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Diving in South Africa – The Ultimate Guide

South Africa has an incredibly long coastline, 2735-kilometers, starting close to Mozambique, with subtropical conditions, continuing south into colder waters, meeting the cold Atlantic Ocean at the Cape of Good Hope and continuing up the wild west coast. It’s difficult to know where to start! The sheer variety of diving in South Africa makes it a destination for the avid adventure diver, and this beautiful country offers  some of the best shark diving in the world.

South Africa in Pictures

A collection of photos of South Africa both over- and underwater.

Marine Life in South Africa

One thing you are guaranteed to see while diving in South Africa is a shark! Located at the confluence of three great oceans: the Indian, Atlantic and Southern Oceans, marine life in South Africa, especially large pelagics, is rich and varies dramatically depending on the location and time of year. Home to 2 200 species of fish (equivalent to about 15% of the total number of marine fish species worldwide) and with a lot of endemic species – it’s a diver’s delight.

You can “dive the big five” (great white, sand tiger, tiger, bull shark and hammerhead), join the Sardine Run for the thrill of a lifetime or cruise along spectacular warm-water drop-offs and coral formations teeming with a myriad species of fish. Blacktip reef sharks, schools of pelagic fish, manta rays, huge moray eels, colorful bannerfish, angelfish, parrot fish, barracuda and more.  

Shark action includes white sharks, ragged-tooth sharks, hammerheads, tiger sharks, oceanic sharks, reef sharks, blue sharks, mako sharks, sevengill sharks, spotted gully sharks, puffadder catsharks, dark shy sharks, pajama sharks, and leopard cat sharks.

There are also a number of excellent wrecks to explore. One trip won’t be enough!

The boat ride out is often just as thrilling as diving with frequent sightings of bottlenose and spinner dolphins, cape fur seals, the African penguin, whalesharks, and humpback and southern right whales, again depending on the area and the season.

Dive Conditions in South Africa

Diving in South Africa is real ocean diving. This often means big swell, rip-roaring boat rides through surf, cold water, strong currents; and diving can be challenging.

There are, however, a number of dive sites for beginners and to cage dive with the great white sharks, you do not even need to be certified. 

Diving around Cape Town and the Eastern Cape has its own set of challenges. The water is colder and visibility can be poor in the summer months.

On the northeast coast near Mozambique, there is warm water diving in subtropical conditions.

The Sardine Run, which is mostly snorkelling, is tough. You should be fit and have experience being on a boat in the ocean as you’ll spend many hours in one waiting for the action on the wild Indian Ocean.

Visibility can vary, but is generally good, in the 15m (49 ft.) to 40m (131 ft.) range, and is usually better in the winter months. 

Best Time to Dive in South Africa

Diving is possible all year round in South Africa. South Africa has different climatic zones and so the best time to dive depends on where you’ll be diving.

The subtropical province of Kwa-Zulu Natal where there is coral reef and a mixture of sub-tropical fish and pelagics, boasts warm water all year round. From March to April the water in the Indian Ocean there can reach 31 °C ( 87 °F) and the lowest temperature in this area is about 22 °C (71 °F). Visibility here is usually good and can reach 40m (131 ft.)

In the Cape Town area where the Indian and cold Atlantic Oceans meet, the water temperature can reach a chilly 14 °C (57 °F)  in the winter months and a maximum of 28 °C (82 °F) in the summer. Visibility here can be anything from 2m (7 ft.) to 20m (65 ft.) depending on the weather conditions in the preceding days.

Great White season is usually between May and October, which is also generally a good time for other shark species too.

The best time to see whales, including Humpback whales is between August and October.

The best time and place to see whale sharks is in January on the east coast.

Best Dive Sites in South Africa

To truly understand the scope of diving in South Africa, its best to divide it into 5 regions.

Cape Town and Gansbaai

The Mothercity is an incredible place with unbelievable diving opportunities nearby. It’s one of the top 5 places to cage dive with great whites. Most of the dive sites in the extended Cape Town area are grouped around the Cape of Good Hope on the Atlantic coast and in False Bay. Here are a few of the best.

Smitswinkel Bay – False Bay – Cape Town

Located on Cape Peninsula, south of Simonstown, Smitswinkel Bay is home to five of Cape Town’s best wreck dives. These Wrecks include the SAS Transvaal, the MV Orotava, the MV Princess Elizabeth, the SAS Good Hope and the MV Rockeater. The dive ranges over 400m (1314ft.) and includes 5 wrecks. The wrecks form a large artificial reef, attracting a bounty of marine life. Recommended for advanced divers. If you are a tech diver, you can explore all 5 in one dive – called the Smits swim.

Pyramid Rock – Cow shark dive

Dive with the seven gill shark in kelp forests! This ancient species of shark has odd looking comb-like teeth in their lower jaw. If you are lucky, you might see one at this dive site. This inshore rocky reef  has several small tunnels and overhangs and is full of life with plenty to see. You can also dive through kelp forests. It’s a shallow dive site – 12m – suitable for all levels and can be dived from the shore.

Hout Bay

The Maori shipwreck which went down in August 1909, is one of the oldest wreck-diving sites in Cape Town band makes for a fascinating dive. It lies on a rocky reef and is about 122 m (400 ft.) long. Scattered around the wreck is the merchandise it was carrying. Porcelain pieces, bottles, explosives, sewing machines, water piping and musical instruments. Qualified wreck divers can penetrate the wreck. 

In Hout Bay, you can also dive or snorkel with the Cape fur seals.

Gansbaai

If you would like to come face-to-face with great white sharks, then take the 2-hour drive from Cape Town to Gansbaai – the diving hotspot for this iconic predator. Secure in a cage with a wetsuit, mask, and fins you’ll get up close and personal with these amazing predators. Accessible to everyone, no scuba certification required.

The Garden Route

This stunning region from Mossel Bay to Storms River, has a lot to offer the diver straight from the shore or by boat. In Mossel Bay you can go cage diving with great white sharks. Wrecks and reefs are abundant too. The reefs here explode in a colourful display of anemones, wall sponges, and gorgonian fan coral and is well-populated with vibrant nudi-branches. Shysharks, rays, octopus, cape fur seals and the unique, endemic Knysna Seahorse all make appearances along this stretch of coast. My top dive sites on the Garden Route are:

Shallow Blinders – Plettenberg Bay

A shallow, but wonderful dive site that is a dream for photographers. Accessible from the shore, there are three pinnacles bursting with life. In summer it’s quite common to see ragged-tooth sharks and pajama sharks, leopard sharks and puffadder shy sharks are spotted all year round. Rays, cuttlefish, boxfish nudibranchs, octopus, sea spiders and scorpion fish populate the area too.

Groot Bank

Between Plettenberg Bay and Nature’s Valley, Groot Bank is a pristine reef,  known for its striking topography and rich marine life. There are a number of caves, arches, swim-throughs, tunnels and drop offs. It’s possible to spot some big game fish here, including ragged-tooth sharks, and pyjama catsharks. Seals, dolphins and hammerheads also make an appearance at this site.

Paquita Shipwreck – Knysna

The German iron barque, Paquita, struck the Knysna Heads and ran ashore in 1903 on route to Barbados. It is the best wreck dive along this stretch of coast. The wreck is in excellent condition with anchors clearly visible and many other things to discover. The wreck and the surrounding reefs explode with beautiful corals, especially on the iron plates of the wreck. Night dives can also be done on this dive site. The wreck is located right in the mouth of a large lagoon, so the currents can be very strong. 

Knysna Lagoon – Knysna

This shallow lagoon is home to the endemic and rare Knysna seahorse. You can explore the lagoon with a snorkel to search for this local treasure. 

Eastern Cape 

This long stretch of South African coast offers enormous biodiversity, gorgeous reef, excellent wreck diving, and shark diving, especially the ragged toothed shark and the tiger shark. Most of the dive sites are clustered around East London and Port Elizabeth, the two main cities of this province. You can also join the Sardine Run from here in April and May and the Eastern Cape offers some of the best winter diving in South Africa. Algoa Bay is also on the migration route of many large mammals, sightings of humpback and southern right whales, dolphins, seals and jackass penguins are common. Here are some of the top sites to dive in the Eastern Cape. 

Three Sisters – East London

A great dive, suitable for all levels, the site is named for the three pinnacles on one side of the reef that rise from the depths. A lively, colorful reef that stretches over a large area and probably needs more than one dive to see it all. If you want to see a shark, summer is the time to dive this site, when the raggies gather. 

Evans Peak, Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape

One of the top 10 coldest dive sites in the world, it’s a magnificent diving spot and an incredible visual experience. Name for the two towering reefs which surface 15-metres (49 ft.) above the water, they gradually become narrower as you descend to 40-metres (130 ft.) and are rich with marine life.

Haerlem Wreck – Algoa Bay

Wreck Diving on the Haerlem Wreck in Algoa Bay is an experience not to be missed. South African Navy Frigate, Haerlem sank in 1987 and split in two. Here you can see the leopard sharks, cat sharks and pajama sharks cruising the wreck. Cape salmon and batfish also often make an appearance here as well as a great variety of nudibranchs.

Avalanche Reef – Port Elizabeth

Avalanche is a long reef densely populated with corals and fish life. Its is one of the best temperate water reefs in South Africa and has a spectacular wall. Giant fan coral and sponges compete for space and plenty of game fish are spotted here. The occasional shark too!  Soft corals grow here too and gives the reef a predominantly purple colour.

Kwa-Zulu Natal – Aliwal Shoal to Sodwana Bay

Often claiming a spot in the world top ten dive destinations, the diving in Kwa-Zulu Natal is superb. Sharks, coral reef, mantas, whales, turtles and a range of interesting critters inhabit this area. You’ll have a good chance of seeing ragged tooth sharks, bull sharks, tiger sharks, whale sharks, black tip sharks and hammerhead sharks. Plenty of gamefish too, like king fish, yellow fin tuna and Spanish mackerel. A variety of rays also glide around. You’ll be amazed by all the species you are sure to see in KwaZulu-Natal. These are my top picks for diving there.

Sodwana Bay

Beautiful, wild and well-preserved with warm waters year-round, Sodwana offers you the best of both worlds – hard and soft coral reefs, critters, tropical fish, large pelagics and whales. Once you have launched off the beach and got past the surf, spectacular diving awaits. Don’t miss 7 Mile Reef, Gotham (if you have deep diving experience), 2 Mile Reef (suitable for beginners), Quarter Mile Reef (where the pregnant raggies hang out from December to March) and Anton’s Reef (look out for the titan triggerfish).

Aliwal Shoal – Umkomaas

Aliwal shoal is a long rocky reef, thought to be an ancient sand dune, lies about 5 km off the central KwaZulu-Natal coast. It has great wrecks, reefs, shark diving and is a popular place to join the Sardine Run in June and July. July to November is ragged-tooth shark season when they gather on the shoal to breed.

Don’t miss Cathedral, the baited shark dive, Raggie’s Cave and the MV Produce shipwreck.

Protea Banks – Margate

The Protea banks is a 6km-long (3,7 miles) reef about 7 km (4,3 miles) off the shore of the KwaZulu-Natal coast near Margate. The reef starts at about 27m (86 ft.) and drops to around 40m (131 ft.). Being one of the richest tuna grounds in the world, it is alive with the big predators, like hammerheads, barracuda, ragged-tooth sharks, tiger sharks, giant guitar sharks, and there is a really good chance of spotting a bull shark (known locally as a Zambezi shark). A thrilling dive site in the Indian ocean, recommended for experienced divers. It is also a good place to join the Sardine Run in June and July.

How to Get to South Africa

There are three major international airports in South Africa: Tambo International Airport (Johannesburg); Cape Town International Airport; and King Shaka International Airport (Durban). The best arrival point depends on where you will be diving. There are also many regional airports. The best way to get around is to hire a car.

Good to Know

Wildlife abounds in South Africa, and not just underwater. There are game parks close to all the major diving areas and a game drive should not be missed. 

Some parts of South Africa could be dangerous, especially the big cities, and criminality is high. Be vigilant, heed local advice and keep your valuables out of sight.

South Africa also offers great surfing and other outdoor sports. It’s a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts. 

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