South Africa’s coastline stretches for more than 1,860 miles, from the border with Namibia on the Atlantic coast to the border with Mozambique on the shores of the Indian Ocean. With so much water at its disposal, it’s inevitable that the country is one of Africa’s best destinations for scuba divers. The diving is incredibly diverse, from kelp forest adventures in the temperate waters of the Cape to the vibrant, tropical reefs of northern KwaZulu-Natal. Whether you’re a seasoned pro or a complete beginner, there’s something for all kinds of divers in South Africa. In particular, it's known as a hotspot for diving with sharks.
Cape Town may be most famous for its stunning scenery and world-class cuisine, but for divers, it’s made unique by its location at the meeting point of the warm Agulhas and cold Benguela currents. This confluence makes for rich underwater ecosystems inhabited by an incredible variety of marine life—especially in the magical kelp forests of False Bay. Here, predators such as the striped pyjama shark, the inquisitive Cape fur seal, and the prehistoric sevengill cow shark can be found. The Cape of Storms also has more than its fair share of shipwrecks.
Shark diving enthusiasts can also cage dive with great whites, or sign up for a pelagic trip to look for mako and blue sharks in the deep water off Cape Point. Diving conditions are variable and depend on the time of year, weather, and specific dive site. Visibility can be anything from 16 to 80 feet, while water temperatures range from 57 to 68 degrees F. If you plan on doing multiple dives, consider bringing or hiring a drysuit. Pisces Divers and Cape Town Dive Centre (both located in Simon’s Town) offer fun dives, courses, and snorkeling trips for non-divers.
A two-hour drive southeast of Cape Town takes you to Gansbaai, South Africa’s cage diving capital. Although cage diving differs from scuba diving in the conventional sense, the opportunity to come face-to-face with great white sharks in their natural environment is one that few ocean lovers can pass up. Gansbaai’s resident great whites are attracted to the area by the Cape fur seal colony on nearby Dyer Island. Cage diving companies use seal decoys and bait to draw these magnificent apex predators within touching distance of their stainless steel cages.
Most itineraries include a visit to Shark Alley, the narrow channel between Dyer Island and Geyser Rock. If you’re lucky, you may see great whites breaching here – a spectacular hunting technique that’s unique to this area. Although the great whites are the main attraction, the bait also attracts copper sharks (sometimes known as bronze whalers). You are likely to see other members of the Marine Big Five too, including African penguins, Cape fur seals, dolphins, and Southern right whales. Conservation-oriented company Marine Dynamics promises a marine biologist on all trips and a clean, dry wetsuit for every diver.
Port Elizabeth is the largest city in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province, and it’s also an excellent destination for divers. From here, you can explore a wealth of dive sites—some in protected Algoa Bay and others on the Wildside coast west of Cape Recife. Most of PE’s diving is defined by its interesting topography, including sheer walls, pinnacles, gullies, and swim-throughs. All of these features are carpeted by a profusion of soft corals and sponges. Ragged-tooth sharks (known as sand tigers in the United States) are the star attraction from November to April.
The reef’s many nooks and crannies also provide the ideal habitat for a variety of beautifully patterned smaller sharks. There are several wrecks, of which the most famous is the Haerlem, a navy frigate scuttled in 1987. During the winter months, you are likely to see migrating humpback whales on your way to and from the dive sites; and in April and May, the annual Sardine Run passes through PE waters, bringing a host of marine predators in its wake. Pro Dive Port Elizabeth is a 5-star PADI dive center offering shore and boat dives, courses, and Sardine Run expeditions.
Port St. Johns
Many locations along South Africa’s coast can be used as a launch site for the Sardine Run, but Port St. Johns is arguably the most famous (and most rewarding) of them all. Located on the breathtakingly beautiful Wild Coast, the town is a sleepy backpacker retreat for most of the year. From late May to early July, however, dive centers from the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal arrive with their boats to launch from the mouth of the Umzimvubu River in the hopes of witnessing one of the world’s greatest natural events.
During the Sardine Run, billions of sardines migrate up the coast from the Cape in large shoals. This abundance of food attracts whales, dolphins, sharks, seals, and seabirds—and if you’re lucky enough to locate a bait ball, you can get a front-row seat to the action. Finding the sardines takes time, so divers must be ready for long days on the water. However, migrating humpback whales, super-pods of common dolphins and flocks of diving gannets provide plenty of topside entertainment. Reputable operators that use Port St. Johns as their Sardine Run base include Aliwal Dive Center and African Dive Adventures.
For adrenalin-inducing dives year-round, make your way to Shelly Beach (located near Margate on the southern KwaZulu-Natal coast). This is the launch site for Protea Banks, one of South Africa’s most famous shark diving destinations. The reef is located 4.5 miles from shore, and as a rich tuna ground, attracts an astonishing number of different shark species. Bull sharks and oceanic blacktips are present all year round, while tiger sharks, great hammerheads, scalloped hammerheads, whale sharks, and ragged-tooth sharks are all seasonal visitors.
Along with Aliwal Shoal, Protea Banks is one of the few places in the world where you can dive with the big three (bull, tiger, and great white sharks) without the protection of a cage. African Dive Adventures has been in operation since 1994 and has an immaculate safety record. They offer reef dives and baited shark dives—the latter conducted in mid-water—and are also set up for mixed gas and rebreather diving. Protea Banks is suitable for advanced divers only. In addition to the sharks, the reef is deep (88 to 130 feet), and the current is often substantial.
Drive an hour further north to the coastal towns of Scottburgh and Umkomaas to experience the country’s second world-renowned shark diving destination—Aliwal Shoal. Operators like Aliwal Dive Center (Umkomaas) and ScubaXcursion (Scottburgh) offer baited shark and reef dives. On baited dives, chum attracts as many as 40 sharks at a time. The majority are oceanic blacktips, but larger sharks are often spotted as well, including bull sharks, dusky sharks, great whites, and thresher sharks. In summer, the majestic tiger shark is undoubtedly the highlight of baited dives.
Aliwal’s reef sites are just as rewarding. Abundant hard and soft corals create a stunning backdrop for a full cast of marine creatures, from rays and turtles to dolphins and moray eels. In winter, humpback whales and ragged-tooth sharks arrive on the Shoal, and in summer, there is a chance of spotting tropical species like manta rays and whale sharks. The reef also has two excellent wreck sites. The Produce is a Norwegian cargo carrier that sank in 1974 and now houses several gigantic brindle bass. British steamer the Nebo sank in 1884 and is a haven for macro critters.
Located on the Mozambique border, Sodwana Bay is a laid-back diving town with sandy streets, rustic restaurants, plenty of affordable accommodation, and an impressive choice of dive centers. As part of iSimangaliso Wetland Park, its tropical reefs are fully protected. As a result, they teem with warm-water species, from countless types of colorful fish to manta rays, whale sharks, turtles and dolphins. The coral in Sodwana is also particularly beautiful. Humpback whales and ragged-tooth sharks visit in season and the conditions here are the best in the country.
Depending on the time of year, you can expect visibility of up to 130 feet. Water temperatures are balmy, with lows of 68 degrees F (20 degrees C) and highs of 86 degrees F (30 degrees C). When combined with an abundance of shallow dive sites, these conditions make Sodwana one of the best places in South Africa for beginner divers. Other reasons to visit include the chance of a night dive, turtle hatching tours (in season) and snorkeling with pods of wild dolphins. Other areas of iSimangaliso, including Lake St. Lucia and Mkhuze Game Reserve, are close by. Adventure Mania and Da Blu Juice are our recommended operators.