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.

Cape Town’s where it’s at for incredible whale watching

From June to November each year around Cape Town you can catch some of the best land-based whale watching in the world. The nearby town of Hermanus, which is about an hour-and-a-half drive from the city, even hosts an annual Whale Festival every Spring.

Southern right whales — named as such because their slow speed and floating carcasses once made them the “right” whales to hunt — migrate annually from Antarctica to the coast around Cape Town to calve and nurture their offspring in the relatively warm waters along South Africa’s coastline. They usually arrive in June and hang around until October. These amazing mammals, which average 15 metres in length and can weigh a whopping 45 tons, are believed to live for over 50 years.

Another type of whale that you are likely to see in Cape waters is the humpback whale. Humpbacks, which have long pectoral fins and knobby heads, are usually seen between May and December. Although you won’t hear them from the shore — or even if you head out to view them from a boat — male humpbacks produce complicated songs that can last up to 20 minutes. These songs are repeated for hours on end!

Bryde’s whales — named after a Norwegian consul to South Africa who helped set up the first whaling station in Durban — are rare elsewhere in the world, but can frequently be seen between the West Coast and Port Elizabeth on the east coast. You might also catch a glimpse of killer whales (also known as orcas), sperm whales and bottlenose dolphins.

If you don’t want to travel far, your best bets for whale watching are from slightly higher vantage points along the False Bay coastline: Cape Point, Boyes Drive (between St James and Kalk Bay), and Clarence Drive (between Gordon’s Bay and Rooi Els). You might also get lucky if you take the train theat runs along the Fals Bay coast from Muizenberg to Simon’s Town.

Hermanus, which has been rated by the World Wildlife Fund as one of the 12 best whale-watching locations in the world, is the obvious choice if you don’t mind a bit of a drive. Southern right whales often come within meters of the shoreline at Walker Bay in Hermanus, treating you to an unforgettable display. A little less well known is Cape Agulhas — you can sometimes see up to 50 pairs of southern right cows and calves frolicking in the ocean at the southernmost tip of Africa. That’s definitely one for the Bucket List.

Head out of town to tune in to The Deep South’s musical riches

Only 30 minutes drive from the city centre, the southern part of the Cape Peninsual — known as The Deep South — boasts some of Cape Town’s best scenery. It’s also where good food and great music live in harmony.

Octopus’ Garden in the Old Post Office building at St James train station serves up a menu as eclectic as its décor and its entertainment offerings, with live music ranging from solo original artists to cover bands.

Built in 1939, the Brass Bell is considered an entertainment icon in entertainment in the area that stretchinges roughly along the False Bay coast from Muizenberg to Simon’s tTown. Located in the trendy harbour town of Kalk Bay and surrounded by rolling waves and tidal pools, this venue boasts 7seven different dining and entertainment areas. From karaoke to some of Cape Town’s best live music shows, it offers something for everyone.

Next door, you will find more laid back vibe of at Cape tTo Cuba, with its colourful déecor featuring an impressive hodgepodge collection of devotional objects and references to Ernest Hemingway and Cheé Guevara. Cape to Cuba hosts live music on Sundays only.

A little further south, The Annex in Simon’s Town hosts orginal live bands every Saturday night, as does.

Head even further south, to The Cape Farmhouse, which lies between Simon’s Town and Scarborough for family-friendly afternoon gatherings with local bands.

New tech tracks mysterious great whites

The great white sharks of Cape Town are mysterious creatures, but new research and tracking technology is creating awareness about their movements and habits.

Imagine a GPS tracking device like the one you have in your car. Except, instead of highways and back roads, it shows you the route travelled by a great white shark as it traverses the ocean.

That’s exactly what research organisation Ocearch have done by tagging great white sharks around the world, including at False Bay in Cape Town and further east in Gansbaai.

Sharks are attracted to the boat by using chum (bait, consisting of fish parts, bone and blood) they are then hoisted onto a platform aboard the Ocearch vessel using a powerful lifting mechanism. Once on board the platform they are sedated. Scientists and researchers then have 15 minutes to take samples, conduct studies and install the satellite tracking system before the shark is released back into the water.

Every time the shark surfaces after that, it sends a “ping” to a satellite tracking system that allows researchers to plot the position and route of individual sharks, which is displayed on an interactive map on the Ocearch website.

Opinion is divided on Ocearch’s research methods, but according to founder Chris Fischer, this gives scientists and researchers access to the sharks that would otherwise be impossible.

“The technologies and methods (are) the least invasive means of obtaining the data necessary to fill knowledge gaps regarding mature shark,” he says. “The majority of studies conducted on each shark could not be conducted on a free-swimming shark…This enables leading researchers and institutions to generate previously unattainable data on the movement, biology and health of sharks to protect their future while enhancing public safety and education.”

“Philip” was one of the sharks tagged in South Africa by Ocearch. He was tagged in Gansbaai in 2012 and has since been cavorting around the coastline, heading up to Mozambique in 2013 before making an abrupt u-turn. He was then tracked deep in the southern ocean late in 2014 after stopping by the West Coast of South Africa.

Follow the sharks on www.ocearch.org or download the tracking app to your phone.

The surf’s always up on the tip of Africa

Cape Town is a year-round playground for surfers, thanks to the fact that many of the surf spots are concentrated along the Cape Peninsula with its two oceans and island-like geography. This means that no matter what the conditions are, you can usually find a beach where the surf’s up.

Cape Town’s surf spots range from sandy beaches to rocky bays and deepwater reefs. These spots are generally split between two sides: the Atlantic coast, which runs from Cape Point all the way to Table View; and on the other side of the peninsula is False Bay, which stretches in a half-moon shape from Cape Point to Hangklip.

It’s a common misconception that False Bay is the start of the Indian Ocean – it actually starts 170km further east at Cape Aghulus – but water temperatures are often significantly warmer in False Bay, thanks to environmental factors. In stark contrast, water temperatures along the Atlantic coast get bone-chillingly cold, sometimes dropping below 10 degrees Celsius. Thankfully this doesn’t happen too often and it’s usually in the 13-to 16-degree range.

False Bay is generally more protected from swell and wind, while the Atlantic coast is more rugged and exposed. The result is the best of both worlds: a microcosm of waves where you can ride everything from the world’s biggest waves at spots like Dungeons, to the gentle longboarding paradise of Muizenberg, which is also a perfect place to learn how to surf.

Three reasons great whites ‘fly’ in False Bay

Seal Island in False Bay, Cape Town, has become synonymous with great white sharks lunging into the air to catch their prey in a spectacle known as breaching. Nowhere else in the world comes close for observing this awesome natural predation event. But why exactly do great whites breach so frequently here? Shark book author and award-winning photographer, Dr Dirk Schmidt, gives three reasons he believes drives these huge predators to get airborne.

1. Location, location, location…

Seal Island is tucked away inside False Bay, where there is generally only one path to the open ocean on the deeper, southern side of the island. This results in seals arriving and leaving the island in a predictable manner, usually following a narrow path of about 45 degrees in a southerly direction where the water abruptly goes from shallow to very deep. This area has become known as the “Ring of Death”, thanks to the unique underwater topography that allows white sharks to predict where the seals will be, then follow and ambush them.

When the shark decides to strike, it accelerates at high speed from below to surprise the seal swimming on the surface. The explosive momentum it generates enables the shark to push itself completely out the water, resulting in the spectacular breaches for which the island is famous.

Crypsis – or the ability of the shark to use the dark rocky seabed as camouflage – is also an important factor and probably why most breaches occur during the morning or evening. As soon as the shark loses the advantage of a surprise attack due to brightening light conditions, breaching attempts reduce significantly.

White sharks have the ability to learn and even repeat successful breaching behaviour (highlighted in my book White Sharks). Using the underwater topography as well as early morning and dusk lighting conditions to their advantage, they optimise the ambush attack method of breaching very successfully.

2. Size matters

The Cape fur seal is a relatively small pinniped (carnivorous aquatic mammal) compared to larger seals. This smaller-sized prey allows great whites in False Bay to successfully use the swift ambush-breaching technique, as opposed to the “bite and leave” techniques seen on relatively large prey like the elephant seals found off Guadeloupe, Mexico.

3. It’s all in the timing

The seasonality and birth cycles of young Cape fur seals also plays a significant role in breaching patterns. As the young seals mature and follow adults to sea to forage, they get tired and have less stamina, often lagging behind the returning groups. This makes them prime targets for white sharks, which single them out for attack on return to the island.

The best time to witness white sharks breaching around False Bay is from June to August, typically when the younger seals start to fend for themselves. White sharks have become so predictable at the southern end of Seal Island during this time that shark tour operators know exactly where to position their boats to witness the spectacle. They often tow seal decoys over these “approach paths” to mimic seal behaviour and elicit a breach. The success rate of breaches diminishes dramatically the further you stray from these corridors.

This doesn’t mean that breaching does not occur at other parts of the islands but they are far less frequent and appear more opportunistic.

Where to surf in Cape Town: False Bay

False Bay is protected from the predominant southwest swells that roll in from the Atlantic Ocean and usually has small waves, but it can get big on southerly or southeast swells. Muizenberg, with its perfect waves for longboarding or learning how to surf, is the hub of the surf scene in False Bay and there’s almost always something to ride here.

From Muizenberg the scenic main road heading south runs next to the ocean all the way to Cape Point and is ideal for checking out the waves, most of which work best on west to northwest winds. Danger Beach next to Saint James beach offers a shallow left and right reef break and a thumping shorebreak. It’s a great beach to hang out on even if there is no surf. A little further south is Kalk Bay Reef, which has been described as a miniature version of the famous Pipeline in Hawaii. Kalk Bay offers mechanical lefts over a very shallow reef and is for experienced surfers only. It’s a short wave and gets extremely crowded, but offers some of the best tubes in the whole of Cape Town if you manage to snag one. Around the corner from Kalk Bay lies Fish Hoek, which has okay waves sometimes but is better known for being a bit sharky. There are a few other breaks along False Bay on the way to Cape Point but they rarely work, because the swell has to bend in at an extreme angle.

Across False Bay lies Strand, which has a strong surf community and consistent beachbreak waves. Heading east from Strand you drive past Gordon’s Bay which occasionally hosts a nice left point break at Bikini Beach on huge swells. The spectacular road then hugs the cliffs and takes you around to Koel Bay, a stunning beach with excellent waves below the caves on the western end. You can park above the surf and look down to check it out. The water is often crystal clear and warmer than anywhere else in the whole of Cape Town, but the wave requires specific conditions to work – namely, a very small swell, light winds and low tide. Beware of the strong rip currents that are found up and down the beach.