identified through the white spots and pale stripes that cover their massive bodies. The head is blunt and broad and the two dorsal fins are found far back on the body. Whale sharks can grow up to a whopping 12 metres in length and typically occur in sub-tropical to tropical waters around the world. They are most commonly found in South Africa along the south coast of KwaZulu-Natal up to Sodwana Bay and into Mozambique. If you’re lucky enough to encounter one, relax and enjoy your moment with this magnificent denizen of the sea.

5. Tiger shark

Found in temperate to tropical waters, tiger sharks get their name from the dark, vertical stripes along their backs. They have been described as voracious predators and are often found around river mouths and harbours. They can grow to a massive seven metres in size. Most species seen in South Africa are the smaller female sharks though, which reach up to four metres in length. Tiger sharks are slow swimmers but have an elongated caudal or tail fin, which allows them to generate a short, sudden burst of speed. They are territorial and have been involved in a number of shark attacks on swimmers and surfers, especially around islands like Reunion and Hawaii, but the confirmed number of attacks in South African waters is very low. The reefs around Aliwal Shoal on the south coast of KwaZulu-Natal are world famous for their resident population of tiger sharks who can often be seen on diving excursions.

6. Hammerhead shark

The hammerhead is in fact nine different species that are found worldwide, but three of these species call South Africa home: the great hammerhead, the scalloped hammerhead, and the smooth hammerhead. You’re not going to have any problem identifying a hammerhead shark, thanks to the distinctly flattened head shaped like a hammer with eyes on lobes located on either side. Hammerheads are big sharks – the great hammerhead can grow to over five metres in size, and both the scalloped and smooth hammerhead may reach four metres. Adults are typically found in deeper water while juveniles prefer hanging out inshore, especially in the Western Cape and northwards during summer. Hammerheads are shy and pose little threat to humans, but attacks aren’t completely unheard of and have mostly involved the great hammerhead. Large schools of hammerheads have been observed following the sardine run, an annual migration of huge shoals of sardines up the coast, and along the Protea Banks, eight kilometres off the KwaZulu-Natal coast.

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.