Shark Diving in South Africa: No Cage Required

Shark diving in South Africa without a cage is not for the faint of heart.  But it offers an incredible chance to first hand observe one of the most misunderstood creatures on the planet.  I guarantee it will change your perspective.

This was not my first time diving with sharks. I’ve dove with sharks in Honduras, Costa Rica, Galapagos, Red Sea and Palau – all with no cage! But it was my first time diving with Oceanic Black Tip Sharks and Ragged Tooth Sharks, affectionately called Raggies.

Me shark diving with an Oceanic Black Tip in South Africa

Me with an Oceanic Black Tip Shark. Photo courtesy of Joost van Uffelen.

J.P (my now German husband) and I met shark diving in Cocos, Costa Rica, so we knew that sharks would be part of our Wild South African and Swaziland Adventures. We were disappointed to learn that our chances of seeing Tiger sharks were almost nil, since Tiger shark season is typically from February-June and in October-November, but  were still pumped to dive with sharks.

Our first shark dive was at Protea Banks with African Dive Adventures.

Protea Banks is known for its large quantities of sharks, but the tough part can be getting across the rough break.  You hold on to the ropes that line the dinghy and hope for the best as you bounce up and brace yourself as you bottom hits down. I thought it was kind of fun, but not everyone shared my sentiments.

Shark diving in South Africa with Oceanic Black Tip Sharks

An Oceanic Black Tip shark expresses interest in the bait drum and the  surrounding fish.

Once the break was cleared, the rest of the ride was smooth. We arrive at the pre-appointed spot by the dive team, who pours chum into the water – a mixture of blood and fish heads.  Next,…we wait…There’s no point getting into the water and wasting valuable oxygen until the sharks have appeared.  Fortunately they show up in a matter of minutes and we scramble to assemble our dive gear.

I’m always nervous when I begin a shark dive, especially at a new location.  You never know who will be waiting for you below the surface…and how many of them.

But once I’m in the water, my fear dissipates and is replaced by awe and gratitude.  I feel like the luckiest girl in the world to have the opportunity to observe sharks in their natural habitat.  In this case it was seven Oceanic Black Tip Sharks, which run an average of 1.5 m (5 ft) but can get as big as 2.7m (9 ft). They definitely seem big to be, especially when there’s seven of them circling the bait bucket surrounded by small fish.

Shark diving in South Africa with Oceanic Black Tip sharks

Oceanic Black Tip shark. Photo courtesy of African Dive Adventures.

My theory is that the sharks are just as curious about me as I am about them.  They feign disinterest as they glide past me, but they don’t fool me.  They didn’t get to be the top predator of the ocean without paying attention to the slightest detail, including my heart beat.  Instead of scaring me, I am fascinated that they can sense how fast my heart is beating.  I practice my yoga breathing – in part because I am relaxed and also because I want to prolong the dive as long as possible.  More oxygen = longer dive.

My second dive at Protea Banks is EPIC!  17 Oceanic Black Tips!

Roland, one of the owners of African Dive Adventures was our skipper for this dive and sat this one out and is now regretting it. He has been diving these waters for 16 years and only rarely has seen so many Oceanic Black Tips on a dive.  I had to ask the obvious question Have you seen any Great Whites?  Only twice in about 500 dives comes the reply.  I can’t decide whether I’m disappointed or relieved – remember there’s no cage.

After two great days of diving at Protea Banks we’re off to Aliwal Shoal, just further up the coast where we dove with Agulhaus House & Diving.

Aliwal Shoal is ranked as one of the top 10 dive sites in the world.

It’s known for its reefs…and its sharks. It’s Raggie season, so we’re hoping to see a cave full of Raggies.  We see two.  I’m delighted.  They’re aptly named after their ragged teeth and look rather intimidating, but are docile – as far as sharks go.

Shark diving in South Africa with Ragged Tooth sharks in Aliwal Shoal

Ragged Tooth shark. Photo courtesy of African Dive Adventures.

Next up are the baited dives.  More Oceanic Black Tips, an impressive 12 sharks make an appearance!

On our last dive, our dive master’s blue eyes grow big through his mask.  That is either a really good or bad sign.  He points frantically below us.  I see a shadow.  It disappears.  Then reappears. Then disappears.  The next time it reappears, I make out the rounded nose – a characteristic of a Bull Shark, or Zambezi Shark as they’re known locally. National Geographic reports that they are the most dangerous shark in the world.  Even more dangerous than Great Whites or Tigers, who are also considered dangerous.  They are known to be aggressive.

Shark diving in South Africa with Bull sharks

The Bull shark is considered by many experts to be the most dangerous shark in the world. Photo courtesy of African Dive Adventures.

It’s not my first time diving with Bull sharks, I dove with two of them in Costa Rica, and they fascinate me to no end.

But this shark has a secret.  This shark, supposedly the most dangerous shark in the world, is shy.  Painfully shy.

It forgoes the fish in favor of being cautious – keeping a distance of at least 5 meters between the divers and him.  Remarkably another Bull shark joins him.  This shark is also shy.  I want him to come closer to tell him that I don’t bite.  I’ll leave it your imagination to insert the obvious joke here.   Neither of them does. They slowly swim deeper into the shadows until I can’t even make out a faint outline.  Neither of them returns.  But they did grace us with their presence on and off for 20 minutes.

Other divers are running out of oxygen and are surfacing.  I notice the sharks interests shifts from the bait to the divers as they thrash around on the surface, taking off weight belts and fins. I’m completely enthralled.  Before I know it, it’s only me and the dive master in the water.  The sharks interest returns to the bait.  They come closer to us, now that there are only two of us in the water.  Perhaps they are feeling braver now that they outnumber us.  I am overjoyed.

The five minutes I spend alone in the water with 12 Oceanic Black Tip sharks (and dive master) quickly becomes one of my all time diving highlights.

I slowly ascend, noticing the sharks ascending with me.  I unclench my weight belt,  hitting a shark in the nose with it as I swing it around – they are that close! Now I’m nervous.  I feel perfectly safe diving with sharks, but get uncomfortable being at the surface where I can’t see them. I’m lifted onto the boat, too tired to jump unassisted.

On the way back to shore, I’m exhilarated and taunted by Roland’s final words to me;

If you think the Oceanic Black Tips are big you should come back for the Tigers, they make them seem like guppies!

Know Before You Go Shark Diving in South Africa without a Cage:

  • Shark diving is only for experienced divers.  Sharks can be unpredictable and a diver has to have solid skills in case of an emergency.  If you’re not sure if your skill level is high enough speak with the knowledgeable staff at African Dive Adventures for Protea Banks or Agulhaus House and Diving for Aliwal Shoal.
  • I highly recommend diving at both Protea Banks and Aliwal Shoal.  Although just over 80km apart, they offer different diving.  Mickey from Agulhaus House and Diving sums it up as Protea Banks has more sharks, while Aliwal Shoal has sharks and better reefs.
  • Check out more photos from Dutch photographer Joost van Uffelen.  We dove with him and his girlfriend in both Protea Banks and Aliwal Shoal.
  • Both African Dive Adventures and Agulhaus House and Diving provide accommodation for divers.  African Dive Adventures has a large house specifically for divers. Agulhaus House and Diving has clean on site rooms.  You literally step out of your room and onto the truck which is just a short drive away from the dive site.  Both places offer a swimming pool and a BBQ area.


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Thank you to Roland from African Dive Adventures and Mickey from Agulhaus House and Diving for your hospitality.  I hope our paths will cross again.

Comments

  1. says

    Wow – that looks terrifying!! Thankfully I’m not a good diver at all so wouldn’t be allowed near them. But, even if I was, I don’t know if I would want to get that close!

    • says

      @Turtle – It’s only terrifying jumping in the water. Once you’re in, it’s quite relaxing. I’m always in awe that I have the opportunity to get so close to sharks.

  2. says

    Even aside from the fact that I’m not certified for scuba diving, I’m not sure I’d have the guts to do this! It does look awesome though, glad you had a good time!

  3. says

    If only I like diving, I may actually put this on my life long list to do. Sadly, I don’t like going in dark waters. I guess its my experience growing up around the ocean that compels me to stay above it, as much as I can. You are definitely as much brave as your are adventurous. What a great experience for you. I am intrigued.

  4. says

    count me jealous! monkeys and mountains are your thing — sharks and sand are mine ;) I’ve got my heart set on SA for 2013 and shark diving is THE highest thing on the list (of course, the coffee’s also important)…
    thanks for sharing and I’ll be certain to get in touch for some trip tips :)

    • says

      @Brandy – Sharks are right up there for me as well, just didn’t fit in with my title :). I totally understand why shark diving is the highest thing on your list. I want to go back and dive with tiger sharks since we were there off season. If you need any tips, I’m happy to help :)

  5. says

    Wowza! That is an amazing experience Laurel! You are quite the diver out lasting everyone, You must have been the calmest person in the water. Amazing photos. It is wonderful to see you shedding light on the shark. They are misunderstood creatures and the more people understand them, the less fear they will have of them. What a great post. Thanks so much for giving us a glimpse into diving with these beauties!

    • says

      @Deb – Ah, thanks Deb, you’re so sweet! Agreed that sharks are so misunderstood and the media (i.e. Shark Week) feeds into people’s fears. I wish everyone could experience how peaceful it is to dive with sharks.

  6. says

    Great article! I’m jealous! I recently came back from South Africa, where I got in the water with Great Whites. Though we were in a cage, it was still an amazing time. Looking forward to an out of cage experience, and you’ve given me some good ideas :).

  7. says

    I used to SCUBA dive quite a bit but I never really got used to seeing sharks. It was especially unnerving when you were at the surface waiting for the boat to come around. Even looking at your pictures, I’m starting to get a little nervous.

  8. says

    This is AWESOME! I just got my advanced open water certification in Little Corn Island, Nicaragua, with the hope of being qualified for more challenging dives. Then I stumble upon this post… a little more exciting than what I had in mind, but definitely something to aspire towards! Thanks for sharing.

    • says

      @Julie – Congrats on your Advanced! I did my first shark dives in Cocos after about 35 dives, I should have had a few more, but now I’m hooked. I’d love to dive in Nicaragua.

  9. says

    One thing I gotta say…It’s not for the faint-hearted. The first I did shark diving, I was like dying because if the thought of having them around is already scary, it’s nothing compared to being up close and personal with razor sharp teeth-wielding creatures. But I got used to it right away on my second and third attempts. It’s certainly something I won’t forget for the rest of my life.

    • says

      @Suzanne – Agreed, my heart feels it’s going to come right out of my chest every single time before I jump in because you never know how many and what type of sharks are waiting for you. Once I’m in the water I’m really relaxed though. Glad to hear you’ve tried it.

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