Fiona McIntosh, Editor of southern Africa’s premier dive magazine, Divestyle, Iets us in on a secret: “In my privileged position, I’ve travelled far and wide, and I’ve never found anywhere with the sheer variety and dive experiences that South Africa has to offer. We have it all – magnificent coral reefs teeming with tropical fish, sharks of all shapes and hues and magnificent wrecks. Trust me, our waters are worth persevering.”
Cape Peninsula and False Bay
Though cold, the fertile waters around the peninsula support an astonishing range of marine life. Kelp forests feed many grazers while sponges, anemones, sea fans, bryozoans, basket stars and snails jostle for space on the reefs. The marine life, though well studied, is still relatively unknown to science and new species are discovered regularly. Bigger life forms include gamefish, whales, cowsharks and seals. Great white sharks, fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view), are rarely, if ever, seen by divers. With over 500 known wrecks in the area, there’s plenty to choose from – shallow shore wrecks and deep wrecks (which require serious technical dive gear) are all options.
Too many local divers qualify in South Africa and then travel to Mauritius or Seychelles where the visibility is perfect and the seas are warm, and never venture back to local waters again.
Best time to go:
All year-round but conditions may be unsettled in spring and autumn.
8–12°C on the Atlantic side and 11–18°C in False Bay.
Conditions are heavily affected by wind, swell height, period and direction. Check forecast when planning. The Atlantic side’s dives are best in summer, and False Bay sites are for winter diving when the bay is flat.
At least a 5mm wetsuit is required, with many locals diving in 7mm semi-dry suits or drysuits. Hoods and booties are essential and gloves are usually a good idea. A good underwater torch will bring out the vivid colours of the marine life. If boat diving, a surface marker buoy is useful.
The south coast of Durban offers some of the most varied and exciting diving in the world. Aliwal Shoal and Protea Banks are regularly showered with accolades by international dive magazines. Most dive operators are centred in the town of Umkomaas – the closest launch site to the fossilised sand dune of Aliwal Shoal – rated as one of the top ten dive sites of the world! You’ll see vast brindle bass, magnificent rays (including manta rays), turtles, great shoals of pelagic fish and some rare sightings such as harlequin goldies and tiger angelfish, but these are often overlooked by divers who come in the hope of seeing the stars of the show: Aliwal’s famous seasonal visitors, the ragged-tooth sharks which congregate on the shoal to mate between June and November, and tiger and hammerhead sharks which are often sighted in the summer months. If getting up close and personal with apex predators is your dream, this is the place.
Best time to go:
Dive conditions are best during the dry season from May to September (the winter months).
Range from 16°C in winter to 25°C in summer.
The South Coast generally enjoys good visibility – ranging from 5m to 40m. Launching in rigid inflatable boats can sometimes involve an exciting ride through the surf.
A 5mm wet suit is more than adequate in summer – add a hood/chicken vest, booties and gloves or go for a semi-dry or dry suit in the chillier winter months.
This is a mecca for South African divers, where warm waters are influenced by the Mozambique current, favouring coral development and extensive tropical reefs. This is where most local divers do their first open-water dives, so there’s a multitude of resident dive schools. The reefs at Sodwana have nearly 100 species of hard and soft corals and over 1 200 fish species. The good news is that despite the number of novices who learn their skills on the shallower sites of the closer reefs, the coral is in incredibly good nick. Sodwana’s corals are unique in the world for three reasons: the mix of 60% hard and 40% soft occurs nowhere else on the planet; the corals grow flatter due to the wave action; and lastly, they are on average deeper than most reefs.
Best time to go:
Sodwana Bay enjoys a year-round subtropical climate and good visibility. The best diving is during the warm summer months, from November to May. Despite the fact that the rain falls in the summer months, there are no big rivers flowing into the sea near the dive sites, so visibility and dive conditions are rarely affected. October through February is whaleshark season; Zambezis (bull sharks) are often seen in November, while ragged-tooth sharks congregate in large numbers between December and the end of February/March.
Range from 19°C to as high as 28°C when the warm Mozambique current flows close to shore in summer.
Visibility averages around 14–21m but can be up to 35m on a good day. All launches are from the beach and involve an exciting journey through the surf.
A 3mm wetsuit will suffice in summer, but winter temperatures demand at least a 5mm wetsuit.
The Manta Coast
The stretch of coast around Inhambane, often called “the Manta Coast”, is one of Mozambique’s most popular dive destinations. In fact, it’s one of the best dive destinations on the planet, with coastal resorts clustered around Barra Point and beach in the north, and Tofo, Jangama Bay and Paindane in the south. Although the large pelagics – particularly manta rays, whalesharks and humpback whales – are the big draw cards, the variety and abundance of tropical fish, corals and macro-life is amazing. In addition to scuba diving, most of the operators offer snorkelling and ocean safaris to see the marine big five – an absolute must-do. The stretch down to Praia de Roches, known as Whaleshark Alley, is one of the best places in the world to spot and swim with whalesharks – juveniles are present all year round, since the water is relatively shallow and sheltered. It’s a great adventure that even inexperienced swimmers and snorkellers can enjoy. Like any big animal safari nothing’s ever guaranteed but whales, whalesharks, dolphins, manta rays and turtles are often spotted on one outing. One of the big attractions of the area is the wide choice of accommodation options and activities – there’s everything from budget camping to luxury lodges; surfing to sea kayaking; scenic flights to quad biking; as well as some great bars and restaurants. In short, if you’re looking for an affordable dive holiday in the sun, the Manta Coast is hard to beat.
Best time to go:
A year-round dive destination, though the number of whalesharks and mantas sighted tends to be higher in the summer months from October to March. Humpback whales are regularly sighted between June and October.
Range from 20–28°C.
Visibility is excellent, ranging from 10–30m.
Open-heeled fins and a 3mm shortie are fine during the summer months but a 5mm wetsuit is recommended for the rest of the year. The dive schools on the Manta Coast are very professional and well equipped, so dive equipment hire is no problem.