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.

Laurel Robbins 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.


View Shark Diving in South Africa in a larger map

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

October 31, 2012
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.
October 31, 2012
@Steve - Now that would be a dream :). I was nervous the first time I dove with sharks, but now I seek them out.
October 31, 2012
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 !!!
November 20, 2012
@hombrelobo - Haha, yes it was an amazing experience and I definitely thought the sharks were just as curious about us as we were about them.
October 31, 2012
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!
October 31, 2012
Wow...no way....this would never come close to my to-do list. Well done Madame Daredevil:)
November 1, 2012
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.
November 1, 2012
You are one brave woman! Without a cage - no way!
Andrea
November 2, 2012
Wow - this is amazing! I've never been diving so I can't compare it to anything I've done but your photos are unreal
November 3, 2012
Damn, you're a brave one, Robbins! I'd consider going down in a cage, never without one.
November 4, 2012
I will NOT be doing this.
November 9, 2012
@Stephanie - You could have a glass of wine first :). Actually that's not a good idea, never mind....
the IBIT TRAVEL DIGEST 11.4.12 | I'm Black and I Travel!
November 4, 2012
[...] Monkeys and Mountains Shark diving in South Africa — with camera and without a [...]
November 4, 2012
You are officially the bravest person I have ever known. I don't even think I would go in the ocean in South Africa!
November 9, 2012
@Christy - Awww, thanks, but once you're in the water it really is relaxing.
November 4, 2012
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.
November 9, 2012
@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.
November 5, 2012
WOW! Incredible shots, and sounds like a great experience. I dove with Black and White Tip Reef Sharks on the Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia and it was incredible. They are definitely misunderstood but such beautiful creatures.
November 9, 2012
@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.
November 20, 2012
@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.
November 7, 2012
You are insane!!
November 9, 2012
@Abby - I've heard that once or twice, but it truly is an incredible experience.
November 20, 2012
@Abby - It's surprisingly safe, I promise :)
November 9, 2012
Wow this looks so amazing!! Have you ever done the great white cage dive?
November 9, 2012
@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 :)
November 12, 2012
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!
November 20, 2012
@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.
November 13, 2012
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!
November 20, 2012
@Ali - It's not for everyone, but it is an incredible experience, you just have to push the JAWS images out of your head.
November 15, 2012
This is amazing! Why is this activity considered safe?
November 20, 2012
@Scott - Because sharks aren't interested in eating divers :)
November 20, 2012
Insane but yes, certainly made it on Wild Navigator's Wild Picture of the Day :) What an amazing brief on your experience and I certainly will never ever do it :) I prefer the land species more then the aquatic ones :) Thanks for sharing !!
November 22, 2012
@Abhishek - Yes and thank you for that :). I love the land species as well, but don't discriminate :)
December 3, 2012
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.
December 7, 2012
[...] be a princess in a German castle as she on an adrenalin-fuelled adventure jumping off mountains and diving with sharks. Her passion for life clearly shows in her [...]
December 17, 2012
Shy!!! Shy sharks are so cute ;)
December 28, 2012
@Angela - Agreed, the shy ones are my favorite ones :)
December 25, 2012
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 :)
December 28, 2012
@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 :)
January 2, 2013
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!
January 6, 2013
@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.
February 12, 2013
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 :).
February 12, 2013
@Thomas - I would love to do that too. Next time! I've been to South Africa twice, but want to go back again, so much to see and do there.
April 7, 2013
[...] enjoy Laurel Robbins post where she dove with Oceanic Black Tip Sharks and Ragged Tooth Sharks  no cage [...]
June 22, 2013
Amazing! Not for the faint hearted. I guess the black tipped ones arn't as bad as great whites?
August 14, 2013
@Giles - True, although I was really hoping to see a great white - maybe next time!
July 9, 2013
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.
August 19, 2013
@Joe - I feel comfortable diving with sharks, but still hate being on the surface - that makes me nervous as well.
August 1, 2013
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.
August 12, 2013
@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.
May 9, 2014
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.
July 30, 2014
@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.
February 16, 2015
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.
July 9, 2015
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!
Scubanomad
October 8, 2015
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!
October 9, 2015
@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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