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 new eco-friendly shark barrier is being tested in Cape Town

Great news for Cape Town divers and other water users: a safe, eco-friendly shark barrier, is proving effective at curbing shark attacks, says Lynne Fraser, scuba diving instructor and former editor of South African dive magazines The Divesite and Divestyle.

Researchers from Stellenbosch University have developed a new method to potentially curb shark attacks that is safe for sharks, humans and other marine life.

The researchers worked with Michael Rutzen, the owner of Shark Diving Unlimited, a cage diving company based in Gansbaai, who is also known as “Shark Man” because he freedives with great white sharks. Together Rutzen and the university researchers have developed a new eco-friendly, non-invasive solution to shark nets that will potentially curb shark attacks. The system, called Sharksafe, is currently being tested in South Africa’s shark cage diving hotspot, Gansbaai, a two-hour drive east of Cape Town.

The system consists of PVC pipes fitted with permanent magnets that are anchored to the seabed, and which move in the water like kelp (seaweed). The system works on two levels: one, sharks – great whites in particular – tend to avoid swimming through kelp; and two, the magnetic field overwhelms their sensory systems, which effectively repels them. The magnetic field only affects sharks and poses no known threat to seals, humans, turtles, dolphins and other marine life. An added benefit is that animals don’t get entangled, as they do in conventional shark nets.

The Sharksafe barrier was deployed for the first time in 2012 in Gansbaai’s Shark Alley, an adventure diving hotspot and one of the best locations on the planet to study great white shark behaviour. While building the underwater barrier the team was observed by several curious white sharks that patrol the area!

Besides using permanent magnets as shark deterrents, the Sharksafe barrier is designed to mimic the kelp forest, with three to five rows of large vertical pipes that create a device that can manipulate the swim patterns of white sharks. The magnets specifically target the electrosensory system of elasmobranches (which includes sharks and rays); other marine life, like the Cape fur seal, is unaffected and can swim through it with ease.

Once the system was deployed, the researchers – who included a team of divers – surveyed the artificial reef that had started to form on the concrete bases of the barrier, and then chummed through it to collect behavioural data on the white sharks. Over two years of observation (in 2012 and 2013) it was seen that the Sharksafe barrier successfully altered the swimming behaviours of the great white sharks and provided an effective barrier.

The key to a sustainable ecosystem and healthy planet is to keep our long-term goals in mind: we must consider the consequences of our actions now, and how they may impact future generations. Sharks are an integral part of our oceans and the time has come to employ eco-friendly and sustainable technology that will encourage the co-existence of humans and sharks in the same waters.

A quick guide to shark cage diving in Cape Town

If you want to get up close and personal with a great white shark, Cape Town is one of the most popular places in the world to go shark cage diving, and for good reason…

There’s nothing quite like coming face to face with one of the planet’s largest predators – especially when you’re dangling in a cage underwater, with little else between you and these toothy predator. The practice, commonly referred to as shark cage diving, rates as one of the top wildlife experiences in the world and is easily doable as a day trip from Cape Town.

Depending on the season, you can either go shark cage diving around Seal Island in False Bay (located on the Cape Peninsula) or Gansbaai, a small holiday town two hours’ drive east from Cape Town.

A number of operators run tours, which take clients out on a boat from Simon’s Town harbour in False Bay or Kleinbaai harbour in Gansbaai.

How it works: A secure cage is attached to the side of the boat, which comfortably holds six people on average. Operators then chum the water, using a combination of tuna heads, sardines and fish oil to create a chum slick. This attracts the sharks to the boat, where they are clearly visible to the divers in the cage. A seal decoy is often used to get the sharks to swim closer to the cage.

You can observe the sharks using either scuba or snorkeling gear. The cage has no lid so if you’re not qualified to scuba, you can still get in the cage with snorkeling gear. Just drop your head down and enjoy the show. You don’t even have to get in the cage if you don’t want to – you can also observe the sharks clearly from the deck of the boat.

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.

There’s more to Gaansbaai than just shark cage diving

Gansbaai lies two hours east of Cape Town. The quaint fishing village has become famous for it’s toothy celebrities, but there is far more to do here than just great white shark cage diving.

Nestled along a stretch of coast called the Overberg, Gansbaai is a far cry from the hip, bustling city of Cape Town. The iconic lighthouse at Danger Point towers over a vast stretch of spectacular coastline with long, sandy beaches and offshore islands that are world renowned for great white shark cage diving.

Most visitors who arrive on great white shark cage diving tours often return to Cape Town the same day, which is a pity. As impressive as these creatures are, there is lots more to see and do in Gansbaai.

Walker Bay, situated between Gansbaai and Hermanus, boasts some of the best whale watching in the world. The bay is a spectacle in itself, a natural amphitheatre made of towering cliffs that plunge into the ocean. Southern Right and other species of whale come into the bay every year between June and December as they migrate along the South African coastline. October is the peak month for whale watching, and it’s not uncommon to see up to 30 whales close to the shoreline around Gansbaai on any given day.

Along with the sharks and whales, nearby Dyer Island is home to thousands of seals and there are abundant fish, soft corals and numerous shipwrecks for the avid diver. It’s hard not to get distracted by all these marine attractions, but you won’t be disappointed on land either.

Gansbaai boasts a number of incredible nature reserves – like Flower Valley and Grootbos Nature Reserve – that are home to a wide variety of fynbos and other endemic species. They also hold a number of spectacular hikes for the hiking enthusiast. The seven-kilometre Klipgat trail is a highlight, winding its way along the coast from Gansbaai harbour, past De Kelders and ending at the Klipgat cave.

Speaking of De Kelders, don’t miss out on these spectacular cliffs and caves that burrow deep into the coastal cliffs, or the dense milkwood forest trail that meanders through the conservation area. De Kelders is also a fantastic place for whale watching, and is less touristy than nearby Walker Bay. If you prefer taking in the scenery via pedal power, you’re in luck. There are a number of excellent mountain biking trails in the area.

Once night falls, there’s no need to rush back to Cape Town. Gansbaai offers a number of fantastic accommodation options, from B&Bs to self-catering cottages on the beach, where the sound of the waves will lull you to sleep in this low-key seashore paradise.