Diving Protea Banks
South Africa Travel
If you want to dive with sharks, this is the place. We saw 8 different species of sharks, Scalloped Hammerheads, Great Hammerheads, Raggies, Tiger, Zambezis, Black Tips, Duskies and Giant Guitar sharks in our short time we spent here.
Protea Banks is situated 7.5km out to sea from Shelly Beach on the East Coast of South Africa. The reef lies at a depth of between 27 and 40 meters. It is about 6km long and 800m wide. Essentially a fossilized sandbank which comes up from 60m.
“Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”
― Helen Keller
Here’s a short video of the amazing encounters we had with the Raggies, Zambezi and Giant Guitar sharks.
We booked 10 dives over 6 days, there was only one day that we were not able to dive because of the weather. Every day was like opening a lucky packet, we had from 25m to 5m visibility dives in one week. This is also due to the time of year we visited, which is not their high season. We mainly went to see the schooling hammerheads which are there from October to March.
African Dive Adventures has been diving on Protea Banks, a world-renowned shark-diving reef, since 1994. They are a well organized and experienced team that makes you feel welcome and ensures you have the best diving experience possible. Our divemaster, Roland Mauz, has over 2500 dives on Protea Banks alone, ensuring your safety as well as having a wealth of knowledge. Their love for the ocean and especially sharks is inspiring. This is exactly the reason why we do Shark & Dive Tours, to break down the generally negative image of sharks, showing people what wonderful animals sharks really are. Changing public perception is vital to the conservation of sharks and it starts with passionate people.
The Protea Banks reef is basically divided into two main dive sites, the Northern and the Southern Pinnacles.
Protea Banks Northern Pinnacle
The best time to dive the Northern Pinnacle is between May and November.
Dive Time 40 minutes
Bottom Time 13–15 minutes
Average Depth 22m
Maximum Depth 36m
The reef is virtually untouched and has two caves that are used by the Ragged-tooth Sharks on their annual migration and congregation route. The dive starts at the larger, First Cave. 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. You can look for shark teeth on the bottom of the caves, there are many.
These were amazing dives, the caves are big and spacious and give enough room for a group plus a whole lot of Raggies. Swimming into these spaces with the sharks makes for an exciting dive. The caves provide shelter from the current and leave you in this peaceful space to observe and enjoy the sharks in their natural habitat.
These sharks are very peaceful, if you haven’t dived with them before, they really are a nice introduction to shark diving. They move slowly, giving photographers excellent opportunities for closeup shots. They really don’t like divers much because of the bubbles; therefore, they will hang around a bit and then leave when they’ve had enough of us. They are not imposing and also not as inquisitive as other shark species.
The second cave is entered through a smaller opening, which gives you a bit of a rush, especially if you’re the first diver to enter looking down into the hole and it’s literally filled with sharks. You get thoughts like “what the hell am I doing here?!” but you keep it together, and as you start observing their calm demeanor you begin to understand, relaxing and enjoying the small moments of connection they so graciously give you.
Leaving the last cave, you ascend a bit shallower and flow with the current in mid-water, waiting excitedly to see what will come past next. We had Zambezi sharks on every dive, sometimes just inspecting us from afar or circling below for a bit before swimming off. There were large schools of Scalloped hammerheads passing by, these sharks are painfully shy and we were not fortunate enough to get them in great visibility to be able to get video or pictures. But they are there. It’s a good idea to not go for a too short period, giving you better chance at great sightings in good viz.
Protea Banks Southern Pinnacle
The best time to dive the Southern Pinnacle is in the summer months from October to April.
Dive Time 40 minutes
Bottom Time 16–18 minutes
Average Depth 19m
Maximum Depth 35m
On the Southern Pinnacle, there are different areas to dive. The usual Southern Pinnacle dive starts at the Southern Cave, which hosts all kinds of game fish. After the cave, you reach Kingfish Gully, an overhanging rock that is home to large shoals of Kingfish, Yellowtail and Potato Bass, to name a few. The current then takes 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.
The Zambezi is, of course, synonymous with Protea Banks, and is a frequent visitor on the Southern Pinnacle. Tiger Sharks, Blacktips, Duskies and Bronze Whalers can also be seen. Large schools of Scalloped Hammerheads frequent this area. At times several hundred during one single dive!! The Great Hammerhead also puts in an appearance but in smaller numbers.
Fiddling around at the surface too long before descending might lead to divers drifting great distances in the strong currents in the area, causing them to miss the reef completely. Therefore, entering into the water at Protea Banks is usually done by negative entry (negatively buoyant entry), this is where you remove all the air from your BC so when you fall backwards you descend directly down.
We dropped down to around 30m with the bottom laying at around 35–40m. Again, you just flow with the current, hardly having to kick at all. The Kingfish met us with much interest schooling around us making for stunning pictures. As you move along a sand patch emerges which is called Sand Shark Gully, once you spot a Giant Guitar shark there you start seeing them all over the sandy bottom in big numbers. We saw them in big numbers which were excellent news for scientists in the area as they are listed as critically endangered on the IUCN red list as their population are believed to have declined significantly due to unregulated high levels of exploitation for its flesh and fins. These sharks can be seen here from November to March.
As we floated along we saw the Scalloped hammerheads numerous times, almost on every dive, sometimes in large schools. There were always sharks appearing and disappearing into the distance on the dives. Some in proper view, some in fleeting moments and others barely in your visibility reach. This makes each dive a real adventure full of anticipation of what you’ll see next.
Once back on the boat we were pleasantly surprised to be accompanied for some distance by a small group of Great Hammerheads cruising at the surface. This was a delightful sighting; you could clearly see them through the water with the rise and fall of the swell and they weren’t bothered by the boat.
Protea Banks Playground
Dive Time 40 minutes
Bottom Time 13 minutes
Average Depth 24m
Maximum Depth 39m
This place has the most bizarre rock formations such as a rock that resembles a whale’s fluke, another one a whale’s tail that seemingly sticks out of the ocean floor. There are 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 mid-water and make their way up.
On this dive, we had a lovely 20+m visibility layer on top of a murky 8–10m at the bottom. This was our last chance to dive Playground and we, unfortunately, did not get to really see this dive site. We decided to ascend a bit into the clear water and wait there to see what comes along.
Baited Shark Dive
Doing a baited shark dive feels almost unnecessary, as you see sharks on any normal dive anyway on Protea Banks, but the baited dive give divers a more up-close and personal experience. This is where the video and photography enthusiasts will have their chance at great footage. We were sure glad we did it! At first, it was really quiet, no sharks to be seen not even a single Blacktip which are frequent visitors on baited dives. Then after a while, down below we could just make out the shape of a Zambezi shark circling and minutes later he was joined by another. In the end, we had three Zambezis playing around us for the entire dive getting more and more relaxed around us.
There were no other sharks to scare them off or drive them away. They were very calm and quite interested in us, swimming right up to you checking you out. This was a wonderful experience and we would not have wanted it any other way. It is unfortunate that on this dive the top layer of water was very dirty making it a low 5–8m visibility dive. But, that does not take away from the experience we had with these three in the least.
In diving with these magnificent animals, my fear has turned into immense respect and admiration. No, I would never ever have thought that this would be the way I feel about sharks. It’s sad to say, but before I became a diver, I too was mostly one of the majorities believing they are dangerous and to be avoided at all cost. For this reason, we are aiming to educate people about sharks as well as giving people a firsthand experience of being in the water with sharks. This is a teaching experience like no other.
We Protect what we Love, be part of the movement.
Originally published at https://www.justscuba.co.za on December 20, 2020.