As you might expect from a country filled with lions, elephants, hippos, and all the big animals that make a terrestrial safari so thrilling, the experience beneath the water is equally as compelling. It starts at the top of the food chain with famous leaping great white sharks off False Bay near Capetown, and the shark cage experience at equally renowned Dyer Island also near Capetown. While those are nice, one of the world's greatest underwater events happens each June with the sardine run. Sardines in shoals that could be several kilometers/miles long are predated upon by. . . well, everything — sharks, dolphin, seabirds, sea lions, Bryde's whales — all show up to this moving buffet and gorge until there is nary a scale left floating in the sea. The temperate seascape of Aliwal Shoals and Sodwana Bay ups the sizzle factor with ragged tooth, Zambezi and bull sharks that try to outshine the nudibranchs. In the soft, après dive light of a late afternoon, settle in with a bottle of South African wine and listen to the sounds of the predators that roam the bush at night from the comfort of your safari lodge.
When to go:
Possible to dive all year round depending on the dive site. Some sites are not accessible during certain periods due to poor visibility or rough conditions. Check with the local dive centers.
Marine Life Seasons:
Ragged-tooth sharks from June through November; tiger sharks and hammerhead sharks in summer months; sea turtles nest in December and January. The sardine run occurs during June and July.
When to Get the Best Deals:
May to July.
What to Pack:
7 mm wetsuit, hood, gloves, insect repellent, sunscreen, sturdy hiking shoes and good socks for big game safaris, rain jacket, proper attire for the more upscale nightlife of Johannesburg and Cape Town; DAN card.
Seasonal averages: 10°C/50°F in winter and 14°C/57°F in summer, though this varies from north to south, with somewhat warmer water in the north.
Seasonal averages: 10°C/50°F in winter and 25°C/78°F in summer.
Rand; Credit cards are widely accepted.
Valid passport; check with local immigration office for visa requirements.
Included in your airfare.
None required, but the CDC recommends an anti-malarial and a yellow fever vaccination. A hepatitis vaccination may also be prudent. Check with your doctor.
What to Eat:
It's a big country with a wide variety of cuisine. Many traditional dishes revolve around meat, such as the famous biltong - strips of dried meat that come in various flavors - or barbequing meat, such as throwing some sosaties (skewered meat) or boerewors (spicy farmer's sausage) on the fire. You'll also find game on many menus, such as impala, springbok, warthog and sometimes crocodile - most of which is farm raised. Mieliepap, a stiff corn meal mix, is a staple and served with most meals. Try melktert (milktart) for dessert.
What to Drink:
Beer is big in South Africa and Castle is the most popular, although there are nearly 40 microbreweries producing wonderful products. However, it's South Africa's vineyards that are producing world-class wines that are not to be missed. Go through wine country and you'll find lots of distinctly South African places to drink.
A big game safari in Kruger National Park is a must.
Customs and Culture:
A multiracial culture steeped in both African and European roots.
Cape Town Jazz Fest, March; Cape Town Minstrels Carnival, January; National Arts Festival, June.
Electricity and Internet:
220V/50Hz; Internet is available in the larger cities.
Drink the water?
Bottled water is recommended.
Although there are 11 official languages, you'll hear Afrikaans and English spoken in the larger cites.
Amazing Marine Life
This small, elongated shark is iron-gray with horizontal black stripes down the length of its body.
Great White Shark:
With a light gray body and white belly, this fierce predator grows up to 5 meters/17 feet long.
"Naked" or shell-less mollusks, these frilly, brilliantly colored invertebrates come in all shapes and sizes in these temperate waters.
Only found in South Africa, this small seahorse is usually located in estuaries lolling about in the seagrass.
Known for its fierce looking maw of teeth and its easy disposition.
Leatherback Sea Turtle:
South Africa is the southernmost edge of the leatherback turtle’s range.
This playful "little cousin" to the whales is usually found cavorting with a group (or pod) in open water, sometimes swimming alongside dive boats.
The South African national fish is found only in the kelp forests. It’s not pretty, but it’s a worthy sighting.
Cape Fur Seals:
These marine mammals inhabit the waters off the coast of South Africa and are the favorite meal for great white sharks.
Bronze Whaler Shark:
These sleek sharks are frequently seen during the sardine run in June and July.
Top Dive Spots
Raggie Cave /Shark Alley, Aliwal Shoal, KwaZulu Natal:
This 80,000 year old sandstone reef is a favorite hangout of sharks. Ragged-tooth sharks appear here from June through November, and tiger sharks and hammerhead sharks in the summer months.
Sardine Run , Protea Banks, KwaZulu Natal:
During the months of June and July, massive schools of sardines start their migration from the colder waters of the Cape and move to the warmer waters of KwaZulu Natal to breed. Dolphins, whales, sharks, and Cape Gannets (large seabirds) converge to prey on the sardines.
Uniforms , Sodwana Bay, KwaZulu Natal:
This site, located in the Simangaliso Wetland Park (previously St. Lucia Wetland Park), is known for its contoured coral formations, which shelter tiger angelfish, purple butterflyfish and yellowtail goldie. Turtles nest here during December and January.
Hotspot , Sodwana Bay, KwaZulu Natal:
Hotspot is known for Zambezi and tiger sharks, whip corals, blue and gold fusiliers, longnose hawkfish, and black coral. Also check out the caverns and pinnacles, and keep an eye out for sharks.
Avalanche Reef , Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape:
Cold water temperatures at this site make a dry suit advisable when you explore this densely populated coral reef with its striking topography and spectacular colors.
Wreck , Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape:
This dive takes you into the cooler waters of Port Elizabeth to depths of about 18 meters/60 feet. The wreck is a Navy frigate that was put down to create an artificial reef sheltering a variety of fish and soft coral.
Storms River Mouth , Mossel Bay, Garden Route:
This site is famous for its shark cage diving with great whites sharks.
Paquita Wreck , Knysna Heads, Garden Route:
The Paquita, a 460-ton German vessel, ran ashore in 1903 when she struck the Knysna Heads enroute to Barbados. Located on the mouth of a large lagoon, this site features seahorses, steenbras and a wide variety of corals.
A-Frame , Simonstown, Cape Town:
Located just south of Simonstown, the A-Frame area offers three shore dives, one of which is also called the A-Frame, named for its A-shaped cave entrance. Divers enter from a white sand beach into the water, making this location a perfect spot for a night dive. Look for pipefish, lobsters, seals, several types of rays and some docile sharks, such as pyjama sharks and dogfish.
Clifton Rock , Cape Town:
Situated in the Atlantic Ocean about 100 meters/yards off the shore, south-west of Cape Town, this site features large boulders that create swim-throughs and secret spots for marine life. Look for nudibranchs, sea stars, soft sponges and crayfish.