December marks the beginning of summer in South Africa and also the start of the busiest local holiday season. Hot weather and more than 12 hours of sunshine a day make this period perfect for the annual holidays. Just like the Great Migration on the plains of the Serengeti many inland city dwellers leave their homes and head for one of the country’s beautiful coastlines to relax and get away from the hustle and bustle of the cities.
Text by Paul Hunter and Roland Mauz
As one of the migrants we packed our bags and headed for the KwaZulu Natal south coast, otherwise known as the Hibiscus Coast, which consists of about 75km of Indian Ocean coastline dotted with many popular holiday towns, blue flag beaches, nature reserves, hiking trails and fishing spots. It is also home to one of the top-rated shark dive sites in the world; Protea Banks.
Protea Banks lies 7.5km out to sea from the Shelley Beach launch site. The reef is about 6km long and 800m wide and lies at a depth of between 27m to 40m and is essentially a fossilized sandbank. These waters have been frequented by sharks and fisherman for generations because they are very rich tuna grounds.
However scuba diving on Protea only began in the early 1990s. The early pioneers did not know what to expect and would enter the water armed with bang sticks and spear guns. They were considered insane by the local community for diving in these shark-infested waters. Yet those that dared were treated to the dive of their lives with sharks from the moment they entered the water. This was the start of shark diving on Protea Banks and which is now enjoyed by divers from all over the world.
We decided to dive with African Dive Adventures as they have been diving Protea Banks since 1994. They have a slightly different approach with regard to a dive center and setup making use of an open-air-office in the Shelley Beach Small Craft harbor area. Upon arrival we were warmly greeted and given indemnity forms to complete. Once we had completed setting up our kit we were given a very thorough briefing. At this point I need to stress that this is an advanced diving site. It is recommended that you have at least 50 dives under the belt and are a competent diver.
The reasons for this is that the dives are deep, exposed to strong currents and the visibility is not always great. The other thing I really like is that they take a mature approach to diving. Everyone that dives here should be experienced and thus responsible for themselves.
Our first dive was to Southern pinnacle. We were rather fortunate that the launch was fairly easy and the sea flat, so got to the dive site in no time at all. Upon rolling back into the water and descending quickly to 28m we became aware of the strong current running southwards. Unfortunately the water was cloudy and visibility down to about 12m. Initially the current was very strong but reduced towards the end of the dive. As we drifted we scanned in all directions for any sign of shark.
It wasn’t long and we had seen a couple of hundred hammerheads. Had the visibility been better this would have been a most spectacular experience. This is a great dive site offering a very good chance of seeing hammerheads.Then it happened, we saw a few hammerheads in the distance, on the very edge of our visibility.
One of our next dives was a baited shark dive. Before this dive a full briefing was given on what to expect and code of conduct instructions to follow in order to provide the best experience with the sharks. A baited dive involves putting bait in the water to create a chum line which the sharks then pick up and follow to the source. The dive guide regularly checks the bait station which sits at about 12m to see if any sharks have arrived. This can take anything from 5 to 40 minutes. Once sharks are present we kit up and enter the water to observe these awesome creatures in action.
We were initially welcomed by 6 or 7 blacktip sharks and later joined by 2 Zambezi (bull) sharks. This was my first close encounter with Zambezi sharks and I was just blown away.
The interesting thing to me was the difference in behavior patterns of the two sharks. The blacktips were very energetic, moving in and out of view very quickly like excited dogs while the zambezi’s were more reserved in their approach. They sharks did not seem to mind us at all. They would come in and take a look and move on again never showing any signs of aggression or agitation. We got to spend over an hour in the water with the sharks.
The Dive sites of Protea Banks
The three dive sites most often dived at Protea Banks are: Northern Pinnacle, Southern Pinnacle and Playground. Each dive site has its own particular characteristics and all three should be dived in order to gain a good appreciation of everything Protea Banks has to offer.
This area of Protea has magnificent topography and is mainly dived during the winter months. The reef is virtually untouched and there are two caves which are used by ragged-tooth sharks (also known as raggies) on their annual migration and aggregation route. During this exciting period divers can encounter over a hundred raggies at a time.
The dive starts at First Cave, the larger of two caves visited by divers on this site. At First Cave divers look in from the top and observe the raggies interacting peacefully with each other. Often the caves are so full of sharks that one can hardly see the bottom. Divers then pass the Tunnel, the Canyon and get to the Second Cave. This cave is also open on top and has several chambers, each one with a wide opening at the top. When there are no Raggies in the caves, it is great fun exploring and collecting Raggie’s teeth, which are generally plentiful in and around this cave area. Divers are allowed to remove these teeth as a nice souvenir and proof of a close encounter with the Raggies.
During spring and summer large schools of hammerheads can often be seen on this side of the reef. The dive on the Northern Pinnacle is by no means over once divers leave the caves. On the slow ascent to midwater one often encounters Zambezies or blacktips. Best time to dive the Northern Pinnacle is between May and November.
On the Southern Pinnacle there are many different areas to dive. The usual Southern Pinnacle dive starts at the Southern Cave, which hosts all kinds of game fish – at times so thick that it is difficult to see your buddy. After the cave, you reach Kingfish Gully, an overhanging rock which is home to large shoals of kingfish, yellowtail and potato bass, to name a few. Billy Bob Steinberg the resident potato bass loves to come in for a cuddle and a photo shoot opportunity!
Following the current leads you to a large sandy patch called Sand Shark Gully, also known as the Arena. It lies at exactly 40m and is home to the
giant guitar shark. At times 50 to 60 of these magnificent creatures are seen lined up like planes on an airport. There are also other areas …Lord of the Rings and the Village. But limited bottom time does not allow for spending time at all of them on one dive. When there is no current it is common to spend all of a diver’s bottom time at any of the various Southern Pinnacle sites. The best time to dive the Southern Pinnacle is in the summer months from October to April.
Playground is a fantastic reef added to the assortment of Protea Banks Dive Sites since 2010. A local fisherman, Wayne De La Hunt, provided African Dive Adventures with the coordinates for a check-out dive on this site. After the first dive they were hooked on Playground and a few dives later a dive route had been worked out.
This place is unbelievably beautiful. It has the most bizarre rock formations such as a rock which resembles a whale’s fluke, another one a whale’s tail which seemingly sticks out of the ocean floor. There is a clown’s head, a corkscrew and a swim-through cave.
The dive usually begins at the Canyon, passes the Whale Rocks, Clown’s Head, Corkscrew and ends with a descent into the Cave from where divers emerge at the bottom again. This usually takes care of most of the bottom time. After the Cave divers ascend slowly into midwater and make their way up.
Some regular divers of this spot believe firmly that the Playground is THE best dive site on Protea Banks. One can see everything or nothing at the Playground. This April divers had countless tiger sharks and Zambezi sharks. On one occasion a great white was spotted in the distance.