South Africa is a country of contrasts and unbelievable diversity and is a top tourist destination for a number of reasons. Most well-known for its exceptional game safaris where overseas and local visitors come to view the wild and exotic animals, South Africa is home to the legendary big 5, so named for being the most dangerous and difficult animals to hunt on foot. South Africa is unlikely to disappoint if you’re after thrilling adventure and beautiful scenery and with over 3000 kilometres of coastline, South Africa is a top contender as one of the world’s best diving destinations.
South Africa’s coastline spans two mighty oceans – the south Atlantic and the warm Indian Ocean – and the diving varies hugely between these waters. From the rugged coastlines in Cape Town where you’ll see abandoned wrecks and rocky outcrops featuring interesting marine life to the warm, tropical waters of Sodwana Bay where the reefs are teeming with a multitude of colours and marine species, South Africa is a country that is beautiful both above and below the surface of the water.
Of course, one cannot discuss scuba diving in South Africa without mentioning one of the most exhilarating opportunities available: shark diving! To find these amazing creatures in their natural habitat, divers should head to Aliwal Shoal in the province of Kwa-Zulu Natal, which features a consistently high concentration of the intimidating ragged-tooth shark. Gansbaai in the Western Cape is one of the more popular cage diving sites where divers can get up close and personal with the infamous Great White Shark.
Best Diving Destinations in South Africa
Sodwana Bay is one of the most well-known diving locations in Kwa-Zulu Natal and is easily accessible by car from the major city of Durban. It is also possible to arrange transfers from the famous Hluhluwe–Imfolozi park, a nearby game reserve. Sodwana Bay borders the Isimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa’s first World Heritage Site famed for its hippo and crocodile sightings as well as South Africa’s largest estuarine system. Sodwana Bay boasts unspoilt coral reefs that are amongst some of the most southerly in the world, and masses of diverse Indo-Pacific fish. Getting to and from the coral reefs in Sodwana is also an exciting experience, with large inflatable boats that crash through the large surf to reach the calm waters surrounding the reefs.
Sodwana’s 2 Mile Reef is one of the closest and largest reefs, stretching 1.8 kilometers in length and featuring 20 great dive sites well-worth exploring. Sightings of white-tip reef sharks are common at Simon’s Cave which features soft and hard corals, rocky overhangs and crevices and great swim-throughs. Bikini Reef, situated just past 2 Mile Reef, is well-known for presenting excellent macro diving opportunities with the chance to see cleaning shrimp, juvenile fish, ghost pipefish and moray eels.
If you’re looking for guaranteed shark sightings, Aliwal Shoal is the site to visit. During the months of June to November, this east coast reef structure hosts large numbers of ragged tooths, sometimes up to 60 in one location. Aliwal’s Cathedral site is a must-visit while in the area – its giant archway leads the way into a sinkhole in the shape of a chimney which stretches over 10 metres in length and makes for a fantastic swim-through. When it is not shark season, however, Aliwal Shoal is still undoubtedly a worthwhile dive site with potato bass, manta rays, turtle and frogfish sightings.
Castle Rock is located within a marine reserve off the coast of the peninsula known as Cape Point. This site features an abundance of fish life as well as kelp forests, sponges and sea fans. Divers who look beyond the surface of the rocks will find brittle stars, nudibranchs and octopi. The nearby Pyramid Rock is also covered in kelp forests and soft corals and is most famous for its sightings of gully sharks, shy sharks and the 7-gill cow shark.
Getting to South Africa
South Africa is easily accessible for international visitors and offers international airports in Cape Town (for Western Cape dive sites), Durban (for Kwa-Zulu Natal dive sites) and inland Johannesburg. For those wanting to combine their visit with game spotting, game reserves are situated all over the country, with the most famous Kruger National Park having its own airport for easy access. There are also a number of other domestic airports with cheap internal transfer options available. The Baz Bus is a great way to see the country via road and offers transfers between major hubs and tourist attractions all over the country.
When to Visit South Africa
It is possible to dive throughout the year in South Africa with mild winters and very warm, enjoyable summer months. A highlight for many divers is the sardine run which occurs in the winter months of May, June and July. This annual phenomenon sees hundreds of thousands of sardines make their way from the cold waters in the Cape to the warm Indian Ocean in Kwa-Zulu Natal. These masses of sardines form giant bait balls that can even be seen by satellite as they have been known to stretch a massive 15 kilometers in length, up to 3 kilometers wide and up to 40 meters deep. Needless to say, these vast numbers of sardines attract a multitude of predators such as game fish, whales, seals, dolphins, birds and of course sharks, which all come to join in on the feeding frenzy. Dive boats will depart multiple times a day to find the sardines on their run and allow visitors the chance to see this truly magnificent sight.
South Africa’s seasons are not typically divided into four distinct seasons with spring and autumn tending to be very short. In general, South Africa’s seasons are directly opposite to northern hemisphere destinations and are characterised by hot summers from December to February and slightly cooler temperatures from June to August. In the month of September, which is technically South Africa’s spring season, water temperatures in the Indian Ocean tend to be in the range of 20°C whereas they will warm up significantly to 28°C from April (autumn) onwards. In the southern Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Cape Town, temperatures are much colder and are in the region of 10°C in August and 18°C in summer.
Where to Stay in South Africa
South Africa is the 25th largest country in the world and is made up of 9 provinces. The country is a melting pot of cultures and has 11 official languages, so suffice to say you will be met with diversity no matter where you choose to stay in South Africa.
Marking a number of items off your bucket list is easy to do if you choose to explore more than just one region of South Africa, and the scuba diving sites along the coast will make it entirely worth your while to travel across the country. From the east coast of Kwa-Zulu Natal where the warm Indian Ocean offers unparalleled tropical reef life and exciting boat rides to the natural beauty of the Western Cape with its many wreck sites, kelp forests and shark cage diving opportunities, exploring South Africa in its entirety is highly recommended.
South Africa is also host to a number of dive centres that will offer on-site training and accommodation in safari-style tents or luxurious log cabins. Sodwana Bay is particularly popular for those wanting to start or expand on their diving qualifications and diving is possible all year long. Reputable dive centres are available in all the major diving hubs of South Africa and divers can rest assured knowing that conservation efforts are in place to retain the condition of the unspoiled beauty located in South Africa.