Diving in South Africa

This article is intended to provide the already qualified scuba diver with information which will help to plan dives in the waters of South Africa, whether as a local resident or a visitor. Information is provided without prejudice, and is not guaranteed accurate or complete. Use it at your own risk.

If you are looking for information on getting training and certification as a recreational scuba diver, refer to the article on Scuba diving for general information, or the regional article covering your area of interest, to find listings of dive schools.

More detailed regional information and listings of dive shops, operators, and other related services will also usually be found in the regional guides. Some information and listings for areas without a regional guide may be found in this article under the Services headings in the Destination section.


South Africa has sites spread along its coast that are perhaps better known for sharks and other large marine life, but also have a wide range of endemic smaller fish and invertebrates. The coastal sites range from tropical coral reefs in the north of KwaZulu-Natal, where the fish are typical Indo-pacific tropical species, and very colourful, to cool temperate rocky reefs on the West Coast, where the fish life is relatively dull, but the invertebrates provide the colour.

The annual sardine run up the east coast is justly famous and the lesser known chokka (squid) spawning also attracts large numbers of predators, but without requiring as much chasing around to be at the right place.

There are a large number of wrecks along the coast, some of which are regarded as good dive sites.

The inland sites are more usually used for training, technical and cave diving.

South African diving is generally more physically challenging than the more popular destinations. It may involve cold water, surf launches, big swell or strong currents, depending on the region involved, and a higher level of fitness and skill is desirable if you want to enjoy the experience to the maximum.

For those who want more protected and benign conditions, there are two large Aquariums where divers can enjoy warmer water and very easy access, and are guaranteed to see a large number of fish.

General topography

The physical geography of the region

South Africa is the southern part of the continent of Africa, the only continent through which both tropics pass. The continent extends to a maximum of 34°50' of latitude from the equator, so it is mostly tropical and subtropical, with a moderate extent of temperate zones. South Africa is the region of Africa furthest from the equator in the southern hemisphere. It extends from the Limpopo river in the north at S22°07'to Cape Agulhas in the south at S34°50', and from the Orange River mouth in the west at E016°27' to Ponta do Ouro in the east at E32°23'.

Oceans bordering South Africa

South Africa is one of the few countries with more than one ocean on its shores, and this has a profound effect on the sea conditions, not so much because the waters are nominally divided into two oceans, but because major currents of the two oceans have such profound differences and these strongly influence the adjacent ecosystems.

The coastline from the Orange River Mouth bordering Namibia in the north west to Ponto do Ouro bordering Mozambique in the north east is approximately 2954 km long.

The width of the continental shelf off South Africa varies enormously, with a very narrow shelf off the north east coast of KwaZulu-Natal, and a wide shelf off the southern tip of Africa - The Agulhas Bank. the shelf narrows again off the Cape Peninsula, and is of moderate width from Cape Columbine north, along the West Coast. Technically the division between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans is at the southern tip, Cape Agulhas, but from a practical point of view the sharpest distinction in qualitative terms is at Cape Point, and many Capetonians like to think of this being the place of Two Oceans. The reason for this is that the west coast is strongly influenced by the cold Benguela current, which flows north along the west coast, and the warm Mozambique current flows south on the east coast. The Agulhas current may be thought of as a continuation of the Mozambique current, which flows south west and then west as it follows the east coast. The Agulhas current is affected by the relatively shallow Agulhas bank, and throws off some enormous eddies, which eventually swing south and then east, and dissipate in the southern ocean.

Climate, weather and sea conditions

A description of the regional climate, weather systems, oceanography in terms of tides, currents, seasonal water condition variations, max and min values for water temperature, air temperature etc.

Marine ecology

South Africa's coastal waters can be divided into a number of biogeographical regions, though there is generally not a sharp distinction between them where the boundaries have been placed. There is more of a gradual change along the coast, from the tropical waters of northern KwaZulu-Natal to the cooler waters of the south coast.

The one place where there is a relatively distinct change over a short distance, is at Cape Point, where the waters of the east and west sides of the peninsula support noticeably different ecologies, and even here there is a significant overlap of resident organisms.

There are a large proportion of endemic species along this coastline.

The Marine Bioregions

The regions of interest to recreational divers are the coastal bioregions, which are accessible and shallow enough to dive. These are considered to extend from the shoreline to the break of the continental shelf, so most of the area is far too deep to dive.


Ordinary recreational Scuba diving equipment is sufficient for most dive sites in most of the regions. The largest variation in requirements being for exposure suits. In the tropical north-east, where water temperature is usually at or above 24°C, wet suits are worn as much for protection from the sun and stings as for warmth, while on the west coast a 7mm wet-suit is barely sufficient, and dry suits are becoming more popular with divers who enjoy being warm at the end of a dive in water temperatures as low as 8°C. Most dive sites are relatively shallow few are deeper than 40m, and the majority are in the 10 to 30m range.

Diver certification and legal liability

There is currently no legal requirement in South Africa for certification as a recreational diver. You are legally allowed to buy equipment and dive with it with no training, certification, experience or competence whatsoever. There is also no legal constraint preventing you from going to sea and jumping over the side of the boat of your own free will wearing only a weightbelt, but there are more comfortable and convenient ways to kill yourself.

Most, if not necessarily all, of the dive charter operators will insist that you are certified to dive to the depth and in the conditions expected at the dive site, or are accompanied by a certified instructor. This is not only because they are concerned for your safety, but also it cuts down on the paperwork if there is an accident. It is bad for business to have your clients die during an outing, so most operators are fairly diligent in ensuring that clients are informed of the probable conditions and site specific risks and the recommended level of certification. Waivers are required in most cases, and the diver assumes responsibility for his or her own actions, and unless there is strong evidence of negligence or illegal actions on the part of the operator, litigation after the event is unlikely to make the dependants wealthy.

Some operators will cancel a dive if the conditions look like they will be unpleasant, and probably all will cancel if the conditions look dangerous. However, this does not mean that the conditions will necessarily be safe for you if the dive is on. You are expected to judge for yourself what you can handle, and whether the situation will be within your capabilities on the day, and make your own decision.

If you are a trainee on a certification programme, you have the right to expect the instructor to advise you on risk and safety, but unless you have no certification at all you are expected to be able to make a reasonable choice for yourself.


Western Cape

Western Cape

The Western Cape province is the most south western province in South Africa. It includes a large proportion of South Africa's tourist destinations and attractions, amongst which are many of the better known diving destinations.

Cape Town

Boundaries of the Table Mountain National Park Marine Protected Area. Most of the Cape Town dive sites are in this MPA.

Diving the Cape Peninsula and False Bay

The waters of Cape Town include the Atlantic seaboard, which is cool to cold temperate, and False Bay, which is also cool temperate, but significantly influenced by the warmer waters brought down the east coast by the Mozambique current and the Agulhas current, and has some similarity to the South Coast.

Cape point is accepted as the boundary between the cool temperate South-western Cape bioregion of the west coast, and the warm temperate Agulhas bioregion of the south coast. Unlike the other boundaries between the marine bioregions, which are diffuse, the ecosystems vary quite distinctively over a short distance at Cape Point, due to the change from the dominating influence of the warmer Agulhas current to the east to the cold Benguela current to the west

There are many endemic species of fish, invertebrates and seaweeds, as well as a variety of other more wide ranging organisms, and a large number of shipwrecks, some of which are highly regarded as dive sites. False Bay is occasionally host to wandering fish from warmer regions, and occasionally even turtles, brought in on the currents from the east coast.

The mountainous Cape Peninsula, which separates the Atlantic Ocean from False Bay, also protects the coastal waters on each side from wind and waves from the other side, making it possible to have year round diving, but seasonal variations in where to dive and what to see, as there is a significant and noticeable difference between the ecosystems on the alternative shorelines.

Those sites listed here were considered among the best by a panel of experienced local divers with no commercial agenda. For a more exhaustive listing and detailed descriptions of most of the over 150 dive sites in this region, refer to the Wikivoyage dive guide article Diving the Cape Peninsula and False Bay

Dive sites include:


Diving in Hermanus

Dive sites include:


Divers over the wreck of the HMS Birkenhead

Dive sites include:


Dive sites include:

Arniston (Waenhuiskrans)

Dive sites include

Mossel Bay

Dive sites include:


Dive sites include:

Plettenberg Bay

Dive sites include:

Eastern Cape

Eastern Cape


Diving the Tsitsikamma

Dive sites include:

Jeffrey's Bay

Dive sites include:

St Francis Bay

Dive sites include:

Port Elizabeth

Juvenile Koester resting in a sponge at Gasmic Gorge

Diving in Port Elizabeth

Dive sites include:

Port Alfred

Dive sites include:

SS Cariboo wreck

3.4 km off the mouth of the Mgwalana river, north east of Port Alfred.

Madacascar reef

Just to the north of the Bira river mouth, about 70 km north east of Port Alfred.

East London

Dive sites include:

Wild Coast

Dive dites include:



Park Rynie

Dive sites include:


Coastal dive sites:

Protea banks dive sites


Diving Aliwal Shoal

Dive sites include:


Diving in Durban is affected by prevailing winds and the run off from the Umgeni river, the Harbour mouth and the Umlaas Cutting on the Bluff which can affect visibility in the rainy season (spring: Sept – Dec) in the immediate vicinity of their mouths .

The low rainfall and prevailing south westerlies which bring in clear water from the Mozanbique current make winter the best time to dive Durban (March though to July).

Dive sites include:

Sodwana Bay

Sodwana is one of the better known and more popular dive destinations in South Africa. It is in the far north east of the country and is in a tropical bioregion with reef corals and typical Indo-Pacific marine life.

Dive sites include:

Mabibi and Kosi Bay

Dive sites include

Inland dive sites

Diving inland in South Africa

The inland dive sites are spread over a large area and include:


The annual sardine run is a notable event that moves along the south coast as the sardines migrate. Divers and other enthusiasts either follow the run along the coast or meet it as it passes major centres. Huge numbers of sardines are predated on by whales, sharks, dolphin, gamefish, seabirds and of course, humans.


There are recreational diver training schools at most diving destinations in South Africa. Affiliation is with a wide range of internationally recognised Recreational and Technical diving agencies, including PADI, CMAS-ISA, NAUI, IANTD, SSI, SDI/TDI. Certification from these agencies is generally accepted worldwide. The quality of training available depends more on the instructor and the school than the agency, as is the case in most parts of the world. South Africa has its share of quick turnover and never mind the standards, but also has some really good instructors. Read the standards and make sure you get what you pay for.

South Africa is also a destination of choice for Commercial diver training, as the certification is recognised by the International Diver Recognition Forum, and is much cheaper than in Europe.


Conservation and the poaching problem

There are concerns regarding the impact of sport diving on the reef ecology. Some of these may be legitimate, and study is necessary to test whether this is a real problem. The number of dives in the region has increased significantly over the years, but there is no reliable numerical data available. The number of sites has also increased, so the frequency of dives at most sites will not have increased proportionately.

Recreational divers are generally in favour of conservation, and as they are not permitted to collect or capture any marine life on Scuba in South African waters, generally do not consider themselves to make a significant environmental impact. There is evidence that some damage is done by contact with reef organisms and by disturbing the sediment. The question then, is how significant is this impact in comparison with other pressures?

The South African National Spatial Biodiversity Assessment 2004 Technical Report indicates that "Non-Extractive Recreational Activities" has been identified as a potential threat to marine biodiversity. This category is ranked 7th of the nine categories and includes Diver based activities such as snorkelling, scuba diving and cage diving to view sharks, as one of five subcategories. The identification and ranking of the potential threats was made by "Summed Expert Ratings", a procedure similar to the scoring method for competitive dancing, gymnastics and similar sports.

The authors claim that it has been established that scuba diving and associated activities can cause significant damage to coral communities by destructive contact (anchoring and diver damage), resuspension of sediments and by hand-to-coral contact. They also mention that coral reefs in South Africa are confined to the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park where anchoring or mooring is prohibited, and that current research has indicated that the coral reefs of this region have not experienced serious diver damage.

They also state that most divers cause very little damage to coral reefs although underwater photographers have been identified as a group that causes more damage to reefs than other users.

Their findings also show that the prevalence of predominantly soft corals on South African reefs makes them fairly resilient to diver damage.

Unfortunately the government department of Marine and Coastal Management has made use of this report and surveys on tropical coral reefs to support an effort to make money out of recreational diving on the reefs in all marine protected areas by imposing a permit system as a recreational diver tax. No surveys of temperate reefs can be produced to justify their claims that divers are a threat to the reef ecology, and it seems unlikely that their interference will benefit either the ecology or the diving industry.

At the time the policy was perceived as a thinly disguised attempt to tax what department political appointees appeared to see as a wealthy but politically powerless minority group. However, there was an immediate reaction by the recreational diving industry and the recreational divers who use the affected areas, to the effect that the proposed permit fees were reduced significntly and the industry is more united than it had ever been before. The non-profit organisation Underwater Africa was formed to represent the recreational divers and recreational diving industry and it has fought tirelessly for the rights of its constituency.

Even in its restricted scope the permit system may have damaged the industry, as a number of dive charter operators have subsequently gone out of business, and the main effect appears to be that divers are harassed by officials of MCM while poaching has increased.

There is no evidence that the permit system has achieved any of its stated aims of providing finance for improved conservation in the MPAs. It is questionable whether it even covers the cost of its own administration, and may be merely an employment opportunity for the otherwise unemployable.

Marine and Coastal Management has (2010) gone through a period of major change as the government split its responsibilities between two departments. Fisheries have been transferred to the Department of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF), and conservation has gone to Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA). Internal turf wars at upper levels appear to be continuing to reduce effectiveness, and the working staff seem to have difficulty getting their jobs done. The most notorious of the previous management appear to have been transferred sideways rather than fired. So it goes.

Marine Protected Areas

A large number of the most popular dive sites of South Africa are in the Marine Protected Areas as published in the Government Gazette No. 26431 of 4 June 2004 in terms of the Marine Natural Resources Act, 18 of 1998.

A permit is required to Scuba dive in any MPA. The permits are valid for a year and are available at some branches of the Post Office. Temporary permits, valid for a month, may be available at dive shops or from dive boat operators. The permits are not expensive, but the requirement to have them present at the site is an annoyance, as they are paper, and the printing on them states that the original permit, the invoice, and the holder's original identity document or passport must be produced on demand.

The department has officially specified that notarised copies are acceptable, but this information does not appear to have been passed on to their staff, who are frequently reported as insisting on the originals, and their generally uncouth and threatening attitude is notorious. Note that the same personnel are seldom available to take action when complaints of poaching are made. It is not clear whether this is because the poachers tend to react violently to interference, while recreational divers have a long history of non-violence, or because they are on the take.

There have been accusations of corruption against personnel of MCM, which have not been cleared up, and the fact that a large part of the department's income derives from marine products confiscated from poachers is seen by many to be a conflict of interests, as this income would dry up if poaching was stopped.

It should probably be mentioned that the policies of MCM regarding recreational diving restrictions are in many cases not supported by members of their research staff, though obviously these are private opinions.

As of 2010 MCM has been split between the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) and the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA). The situation has not improved after the split, and it is not clear, apparently even to the personnel of the two departments, who is responsible for what in the field of marine conservation. Some political officials appear to be attempting to gain short term popularity by trying to open reserves to artisanal fishers, in complete contradiction of the conservation policies, and enforcement is no better than before. Poaching goes on unabated, and divers are still harassed because it is much safer than attempting to apprehend the poachers, who tend to be armed and dangerous.

Diving on Wrecks in South Africa

Divers inside the wreck of the SATS General Botha


A large number of ships have been wrecked on South Africa's long, rugged and dangerous coastline during the last 500 years. Due to its strategic location on the historical trade route between Europe and the East, at least 2700 vessels are known to have sunk, grounded, been wrecked, abandoned or scuttled in South African waters.

Wrecks and their associated artifacts can be impressive and interesting sites for recreational scuba diving and underwater photography. The diversity of wrecks around the South African coast offers divers a wide range of sites to visit and explore. At the same time, historical wrecks are a unique, fragile and non-renewable cultural heritage resource of great archaeological value. We all have a responsibility to conserve this heritage for future generations.

Divers are free to visit most wreck sites, but should remember that they are privileged to have access to these sites, which are an important part of our collective cultural heritage.

The complex and delicate nature of wreck sites requires that divers are especially careful when visiting them. To preserve them for future generations to enjoy and learn from, it is important that you appreciate the importance of wrecks, dive responsibly and treat shipwrecks with care and respect.

Wrecks are also important habitats for marine life. Avoid damaging wrecks by carelessly touching them with your hands, knees or fins. The disturbance of protective coverings of sand, plant growth or the products of corrosion that have formed on wrecks can greatly increase the rate at which a wreck and its contents decay. This reduces the wreck's value as an historical resource and dive site and divers should avoid doing anything that will disturb the delicate equilibrium of a wreck site.

Anchoring into wrecks can cause severe damage to artifacts and the structure of the wreck. If you need to anchor, ensure that you do so well off the wreck. Remember that a wreck site is non-renewable, and won't regenerate like a damaged reef. Dive with care and leave the wreck as you found it.

Legal protection of wrecks

The wrecks of ships or aircraft, and any associated cargo, debris or artifact more than 60 years old and in South African waters are protected by the National Heritage Resources Act #25 of 1999 (NHRA). The law of salvage and finds does not apply to historical shipwrecks, which are considered by the NHRA to be archaeological material, and as such are the property of the state, administered by SAHRA in trust for the nation, and may not be disturbed in any way except under the terms of a permit issued by the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA).

There are severe penalties for contravening the Act, including heavy fines and jail terms. All members of the South African Police Services, and Customs and Excise officers may act as Heritage Inspectors in terms of the Act, with powers of search, confiscation and arrest.

Historical wrecks may be visited provided that the sites are not disturbed or interfered with and no artifacts are removed or damaged. Resist the temptation to take home souvenirs. Not only is it illegal to remove such material, but anything recovered from a wreck needs immediate conservation treatment or it will end up rotting away or disintegrating. Souvenir hunting strips sites of artifacts and the information they carry, and denies future divers the experience of diving on a well preserved wreck.

Take only photos, leave only bubbles!

Get help

Stay safe

See also: South Africa#Stay safe

Hazardous marine organisms

These vary by region. Refer to the regional dive guide.

Breathing gas, safety and emergency equipment standards

Stay Healthy


A recreational diving certification does not qualify you to work as a diver except as recreational divemaster or instructor. All other underwater work done for reward or as part of your employment requires registration as a commercial diver, or a recognised foreign equivalent. At present this includes scientific diving, including for your own postgraduate research at most universities, and at all research institutions. The Recreational diving industry is specifically excluded from the scope of the South African Department of Labour's Diving Regulations, but not from the rest of the Occupational Health and Safety Act and its Regulations.


Recreational diver training

All major diving centres in South Africa have recreational diver training schools. Most of the major international diver certification agencies are represented in South Africa. See also the regional dive guides for local details.

These include:

Commercial diver training

Preparing a surface supplied helmet diver for the water at Blue Rock Quarry

(Including Scientific diving and Public Safety diving)

The South African Department of Labour certifications in Commercial Diving are recognised by the International Diver Recognition Forum. Divers holding certification that is recognised by the IDRF may legally work as commercial divers in countries represented on the forum, provided that other visa and work permit conditions are complied with.

There is not a great deal of commercial diving work in South Africa, and the pay is not very good by world standards, but the training is cheaper than in most other countries on the IDRF, and as a result South Africa has become a training destination for foreign commercial divers. Learner divers from Europe have commented that the cost of training at home covers the training costs, medical examination, travel and living expenses and enough change for an additional vacation in South Africa. South African commercial diver training is also popular with learner divers from many countries where there is no officially sanctioned commercial diver training system, and the certification, though there is no guarantee of employment, allows the holder to apply for lucrative work in the international offshore petrochemical industry.

A reasonable ability to communicate in English is a prerequisite, and medical fitness to dive must be verified by a medical practitioner registered as a Diving Medical Practitioner with the South African Department of Labour. Foreign medical certificates of fitness to dive are not recognised for commercial diving.


Branch, G. and Branch, M. 1981, The Living Shores of Southern Africa, Struik, Cape Town. ISBN 0-86977-1159

Branch, G.M. Griffiths,C.L. Mranch, M.L and Beckley, L.E. Revised edition 2010, Two Oceans – A guide to the marine Life of Southern Africa, David Philip, Cape Town. ISBN 978 1 77007 772 0

Gosliner, T. 1987. Nudibranchs of Southern Arica, Sea Challengers & Jeff Hamann, Monterey. ISBN 0-930118-13-8

Heemstra, P. and Heemstra E. 2004, Coastal Fishes of Southern Africa, NISC/SAIAB, Grahamstown.

Ed. Smith, M.M. and Heemstra, P. 2003 Smith’s Sea Fishes. Struik, Cape Town. (Authoritative, large and expensive)

Regional references

West Coast

Stegenga, H. Bolton, J.J. and Anderson, R.J. 1997, Seaweeds of the South African West Coast. Bolus Herbarium, Cape Town. ISBN 0-7992-1793-X (rather technical)

Cape Town and the Cape Peninsula and environs

See Cape Peninsula and False Bay publications


De Clerck, O. Bolton, J.J. Anderson, R.J. and Coppejans, E. 2005,Guide to the seaweeds of KwaZulu-Natal Scripta Botanica Belgica; vol 33, National Botanic Gardens, Meise, Belgium. ISBN 90-72619-64-1

King, D. 1996 Reef Fishes and Corals: East coast of Southern Africa. Struik, Cape Town. ISBN 1-86825-981-1

King, D. and Fraser, V. 2002, More Reef Fishes and Nudibranchs, Struik, Cape Town, ISBN 1-8672-686-X

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Saturday, October 11, 2014. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.