FAQ: What about sharks?

You had to ask! I’m glad you did. As divers, we are venturing into the sharks’ domain, and it’s a risk we take. This might sound scary, but it’s important to bear a few things in mind. First, the ocean is a big place. It’s very unlikely that we’ll meet a shark, unless we go looking for them. Second, even though sharks are wild animals, they don’t like to eat people. Great white sharks need a huge amount of energy to keep their incredibly powerful bodies warm and mobile. That’s why they eat seals – conveniently packaged in a very thick layer of calorie-rich, nutritious blubber. Humans just don’t have the same appeal. That’s why many shark attacks are “bite and release”: the shark takes an exploratory nibble, because he thinks you’re a seal, and when he realises you’re not as tasty and fatty as he thought, he lets go and swims away. Unfortunately, with so many sharp teeth, a shark’s exploratory nibble can hurt you quite badly.

You might be thinking that what you’ve just read proves it’s a terrible idea to dive where sharks are found… especially since we often see seals on our dives in Cape Town. What’s to stop a shark from getting confused between a diver in his black wetsuit, and a sleek little seal? The answer to this relates to how great white sharks hunt. Their hunting technique is to launch themselves from the bottom of the ocean, up towards the seal on the surface. This enables them to reach enormous speeds and to take the seal totally by surprise. Often the shark will breach right out of the water with the seal in its mouth.

Why doesn’t this worry us? Because we spend most of our time on the bottom. For one thing, sharks can’t usually get underneath you to attack. There isn’t much chance of the shark mistaking you for a meal – in fact, it’s more likely that if you see a great white, he’ll just cruise right on by without paying you any attention. Another reason is that the places we dive that are frequented by seals (Partridge Point, Duiker Island in Hout Bay, the Clan Stuart, Long Beach for example) simply aren’t deep enough for a shark to mount an attack. They prefer to get their snacks out at Seal Island in the middle of False Bay (where the shark cage diving takes place), where there is a deep channel around the island perfect for hunting.

There has never been a great white shark attack on a diver in the Cape, despite the attacks we have had on swimmers, spear fishermen and surfers. That’s because surfers and swimmers are usually flailing around on the surface, and spear fishermen are usually dragging a handful of dead or dying fish behind them sending out distress signals to all the predators in the vicinity, so you can forgive the shark for getting confused and thinking they were a meal! You can see some general shark attack statistics (for the whole world) here.

If you dive with me, I will give you a shark briefing if I feel it’s necessary. I’d also like to encourage you to join me sometime for a dive at Shark Alley in front of Pyramid Rock in False Bay. This is a shore entry site where sevengill cowsharks can be seen in large numbers, with near certainty. They are beautiful creatures, up to about three metres long, and are not harmful to divers. We swim to the sandy patch among the kelp where they like to hang out, and then sit on the sand and wait for them to visit us. They are curious, and swim very close to take a look, and then swim away. It’s breathtaking – in a good way! You can see some videos of past dives I’ve done with these sharks on my YouTube page. Diving with these magnificent creatures will change your perception of sharks in general, and may also help you to master any shark-related fears you may have.

Sevengill Cowshark near Pyramid Rock
Sevengill cowshark at Shark Alley, near Pyramid Rock. These curious sharks will approach to within a few feet of divers to get a closer look.

For information on shark spottings in Cape Town, visit Sharkspotters (here too). For information on the relative risks of a shark attack compared to other things (lightning strikes, bicycle accidents, etc – the home improvements section is highly recommended!) go here.

As of yesterday (25 August) I can speak from first hand experience – after a just under a year in Cape Town, I was buzzed by my first great white shark. She circled us, and then left. It was awe-inspiring, and left me feeling honoured to have encountered one of these incredible creatures. I mentioned it in my newsletter today.

(This information also appears on my website, here.)

FAQ: Can one scuba dive in winter?

For one thing, divers don’t mind the rain… they’re going to get wet anyway! But, surprisingly, winter diving in Cape Town is often better than summer diving. At least part of this has to do with the fact that conditions are ideal for diving False Bay (my favourite side of the peninsula), where the water is warmer than the Atlantic. The prevailing winds are northwesterly, and this flattens the sea in False Bay. The bay is also protected from the winds to some extent by the mountains around it. The result is that the visibility in winter is magnificent. The water is a bit colder (more towards the 12 degree end of the range), but because the air is cooler than it is in summer, you won’t actually feel much of a difference, and in fact it often feels relatively warm. Cape divers will tell you that winter is the best time for diving here – don’t miss it!

(This information also appears on my website, here.)

FAQ: Isn’t it too cold to dive in Cape Town?

Water temperatures in Cape Town tend to vary between 7-10 degrees celcius on the Atlantic side, and 12-22 degrees in False Bay. This is chilly, I admit, but the rewards for braving the cold are huge. We have an incredible selection of reefs, wrecks and kelp forests to explore here, and an astonishing variety of marine life. The way to deal with the cold is to wear the right gear. Two wetsuits (a shortie on top), thick gloves and booties, and – most essential – a hoodie – will keep you toasty warm and will enable you to enjoy leisurely dives in our rich waters.

(This information also appears on my website, here.)

FAQ: Should I do a resort course, or learn to dive before I go on holiday?

Perhaps you’re going to Mozambique, Mauritius, the Seychelles, Thailand, the Red Sea (Egypt, Israel or Jordan for example), or some other equally exciting (and warm) destination.

Diving in Aqaba, Jordan
Diving in Aqaba, Jordan, where I worked for a few months in 2008.

I would suggest you qualify as a diver here at home, for several reasons:

  1. Diving courses contain a theory component, involving watching a dvd, self-study, classroom time with an instructor, and some quizzes and exams. Do you really want to be wasting your well-earned holiday hitting the books?
  2. Resort courses are usually way more expensive than a locally-run course, because you’re a captive market and can’t really shop around when you’re on holiday.
  3. You’ve paid a lot of money to book your holiday and you want to have the best possible experience. To do that, I suggest that you make sure you’re totally relaxed and at ease in the water. Some people take a few tries to get comfortable with the idea of breathing underwater, and I promise you’ll enjoy your holiday far more if you’ve already mastered diving, and you can concentrate on enjoying the sights while you’re away rather than taking the first nervous steps towards mastering a new skill.
  4. When you start diving, it takes a few dives before you are fully relaxed and able to turn your attention away from fidgeting with your kit to the underwater world around you. Rather let me help you fine tune your buoyancy and kit configuration while you’re here, so that when you go on holiday you can confidently tell the dive centre, “I need a large BC, 8kg weight belt and size 9 booties please!” No surprises.
  5. Conditions in the Cape are very different to what you’ll experience diving in warm tropical oceans. You might think this a reason not to learn to dive here, but experienced Cape Town divers will tell you that if you can dive here, you can dive anywhere. It only gets easier!

(This information also appears on my website, here.)

False Bay and Cape Peninsula dive sites

Peter Southwood has a list of the dive sites in the Cape Peninsula and False Bay on his wikivoyage site for diving in the region. Here’s our list (which is just his, alphabetised, plus some other sites we’ve explored of our own accord) with links to the dive sites we’ve done specific posts on.

This post will be regularly updated as we dive new sites.

13th Apostle
A-Frame (Oatlands Point)
Albatross Rock
Alpha Reef (Outer Spaniard)
Ammunition Barges
Andre se gat
Ankers
Antipolis
Bakoven Rock
Balcony
Bantry Bay
Batsata Rock
Bikini Beach
Blouklip (Bloukrans)
Blousteen Ridge
Blue Rock Quarry
Boat Rock (Bakoven Rock)
Bordjiesrif
Brunswick
Buffels Bay
Caravan Reef
Castle Rocks and Parson’s Nose
Castor Rock
Cement Barge
Clifton Rocks
Container Bay (Mike’s Bay)
Coral Gardens (Oudekraal)
Coral Gardens (Rooiels)
Cow and Calf
Dale Brook
D-Frame (Oatlands Reef, Wave Rock)
Di’s Cracks
Die Josie
Die Perd
Dreadlocks Reef
Fan Reef
Finlay’s Point (Jenga Reef)
Finlay’s Deep
Fish Hoek Reef
Fisherman’s Beach
Froggy Pond
Geldkis
Geldkis Blinder
Hakka Reef (Middelmas)
Hangklip Ridge
Het Huis te Kraaiestein
Hout Bay Harbour
HNMS Bato
Insanity Reef
Justin’s Caves
Kalk Bay Harbour Wall
Kanobi’s Wall
Klein Pannekoek
Klein Tafelberg Reef (Salad bowl, Yacht wreck))
Kruis (Crosses)
Ledges
Logies Bay
Long Beach
Lorry Bay
Maidstone Rock
MFV Orotava
MFV Princess Elizabeth
Mike’s Point
Miller’s Point
Muizenberg Trawlers
Murray’s Bay Harbour (Robben Island)
Mushroom Pinnacle
MV Aster
MV BOS 400
MV Daeyang Family
MV Gemsbok
MV Katsu Maru
MV Rockeater
MV Romelia
MV Treasure
Noah’s Ark and the Ark Rock Wrecks

North Battery Pipeline
North Lion’s Paw
Outer Castle (Blindevals)
Outer Photographer’s Reef
P87
Partridge Point and Seal Rock
Penguin Point (Boulders)
Percy’s Hole
Phil’s Bay
Phoenix Shoal
Photographer’s Reef (JJM Reef)
Pie Rock
Pinnacle
Pringle Bay
Pringle Bay Point
Pyramid
Quarry
Rambler Rock
RMS Athens
Rocklands Blinder (Seal Colony)
Rocky Bank
Rocky Bay
Roman Rock
Roman’s Rest
Rooi-els Point
Sandy Cove
SAS Bloemfontein
SAS Fleur
SAS Gelderland
SAS Good Hope
SAS Pietermaritzburg
SAS Transvaal
SATS General Botha
Seal Island
Seal Island (Duiker island)
Sea Point Ridge Pinnacles
Sentinel
Shark Alley
Simon’s Town Harbour
Smits Cliff (Hell’s Gate)
Smits Reef (Birthday Reef, Horseshoe Reef, Batsata Maze)
Smits swim
South Lion’s Paw
South-west Reefs
Spaniard Rock
SS Bia
SS Cape Matapan
SS Clan Monroe
SS Clan Stuart
SS Hypatia
SS Lusitania
SS Maori
SS Oakburn
SS SA Seafarer
SS Star of Africa
SS Thomas T Tucker
SS Umhlali
Star Wall
Steenbras Deep Reef
Steps
Stern Reef
Stonehenge
Strawberry Rocks
Sunny Cove
Tafelberg Deep
Tafelberg Reef
Three Anchor Bay
Tivoli Pinnacles
Tony’s Reef
Torch Reef
Troglodyte’s Cove (Cave Gully)
Two Oceans Aquarium
Vogelsteen
Vulcan Rock
Whale Rock
Whirlpool cove
Whittle Rock
Windmill Beach
Wonder Reef

Bookshelf: (Dive) travel

Spread your wings, even if just to do some armchair travel, with this collection of dive travel books. Some are guides to particular regions of the world, and others will simply transport you to another place with prose and pictures. Your reading explorations start here.

Great Barrier Reef

Sri Lanka

Southern Africa

Red Sea

Europe

Global dive destinations

Bookshelf: Fish identification books

Your diving experiences will be immeasurably enhanced by the addition of one or two fish identification books to your library. Choose books that are appropriate to the region(s) you tend to dive in the most. There’s a lot to choose from here.

Cape Town

Southern Africa

Warm seas

Worldwide

Also check out Eye of the Shoal, not strictly about fish identification, but all about fish!

Bookshelf: Books about sharks

Sharks! All about sharks! Get some actual, scientific facts here. You can dive as deep as you want into the subject – here’s a wide selection of shark books for you to choose from.

Living with sharks

Start here!

South African special interest

Shark biology

Shark research

Shark attacks

Shark photography

Bookshelf: Diving adventures

Here’s a reading list of diving adventures, old and new, spanning all kinds of diving. From Arthur C. Clarke’s chronicles of diving the pristine Great Barrier Reef and Sri Lanka several decades ago, to more modern accounts of wreck diving around the world, you’ll be sure to find something that meets your reading requirements here. Get set for an armchair diving adventure of note!

Travelling divers and interesting lives:

Maniacs (some admirable!):