For years I’ve been travelling the globe in search of the ultimate dive destination, only to find it in my backyard…
A friend had recently come back from a dive trip in the KwaZulu- Natal region of South Africa. She claimed that she had officially found her favourite dive site in the world – Protea Banks.
Situated approximately 8km off Shelly Beach, on KZN’s South Coast, Protea Banks is a unique reef system, home to a great diversity of game fish and a large variety of sharks. And I am not talking about the occasional reef shark that scatters as soon as you approach it. I am talking about some of the top predators in the world, curious, intimate, and often surrounding you in schools of hundreds!
It didn’t take much convincing for me to buy a one-way ticket to Durban and drive down to Shelly Beach, where I booked a dozen dives with Aqua Planet. This locally established dive centre has been operating since 1992 and is owned/run by PADI Staff Instructor, Kym Pollard. A vibrant and fun shark-enthusiast, Kym always manages to get everyone psyched up for the dives. Despite having been diving on Protea Banks for over 17 years, she still gets excited every time she gets to dive it. As most of the dive employees at Aqua Planet will tell you- “Each dive is exciting because you never know what you will see! Anything can happen”.
Protea Banks, essentially a series of underwater sand dunes fossilised over a long period of time, is approximately 8km offshore from Shelly Beach in Kwazulu-Natal. Boasting an abundance of large game fish (especially tuna), the reef has for many years been a prime location for the frequent fisherman. However, it was only in the early 1990’s when divers in the region started demanding more exciting dives with more shark encounters. A brave few dive pioneers executed the first dive expedition in the shark-infested waters in 1992, and since that day, the Protea Banks have become one of the worlds’ most renowned ‘shark diving locations.’ The reef itself is about 6km long and 800m wide, and depths range between 27 and 40 meters. Temperatures range from 19°C in July through October, and up to 24°C in February.
Getting to the Reef..
The boat ride to the reef is no trip for the faint hearted. It takes about 25min, and involves launching a Ribb on a beach slipway, and maneuvering through the beach break (which can be quite scary/fun depending on conditions). After about 25min, the Ribb comes to a stand still, and everyone gets kitted up. It is a strange feeling knowing there are probably a dozen predators right beneath your feet, and you are about to plunge into an environment that many would consider hostile. Due to currents and occasional chop, we mostly did negative entries into the water – a method that contributes to the “plunging into another world” sensation.
What you can see..
Sharks, sharks & more sharks! As the shallowest point for miles around, Protea Banks attracts many pelagic species, including large game fish and an almost endless array of sharks. Being one of the richest tuna grounds in the world, the Banks are home to the notorious Bull (“Zambezi”) sharks, and they, along with the oceanic black tips, are encountered all year round. Tiger sharks can also be encountered from January to June, as well as the occasional Great White spotting!
But wait, that’s not all..
The Protea Banks are also swarming with ragged- tooth sharks (“raggies”), usually congregating in between the cracks and caves of the convoluted reef. Depending on your luck and the season, you can also see threshers, copper sharks, duskies, sandbar sharks, and guitar sharks. Having encountered most of these species on our dives, I was more than satisfied with what I saw. However, I was truly blown away on my final dive, when a shoaling school of hundreds of hammerheads approached out of the abyss, and within seconds, surrounded us to an extent that they almost blocked out the sun.
Other than sharks Protea Banks is also home to a vast number of game fish such as Tuna, Barracuda, Kingfish, Tropical Amberjack, Bonito, Prodigal Son, Potato Bass and occasionally Brindle Bass. There are also a variety of rays to be seen, including Round Ribbontail Rays, Eagle Rays, and the occasional Manta Rays. Furthermore, Humpback Whales (June to November) also create spectacular sightings above and below the surface. Dolphins are also a regular sighting throughout the year.
Types of Shark Diving..
Aqua Planet Dive Center offers two distinct formats of shark diving on Protea Banks:
1) The first type is a baited shark dive. This involves hovering around 10m (Qualification level- Open water and above). Divers need to be comfortable with the idea of sharks and have decent buoyancy control. The reef is not visible on baited dives, but it is great for close encounters and photography of sharks.
2) Second is a reef shark dive. The reefs lie between 30 to 40m, and currents can be mild to very strong (Qualification- Advanced). Dive times are around 45 to 60 minutes, where you are more than likely to see numerous shark species in their natural habitat.
‘Diving Protea Banks, South Africa’ was written by guest blogger Gustav Lilienfeld – Thanks for a great article Gustav!