The top 5 dive sites in South Africa

Maputoland or Maputaland?

By Amilda Boshoff
Photos by Rian Bester, Christo van Jaarsveld, Willie van Heerden, Margate Air

Our beautiful country has rolling hills, desolate land and high mountains, but the most beautiful of all has to be the long coastline. In this article we highlight the top five sites in South Africa to add to your logbook.

Mabibi and surroundings

Mabibi is located in north-eastern KwaZulu-Natal between Sodwana Bay and Kosi Bay (the southern Mozambican border), where it forms part of the Maputoland Coastal Forest Reserve. The climate on the north coast is mostly tropical and the area falls in a relatively high rainfall area. Summer days are usually hot with temperatures pushing the mercury to 30°C plus. The high humidity keeps the area green all year round with beautiful birds, insects, reptiles and plant life ever-present. The winter months from May to August are mild and dry – it is cool in the evenings and early morning but the rest of the day could just as well be summer. This is not ‘big game’ country, but the diversity is certainly here – the variety extends from Vervet monkeys and the nocturnal Thicktailed bushbabies through to the shy forest antelopes, the Red duiker and the Suni.

ImageIn this area there are only two lodges with dive charters. Dives can be booked at the two lodges but it isn’t necessary to stay there. Campsites in the surrounding areas can also be utilised and one then just have to drive to and fro. There are no shops in the area so it is best to take everything along that you might need. The closest shops and service stations are in Mbazwana or Kosi Bay where diesel and petrol are also available. The closest clinic or hospital is in Mseleni and there is a GP in Mbazwana to help with minor ailments.

The coast on the north of Sodwana is situated in a World Heritage site – the Maputaland Coastal Forest Reserve. With only two boats launching in this area it is unspoiled and exclusive diving with a variety of marine life. It is best to plan dives early in the day because the wind usually picks up in the afternoon. The dive spots are mostly situated on coral reefs with a variety of soft and hard corals. An assortment of different sceneries can be expected here, with gullies, swim-through’s and pinnacles all par for the course. Marine life mainly consists of tropical reef fish and pelagics, but between October and February each year, migrating whales and Whale sharks frequent the area. From November to January, Ragged-tooth sharks are also found resting in the warm Indian Ocean waters with summer water temperatures between 21˚C and 27˚C. Winter water temperatures drop to between 19˚C and 24 ˚C. Regal Reef, Gogo's and Coachman's Ledge are just some of the incredible dive sites that Mabibi and its surroundings has to offer.

There are two launch sites that are usually easy to launch from with manageable waves. Island Rock, the launch area near Rocktail Bay, has a lagoon-like area where the boat can be anchored and launched from. The other one is a straight surf launch in front of Thonga Lodge from a protected bay. These launch areas do not have any facilities; they are clean, undeveloped beaches. The wearing of life jackets is compulsory with every launch from the beach.

Facts to remember when visiting the North Coast of KwaZulu-Natal:

  • ImageThere are no shark nets at the beach, so don’t go in too deep as there are strong currents. It is safer not to swim between dusk and dawn.
  • Don’t drink the tap water, use only bottled water.
  • It is suggested that mosquito and insect repellent be applied to all exposed skin during the late afternoon and evening hours.
  • Wear long-sleeved clothing and trousers in the evening, keeping your ankles protected as much as possible.
  • The taking of prophylactic pills is advised, but do not take these pills on an empty stomach.
  • Keep all windows and doors closed unless a screen is present. Sleeping under a mosquito net can also help.
  • Use a mosquito coil and insect sprays if necessary.

Activities in and around the area:

  • Leatherback and Loggerhead turtle hatchings from October to February.
  • Cashew nut factory.
  • Visit Lake Sibaya and Musi Pans.
  • Hiking trails.
  • Snorkelling.
  • A variety of water sports.
  • Surf and fly-fishing is amongst the best on the east coast of South Africa. Fishing is on a catch and release basis.
  • Drives in open 4x4 vehicles to Black Rock and other localities offer great views of the spectacular reserve with excellent birding.

Sodwana Bay

Sodwana Bay – or ‘Sordies’ as it is affectionately called – lies approximately 500km north of Durban and 100km from the southern border of Mozambique. It is a tranquil place where you can relax to the sound of the waves and take time to enjoy nature at its best. This site is unique in that it is protected in every sense of the word; protected by the Parks Board, protected as part of a marine and coastal reserve and protected and safe enough to launch with small waves in a big bay.

ImageRegardless of your taste or budget there is an accommodation option to suit your needs; be it lodge-like accommodation with meals included, self-catering cabins, a backpackers or a campsite with ablution facilities (if you feel like living in the open). If you stay outside the Parks Board area, you will have to pay a gate fee per person per day to access the beach. But if you visit the parks of KwaZulu-Natal regularly, it is advisable to buy an annual Rhino Card, which will save you a lot of money on entrance fees. A bonus is that it also offers discounts at certain parks and lodges.

There are numerous restaurants and coffee shops if you don’t feel like cooking, and don’t forget the beach kiosk for takeaways. There are well-stocked supermarkets in Sodwana as well as in Mbazwana where you can purchase tinned food, bread, meat (when available), fruit and vegetables, selected medicine and beach equipment. There is an ATM in Mbazwana (19km away), but is only operational when the Spar is open. The nearest bank is in Hluhluwe (102km away by road). There are petrol stations in the Sodwana Parks board area as well as in Mbazwana and the nearest Post Office is also in Mbazwana. For your medical needs there is a general practitioner in Mbazwana and a clinic/hospital at Mseleni, yet full-time Emergency Medical Services are on standby for any diving related emergency. The EMS situated at Sodwana is a private organisation, which is partly supported by DAN. This service is not only for dive related problems, but also for any medical assistance. The water is treated at a purification plant and is fit for human consumption. It is a little discoloured, so perhaps you would like to take a couple of bottles of drinking water just in case.  

When is the best time to dive at Sodwana? All year round! Keep in mind that this is one of the world’s most popular dive sites and over long weekends the ocean looks like a parking lot with boats and divers everywhere. From November to February it can be scorching hot, so have enough fluid with you to prevent dehydration. Remember, even if it is cold inland it is always nice and warm at the coast where the water temperature through the year is usually around 27C, dropping to 22C in the winter months.

Sodwana has a variety of reefs, depths and so much more to explore. There are reefs for everyone, from the newly qualified diver to the thrill-seeking technical diver. Be sure to book the early launch because the wind has a habit of blowing in the afternoons, which could bring along bigger waves. Night dives are weather dependant and a rarity, so if you ever get the chance to go, don’t let it slip through your fingers. The reefs are spectacular at night with a totally different array of fish and marine life that you won’t encounter during the day.

There are numerous reefs in Sodwana with various sites to dive at. The reefs are named according to how far they are situated from Jesser Point: Quarter Mile, Two Mile, Five Mile, Seven Mile and Nine Mile. The most popular reef is Two Mile reef and many of the dive packages that you will buy from the charters occur there.

Sodwana is the perfect place for open water students to complete their first sea dives as the boat ride to the nearest reef isn’t too long, there are no huge waves to worry about and the warm waters will soothe the nerves! A number of dive operators in Sodwana can provide you with air fills, nitrox, accommodation and gear hire, so you are sure to find what you’re looking for. If you’ve yet to visit, it’s time to pack your gear, throw your bags in the car and experience the lifestyle of Sodwana Bay!

ImageActivities in and around the area:

  • If you don’t dive yet still want to see and experience the underwater environment, you can put on your snorkelling gear and enjoy the scenery at Jesser Point.
  • Quad bike trails are a great way to explore Sodwana and its surrounding areas. There is a company that rents quad bikes and will take you on a guided tour.
  • Horse riding on the beach is a nice relaxing way to spend an afternoon when the others are diving.
  • Travelling to Lake Sibaya – the largest freshwater lake in southern Africa – will take approximately 30 minutes. It is best to take a 4x4 or a bakkie with diff lock to this beautiful area.
  • A visit to the Muzi Pans is a great way to spend a Sunday as the area hosts numerous bird species and hippos.
  • Microlight flights over the beach and Lake Sibaya.
  • Visiting the Cashew nut factory on the Coastal Forrest Road.
  • Leatherback and Loggerhead turtle hatchings from October to February.
  • Dolphin and whale watching trips.
  • Fishing – deep sea or from the beach at designated areas.
  • Hluhluwe Umfolozi Park is located about 80km from Sodwana.
  • Just 50km from Sodwana you will find the Thembe Elephant Park.

Aliwal Shoal

At the beginning of 2005 Aliwal Shoal became a Marine Protected Area. It is situated approximately 50km south of Durban, off the small town of Umkomaas on the south coast of KwaZulu-Natal. King Shaka Zulu named the area Umkomanzi, which can be literally translated into, ‘The watering place of the whales’, when he saw a number of cow whales and calves which were basking in the shallows a short distance out to sea from the river mouth. It is said that the whales swam up the river mouth to give birth, hence the name Umkomaas. Today Umkomaas is mostly renowned as a Diving Town because the famous Aliwal Shoal is situated approximately 5km from the Umkomaas beach and offers a variety of dives, including open water, advanced, shark and wreck diving. Although the boat ride could be long, it is almost always a good and interesting dive. There are two wrecks that can be dived near the shoal, namely the Produce and the Nebo.

ImageThe Aliwal Shoal is a 1,5km wide fossilised sandbank on the inner edge of the Mozambique current. The shoal runs in a north to south direction and, due to the warm waters, visibility is usually excellent. It was named after the Aliwal, a ship that sailed from London in September 1849 and which was nearly wrecked there.

The Aliwal Shoal is best known for the Ragged-tooth sharks that are found there in the winter months at Raggie’s Cave and Cathedral. Between June and November you are sure to see Ragged-tooth sharks as they congregate on the shoal to mate. It is not uncommon to find 15 to 150 of these ferocious-looking, yet docile animals on a single dive. In summer you have every chance of seeing Tiger and Hammerhead sharks on your dives. Depending on the conditions, the best dives are Cathedral, Raggie’s Cave and Shark Alley. The Sardine Run also passes by this area each year between May and June and is well known for the tumbling swirls of sardines mixed with sharks, birds and dolphins.

Then there is the new type of shark diving named ‘Tiger Shark Diving’ or ‘Baited Diving’, where divers can get to see Tiger sharks and numerous Blacktip sharks. The sharks get lured in with the scent of fish oil and sardines which are place in a bucket and suspended in 8-12 metres of water. This dive isn’t done on the shoal but out to sea on a sandy area on the way to Scottsburgh. It is an exhilarating experience being surrounded by inquisitive sharks and definitely a dive for the adrenaline junkies amongst us.

As it is now classed as a Marine Protected Area, permits are necessary to dive in the Aliwal Shoal. These permits can be obtained at your nearest Post Office or at some dive charters. Umkomaas offers two types of launches; one from the river mouth where a boat takes you out to the ocean and the other a beach launch where the divers have to push the boat to the water and jump in as soon as it is deep enough. The launch used depends on the weather and the tide – like a lucky packet, you never know what you are going to get. The wearing of life jackets is compulsory with every launch. Having a SMB, a torch and a reel with you will increase your safety as well as your buddies’.

The climate on the north coast is mostly subtropical, with mild winters and hot summers. Rain is frequent during the summer months with land temperatures between 17°C and 30°C and winter land temperatures between 11°C and 25°C. The summer water temperatures in this area range from 20°C to 25°C and winter water temperatures range from 15°C to 22°C. The town of Umkomaas and nearby Scottsburgh offer a range of accommodation in the form of guesthouses, hotels, lodges, B&B’s and self-catering chalets. There are also back packers and campsites available if the above mentioned don’t suit your needs.

ImageActivities in and around the area:

  • Cultural tours.
  • Hiking trails.
  • Dolphin and whale watching.
  • Curio and coffee shops.
  • Restaurants.
  • Fishing.
  • Golf – Umkomaas has its own golf course.
  • The interesting Dive Museum.
  • The nearby town of Scottsburgh has miniature golf, movies, Crock World and super tubes for the kid’s entertainment.  

Protea Banks

Protea Banks is situated near the town of Shelly Beach, approximately 160km south of Durban. Shelly Beach is home to the well-known small craft harbour, and today this harbour is the focal point from which many varied ocean activities take place.

ImageIf you always want to see the bigger things that the ocean has to offer, then this site is for you. Protea Banks is situated 7,5km straight out to sea off Shelly Beach. A fossilised sand dune reef lies in an east to west direction along the coast between 27m and 40m, and is approximately 6km long and 800m in width. There are two distinct areas on which all the dive charters focus – Southern and Northern Pinnacles. Ranked amongst the top shark and game fish dives in the world, Protea Banks offers you a variety of sharks and pelagics on almost every dive.

During the summer months the Zambezi shark makes the banks its home. Hammerheads are often seen overhead – not just one or two, but in their hundreds. Guitar sharks, Coppers and Blacktips frequent this reef, while a fortunate few get the privilege of seeing the elusive Tiger shark. In the winter months the Ragged-tooth sharks congregate on Protea to mate. Aside from the sharks, a vast number of game fish such as Barracuda, Snappers, Tuna, Yellowtail, Kingfish and Potato bass can be spotted on the dives. Other different species that you can encounter on the dive are the Humpback whale, Spotted eagle ray, Manta ray, Devil ray, Whale shark and Brindle bass.

Protea Banks offers an exceptionally exciting specialty shark dive for locals and international visitors called Baited Shark Diving, where divers can encounter sharks like never before. It is done safely and every effort is made not to feed them but only to lure them into an area where divers can observe them much closer than on other dives done at Protea Banks. This is definitely a must!

The people on the coast are very friendly and laid back, a huge change from those caught up in the rat race in Gauteng. Planning a getaway or a holiday for the whole family needn’t be a headache because there is lots to see and to do on this part of the coast. From abseiling at Oribi Gorge to sipping something cool in the sun on the beach, Shelly has something for everyone. In the accommodation department, there is a huge range of options, including self-catering accommodation, luxury apartments, B&B’s, country lodges, beachfront hotels and caravan and camping sites. The emphasis is on a laid back, outdoor lifestyle, designed to take maximum advantage of the wonderful natural surroundings and the beautiful blue ocean. Entertainment, restaurants, health services and fuel are all readily available in and around the Shelly Beach area, but power cuts are now an integral part of every day life in South Africa. So now planning a dive is not so straightforward – cylinder fills will just have to wait if the power is out, or be prepared and fill two cylinders beforehand!

ImageActivities in and around the area:

  • Uvongo Bird Park – An amazing variety of exotic and indigenous birds in walk-through aviaries with a tea garden.
  • Butterflies of the Lost World – Guided tours through a special butterfly dome with a tea garden, curio shop and a nursery.
  • Beaver Creek Coffee Estate – Come and sample the taste of farm-fresh coffee. You can also enjoy lunch at the Estate restaurant.
  • Riverbend Crocodile Farm – Hundreds of crocodiles and numerous bird species with a curio shop, art gallery and the famous Crocpot Restaurant.
  • Coastal Treasures Museum – Jo Arkell's Pottery Studio.
  • Margate Art Museum – The largest art museum in KwaZulu-Natal.
  • Port Shepstone Maritime Museum – A graphic history of the trials and tribulations of the old Port Shepstone harbour.
  • Wild West Museum – A whole herd of surprises awaits you at Ramsgate's Pistols Saloon.
  • Mpenjati Public Resort Nature Reserve – Hugging the coastline between Trafalgar and Palm Beach, this great little reserve has an interesting blend of marked walking trails amongst wetlands, beaches, sand dunes, lagoon, grassland and lush coastal forest.
  • Oribi Gorge Game Reserve – See giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, rock art and 250 recorded bird species.
  • Petrified Fossil Forest – A never-to-be-forgotten prehistoric experience.
  • River Valley Nature Reserve – Scenic walks through grasslands and coastal forests with abundant birdlife and small game. Includes riverside picnic spots, camping, climbing and horse riding.
  • Pure Venom Snake & Reptile Farm – South Africa’s largest educational reptile farm which includes a restaurant and a curio shop.
  • Wild 5 - Oribi Gorge Swing.
  • Eland Nature Reserve and lookout points over Oribi Gauge.

False Bay

The southern side of the Cape Peninsula is called False Bay – the name comes from early navigators who used to think that they could sail through the bay to Cape Town and that the peninsula was merely an island. False Bay, which is approximately 30km across, is blessed by much warmer seas than the Atlantic coastal side of the peninsula making for pleasant bathing at its abundant beaches as well as more pleasant diving conditions. The climate in the Western Cape is typically Mediterranean and is usually warm and dry in the summer with temperatures ranging from 16˚C to 28˚C. The area is mild and moist in the winter with temperatures ranging between 8˚C and 20˚C.

ImageWith the varied weather conditions in the Cape, is it best to stay at hotels, self-catering chalets, backpackers, guesthouses or lodges rather than in a tent at a campsite. One never knows when it will start raining or when your tent will be blown away with the south-easter! Shops, restaurants, entertainment, fuel and medical care is readily available in False Bay, which includes the towns of Strand, Simon’s Town, Fish Hoek, Kalk Bay, Muizenberg and Gordon’s Bay, so there is no need to agonise if you forgot to pack the headache pills or torch batteries – there will always be a shop around the corner to help you.

False Bay offers the diver such a variety that it is difficult to classify this coastline as any particular ‘type’ of diving. Dive sites range vastly in bottom composition depending on where in False Bay you choose to dive. It fluctuates from rocky terrain characterised by the steep cliffs on the western side of False Bay through to sandy bottoms on the eastern side. A number of sites on both sides of the bay are distinguished by vast, dense and beautiful Kelp forests that house any number of creatures such as Pyjama sharks, Leopard catsharks and Puffadder shysharks. Kelp forests act as a filter for dirty water so divers will often experience mediocre conditions until entering the Kelp, whereupon the visibility will improve dramatically.

On a sunny day at a dive site 10-14m deep, the beautiful colours of the corals and anenomies will amaze you. The Gordon’s Bay, Rooi Els and Simon’s Town sites boast spectacular Sea fans in bright oranges and reds which sway in the surge – another defining characteristic of dive conditions in the Cape. Furthermore, Feather stars in various shades of orange and brown vie for space with soft corals in pinks and purples, making it a difficult, yet very rewarding task to spot the many Nudibranchs endemic to this region. The friendly Cape fur seal will often make an appearance on your dive – it might just be a fleeting glimpse but more often than not, your new dive buddy will hang around for some time. Due to the fact that the Cape’s water conditions change on a daily basis, it’s difficult to predict the best time to dive. The summer water temperatures range from 12˚C to 20˚C with the winter water temperatures being between 8˚C to 15˚C.

Smitswinkel Bay, accessible via a boat launch from Miller’s Point in Simon’s Town, is renowned for its fantastic wreck diving. The wrecks lie beyond basic OW1 qualifications so advanced certification is a must for divers wanting to explore scuttled navy vessels from yesteryear.

There are a variety of types of entries at False Bay. Most of them are shore entries, although some of the dive sites can only be reached by boat. The boat launches will be from the closest harbour or from the closest launching ramp from the dive spot.

ImageActivities in and around the area:

  • Visits to the wine lands and fruit farms.
  • Quad bike trails.
  • Hiking trails into the mountains.
  • Dolphin and whale watching.
  • White shark cage diving.
  • Fishing.
  • A variety of water sports, such as surfing and kite surfing.
  • Simon's Town, the base of the South African Navy, is steeped in history and museums – like the Warrior Toy Museum, a must for children. Boulders Beach is famous for its breeding colony of Jackass penguins.
  • Fish Hoek has one of the safest swimming beaches in the Cape. Hobie-cat sailing, snorkelling and paddle-skiing are favourite water sports.
  • Kalk Bay is a trendy little seaside village with antique shops, bric-a-brac and curio shops. At the popular working harbour fresh fish can be bought from the fishing boats.
  • Muizenberg is steeped in history. It has a number of museums and offers one of the most beautiful beaches on the Peninsula, with 36km of white sand, safe swimming and a pavilion on the beachfront with a swimming pool and waterslide.
  • Strand lies on the other side of False Bay, at the foot of the Hottentots Holland Mountains, and can be reached by means of a beautiful scenic coastal road from Muizenberg. It has a long, sandy beach ideal for safe swimming and all kinds of water sport.
  • Gordon's Bay has been described as the Monaco of the Cape, with a distinct Mediterranean flavour. It is notable for its old-world charm, narrow streets, two safe swimming beaches, many restaurants and abundant accommodation.

As you can see, there is much to do and to see on our beautiful coastline besides diving. We have highlighted the areas along the coast that are of significance to the greater diving population, but there are so many other places that also deserve to be mentioned. For more information on these and other popular dive sites you can purchase the comprehensive book, Dive Spots of Southern Africa, at

Author: Amilda Boshoff