Shark Diving in South Africa Without a Cage – What It’s Really Like

Shark diving in South Africa without a cage is an adventure that will definitely get your heart pumping.

Especially when you first jump in – and don’t know what you’re jumping into. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart.  

However, shark diving offers an incredible chance to first hand observe one of the most misunderstood creatures on the planet.  I guarantee it will change your perspective.

Diving with sharks at Protea Banks was not my first time swimming 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.

Note: this article is about diving with sharks WITHOUT a cage. You don’t need experience if you want to dive with great whites sharks WITH a cage. Check out cage diving tours here.

Related Reading: How Swimming (And Diving) with Sharks Can Save Them

Shark Diving at Protea Banks

Protea Banks is known for its large quantities of sharks. The tough part is getting across the rough break.  You hold on to the ropes that line the dinghy and hope for the best. Prepare for lots of bouncing 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.

The First Dive at Protea Banks

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, the sharks show up in a matter of minutes. 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 quickly dissipates. Its 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. They run an average of 1.5 m (5 ft) but can get as big as 2.7m (9 ft). They definitely seem big to me, 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. That includes my heartbeat.  

Instead of scaring me, I am fascinated that they can sense how fast my heart is beating.  I practice slow controlled yoga breathing. In part because I am relaxed. And also because I want to prolong the dive as long as possible.  More oxygen = more time with the sharks. 

My Second Dive at Protea Banks

This was an epic dive – 17 Ocean Black Tip Sharks! Roland, one of the owners of African Dive Adventures was our skipper for this dive. He 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 single dive.  

Are You Likely to See a Great White Shark at Protea Banks?

I ask Roland the obvious question Have you seen any Great Whites?  He replies, Only twice in about 500 dives. I can’t decide whether I’m disappointed or relieved – remember there’s no cage. And you can’t control which sharks are going to show up.

On the way back to shore after diving at Protea Banks, 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!

 

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

Related Reading: Whale Watching in Saint Lucia, South Africa.

Shark Diving at Aliwal Shoal

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. Fortunately, their appearance is deceiving. They’re rather 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.  We see more Oceanic Black Tips with an impressive 12 sharks make an appearance – on a single dive!

On our last dive, our dive master’s blue eyes grow big through his mask.   That is either a really good or a very 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 shark 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 the Bull shark has a secret.  This shark, supposedly the most dangerous shark in the world, is shy.  Painfully shy.

Think of the star football player cleaning it up on the field, then awkwardly hanging out by himself at the afterparty. That’s what a bull shark is like. 
It forgoes the fish in favour of being cautious. It keeps a distance of at least 5 meters between the divers and him.  Remarkably another Bull shark joins him.  This shark is also just as 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. Soon,  I can’t even make out a faint outline.  They are gone. Neither of them to be seen again. I’m disappointed but incredibly grateful that they graced us with their presence on and off for 20 minutes.

Other divers are running out of oxygen and are surfacing, heading back to the boat.  I notice the sharks interests shifts from the bait to the divers. From underwater, it’s quite a sight – divers thrashing around on the surface, as they take off their weight belts and fins. I can see why the sharks are curious.

I’m completely enthralled.  Before I know it, it’s only me and the divemaster in the water.  The shark’s 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 the divemaster) quickly becomes one of my all-time diving highlights.

I slowly ascend, noticing the sharks ascending with me.  As I unclench my weight belt, I hit something which I presume is a shark. They’re 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.

Related Reading: The Best Places to See Wildlife in South Africa.

Know Before You Go Shark Diving in South Africa:

  • Shark diving without a cage 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 check before you sign up. 
  • No experience is needed if you want to dive with great whites sharks with a cage. See cage diving tours here.
  • If you’re looking to dive with a specific type of shark, check what time of year you can expect to see them.
    • From November to June you may see tiger sharks and hammerhead sharks.
    • May to July is the best time to see raggies at Aliwal Shoal since they mate here then.
  • I highly recommend diving at both Protea Banks and Aliwal Shoal.  Although just over 80km apart, and will find sharks at both places, they offer different types of diving.  Mickey from Agulhaus House and Diving sums it up as Protea Banks has more sharks, while Aliwal Shoal has sharks and better reefs.
  • Here’s a Raggie diving tour you can book online that’s not far from Durban. And a dive with tiger sharks near Durban that’s available July to November. 

Where to Stay When Shark Diving at Protea Banks

I recommend staying in Margate

Where to Stay When Diving at Aliwal Shoal

I recommend staying in Umkomaas

When shark diving in South Africa you’ll need to go back at different times of the year to see all the shark species, but no matter when you go, you’ll come back with a newfound respect for these incredible creatures.


View Shark Diving in South Africa in a larger map

 

diving with sharks in Protea Banks and Aliwal Shoal in South AfricaNote: Thank you to Roland from African Dive Adventures and Mickey from Agulhaus House and Diving for their hospitality.  

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56 thoughts on “Shark Diving in South Africa Without a Cage – What It’s Really Like”

  1. It can’t be long now until we start seeing you showing up on Shark Week on the Discovery Channel, which coincidentally is as close as I ever want to come to being in the water with the sharks. Love reading about your adventures with them though.

  2. Yes, they look so friendly … like those pictures of cats in the internet ….. :))))

    Joking apart … amazing pictures, amazing experience. I’ve never done it, and I am not sure I’d be brave enought to try, but looks amazing !!!

  3. Wow – what an experience – The photos are unbelievable! And now that I have experienced a shark dive vicariously through you, I don’t ever have to do it! Not like it was going to happen anyway since I don’t swim well enough to dive and have a fear of sharks dating back to seeing the Jaws movie on TV as a child. 🙂 Good for you being so adventurous, Laurel!

  4. You are one brave lady Laurel. I’m afraid I belong in the group that are nervous of sharks. I dove with as harmless as they get black tipped sharks in Rangiroa (near Tahiti) and even though they never “bite” I wasn’t comfortable being around so many swirling sharks. But good for you. And what a cool way to meet your husband.

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  6. Love diving with sharks. I been to Cocos, Tiger Beach, and Fiji, but never Aliwal Shoal. I love the fact that you can see so many species in a relatively small area. My experience with bulls was similar to yours, they tend to be shy and keep their distance. I think tiger sharks are the most exciting to,dive with. This post just makes me want to visit Aliwal Shoal even more.

    • @Matt – Me too. I’ve been to Cocos, Galapagos and Palau, but not Tiger Beach or Fiji. I would love to dive with tiger sharks. They have quite a long tiger season at Aliwal Shoal, but they get even more at Protea Banks, which is nearby.

    • @Melissa – So nice to meet someone else who has done it and loved it as well. The more people that do it the more we can change the perception of these incredible creatures.

    • @Melissa – Yeah! Someone else who loves sharks. I haven’t dove in Australia, but would love to. Agreed, sharks are unfortunately misunderstand but are incredible creatures.

    • @Steve – Loved shark diving. Haven’t done the cage diving with the great whites…yet….but would love to encounter one in the wild without a cage, that would be an experience 🙂

  7. 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!

    • @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.

  8. 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!

  9. 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.

  10. 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 🙂

    • @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 🙂

  11. 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!

    • @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.

  12. 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 :).

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

    • @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.

  15. 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.

    • @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.

  16. Wow, amazing, really enjoyed reading this. My wife and I have just started a photography blog (What The Saints Did Next) and even more recently swam with whale sharks. But these are the gentle giants of the sea and I don’t think I would be brave enough to do what you do – strike that, I know I wouldn’t be able to do what you do. I will look forward to following more of your adventures. cheers.

  17. Amazing experience! Diving with sharks is one of my favorite aspects of scuba diving. I’ve gone diving in Asia (photos posted at Visit50.com), Central America, and in the Caribbean, but Africa is still on my list.

    Also – i didn’t realize you met your husband while SCUBA diving – that’s awesome! That’s such a fairytale connection story for travelers!

  18. Just reading your blog post makes my heart racing, a little bit. I haven’t dived with shark, yet. But soon, since it is also on my bucket list!

    • @Scubanomad – I started with reef sharks which are a great “starter shark” since they’re small and don’t attack. From there, you can work your way up to the bigger and more aggressive sharks :).

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