This article is intended to provide the already qualified scuba diver with information which will help to plan dives in the waters of the east coast 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.
The water of the east coast is warm with temperatures rising to up to 28ºC in summer and ranging between 18 and 24ºC in winter. Visibility is generally good though many sites can be affected by river runoff in the summer rainy season. Current can be strong depending on how close the swift Agulhas Current pushes inshore, and surge depends on wave period and dive depth. Many sites are best suited to drift dives with a dive leader carrying a marker buoy which the dive boat follows.
Launches are from slipways, river mouths or the beach, and beach launched boats normally return to shore by running up the beach behind a wave. Shore diving is an option at a few sites in Durban. The marine animals are generally part of the cosmopolitan and very varied Indo-Pacific fauna, with some endemic species.
The continental shelf of the east coast is narrow, and the shelf edge is shallow, so the Agulhas Current flows relatively close inshore. This narrow powerful current flows southwards down the east coast of Africa in a series of huge rotating gyres, bringing with it Indo-Pacific tropical fauna in water heated by tropical sunshine. Onshore winds blow over the warm water and bring rain to this coast in summer, and the runoff from the rivers carries silt into the sea. Where the continental shelf is very narrow, and the current flows close inshore, it rapidly replaces the silty water with clearer deep ocean water. The continental shelf extends further offshore near Durban, so summer visibility there is impaired, but further south at Aliwal Shoal and Protea Banks, the continental shelf is narrower again and therefore the water is usually clearer.
Climate, weather and sea conditions
The marine ecoregions
The regions of interest to recreational divers are the coastal ecoregions, 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.
- The subtropical Natal ecoregion extends from the Mbashe River to Cape Vidal. This area has high riverine input. but the Agulhas Current is the major influence on the Natal bioregion. Reef habitat is limited and the major reef areas include Aliwal Shoal and Protea Banks. The rocky reef communities are distinct from the coral reef communities further north as corals decline with increased turbidity to the south. The Natal ecoregion supports endemic soft corals. The annual sardine run is a feature of the southern portion of this region.
- The tropical Delagoa ecoregion extends from Cape Vidal northwards into Mozambique. A clear change in marine community structure at Cape Vidal is indicated by the intertidal habitat, seagrass and mangrove distribution patterns, and tropical seabird and cetacean species ranges.
Ordinary recreational Scuba diving equipment is sufficient for most dive sites. 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, Most dive sites are relatively shallow — few are deeper than 40 m, and the majority are in the 10 to 30 m range. A 5 mm wetsuit is good enough for most divers, but for unusually deep dives others prefer a 7 mm wet suit or a dry suit with an appropriate undersuit. Hood and booties are optional. Gloves are considered optional for insulation, but even a thin pair will provide some protection against stings and abrasion.
- A dive light is an option for most dives, but there are many places where having an artificial light source will greatly enhance the dive.
- A deployable surface marker buoy (DSMB) is strongly recommended for boat dives, particularly when there is a choppy surface, a strong wind, or the dive plan does not include surfacing at the shotline.
- Sufficient weight to allow a controlled safety stop with near empty cylinders, but not so much that buoyancy control at depth is compromised, and definitely not so much that the buoyancy compensator cannot provide neutral buoyancy at all planned depths and positive buoyancy at the surface. As a first approximation the BC should be able to support all the lead, and the lead should be able to sink the suit.
- A permit is required to dive in MPAs, but the same permit is good for any MPA in South Africa.
- Other equipment may be necessary or desirable to suit a specific dive plan.
For those who can arrange for the special permit and have the competence, helium based mixed gas diving to see coelacanths at the canyons of the iSimangaliso MPA requires serious logistical preparations and some hours of decompression after a dive to about 110 m in a usually fairly strong current. The dives have been done on open and closed circuit. Bottom water is quite cold, but bottom time is only about 10 minutes.
KwaZulu-Natal is a province on the east coast, between Mozambique to the north and the Eastern Cape to the south.
Margate is a small resort town on the south coast of KwaZulu-Natal.
Coastal dive sites:
- Adda reef
- Bo Boyi reef
- 1 Deep Salmon
- Potato reef
Protea banks dive sites:
- The Caves
- Northern Pinnacles
- Southern Pinnacles
- 2 Protea Banks
Park Rynie is a small resort town on the South Coast of KwaZulu-Natal.
Dive sites include:
Umkomaas and Scottburgh
- Main topic: Diving Aliwal Shoal
In 1849, after a ship, the Aliwal, nearly collided with an uncharted reef, its captain reported the position of this reef that later became known as the Aliwal Shoal. It is about 60 km south of Durban. The closest towns are 1 Umkomaas and 2 Scottburgh, both of which provide extensive tourist facilities, including for scuba divers.
The shoal is a fossilised sand dune lying roughly parallel to the coast, about 5 km from the shore. It comprises a narrow northern part, the crown, some 250 m wide, becoming about 800 m wide and finally with a wider landward ridge to the south, greater than 2 km in width. The crown varies in depth from about 6 m at the Northern Pinnacles to around 30 m on the seaward side. The mean depth of the crown area is 12.5 m. The southern wider area includes several protrusions that reach from a depth of some 30 m to around 15 m (e.g. Howard's Castle, Landers Reef). In the crown area, many dive sites, (e.g. Raggie Cave and Chunnel) have a large amount of uneven topography with small caves, ledges and swimthroughs rich in sea life, both in fish and invertebrates.
The shoal region has a subtropical climate with mean monthly air temperatures ranging from 17.0°C (Jul) to 23.9°C (Feb). The sea temperatures tend to be somewhat warmer, due to the warm, tropical, southward-flowing Agulhas current, resulting in 21-26°C throughout the year.
- Main topic: Diving in Durban
Diving in the major port city of 3 Durban in KwaZulu-Natal 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 seasonal rainfall and prevailing south westerlies which bring in clear water from the Mozanbique current make winter the best time to dive Durban (March through to July).
Ballito is a coastal town on the North Coast of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. It is mainly a resort town, featuring beaches and condominiums, but also has some dive sites.
- 9 Cape Vidal
- Main topic: Diving Sodwana Bay
4 Sodwana Bay is one of the better known and more popular dive destinations in South Africa. It is in the far northeast of the country and is in the tropical Delagoa ecoregion with reef corals and typical Indo-Pacific marine life. Sodwana is inside the large iSimangaliso Marine Protected Area, and is famous for its coelacanths, which have occasionally been seen by technical divers at about 110 m depth in one of the shelf-edge canyons.
Including Mabibi and Kosi Bay. These sites are also in the iSimangaliso Marine Protected Area.
Dive sites include:
- Brewers Garden
- Cedric's Beat (Slinger's Cove)
- Coachman's Ledge
- 10 Hully Point
- 11 Kosi Bay
- 12 Mabibi Reef
- 13 Island Rock
- Pine Reef
- Pineapple Reef
- Regal Reef
- Underwater World
- Yellowfin Drop
- See also: Diving in South Africa#Respect
- See also: Diving in South Africa#Get help
- Recompression facilities — There is a chamber at St Augustine's Hospital Hyperbaric Medicine Centre, Cato Rd, Berea, in Durban which is competently manned and kept in good condition. Hyperbaric oxygen treatment is available. Phone 031 268 5255
- Divers Alert Network (DAN) has a branch in South Africa Their toll free line from within the country 0800 020 111, and regular line *27 (0)11 254 1112 will get you the 24-hour emergency hotline. If you are a DAN member and are involved in a diving accident, contact them first and they will make the necessary arrangements through whichever other organisations are most appropriate.
- National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) have stations near most places where seaside recreational activities are popular.
- Sea Rescue emergency number from cell phones - 112
- Ballito - Station 41 - 060 305 4803
- Durban - Station 5 - 031 337 6490, 082 990 5948
- Margate - Station 20 - 082 990 5950
- Port Edward - 082 990 5951
- Richard's Bay - Station 19 - 082 990 5949
- Rocky Bay - 072 652 5158
- Shelly Beach - 082 990 5950
- Durban Port Control 031 361 8567
- Richards Bay Port Control - 035 753 1991 or 035 905 3401/3444
- Ambulance 10177
- Police 10111. Emergency calls to ambulance or police numbers will be routed to the relevant Sea Rescue authority if you do not have the local Port Control number.
- Underwater Africa [dead link] "The CPR of diving: Conservation, Promotion and Representation”. Contact them if you have trouble getting a permit or are harassed by officials of MCM or other organisations. They may be able to help.
See individual destinations.
- See also: Diving in South Africa#Stay safe
- Malaria is endemic to some regions in the north east of the country. For divers this is mainly northern KwaZulu-Natal.
- Bilharzia is also endemic to some regions on the east coast, but only affects fresh water, so is not generally a problem to divers.
- HIV is widespread. However it is not really a particular problem for recreational divers.
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 0930118138
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)
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 9072619641
King, D. 1996 Reef Fishes and Corals: East coast of Southern Africa. Struik, Cape Town. ISBN 1868259811
King, D. and Fraser, V. 2002, More Reef Fishes and Nudibranchs, Struik, Cape Town, ISBN 186872686X