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Dive Site: Okavango Delta, Botswana

Where the crocodiles often seem sluggish and obese when seen basking on the mud-caked banks above the water, here, in their element, they are things of beauty.

Botswana’s Okavango Delta is one of the few truly wild places left on Earth, and one of the most magical. Each year, the area floods with approximately seven cubic miles of water, which attracts countless animals from the surrounding areas to create one of the planet’s greatest concentrations of wildlife. The floods peak between June and August, when the clear water creates blue channels between banks of tall, golden reeds and the delta’s tiny islands are green and thriving with life. The local Botswanans traverse the delta in mokoros, hollowed-out tree trunks that act as canoes, using long poles to propel themselves silently through the water. This is the best way to travel in the delta, as it allows you to experience the area as the local people do. As the delta slides past in a kaleidoscope of green and blue and gold, herds of red lechwe buck leap gracefully away through the shallows. The sound of snapping branches and the heavy thud of falling coconuts echoes across the still water, and a herd of elephants appears around the bend, foraging for food in the island undergrowth. Ahead, the sudden noise causes a log lying on the bank to open a single gilded eye, and with a soft splash the log transforms into a crocodile and slips quietly into the water.

There are approximately 3,000 Nile crocodiles in the Okavango Delta, and for true adrenaline junkies, encountering them in their natural habitat is now considered the ultimate big-animal dive. Reaching up to 20 feet (6m) long, Nile crocodiles are formidable predators. Fully grown, they’ve got the strongest bite in the animal kingdom, and they’re known for being indiscriminate hunters. It’s only recently that diving with the Okavango crocodiles has even been considered possible, though now there are several companies offering this experience of a lifetime. Despite the risks involved when entering the crocodile’s world, there are several ways to mitigate the danger. The first, and perhaps the most important, factor is timing: it’s only recommended to attempt crocodile diving during June and July, for two reasons. The floodwater is at its clearest and coldest, meaning that you’re less likely to encounter a crocodile unexpectedly, and, as a result of their cold-blooded nature, the crocodiles are at their most sluggish and least aggressive. Typically, the crocodile experts leading these dives choose which animals to dive with, based on their size and temperament as observed on the delta banks before the crocodiles enter the water. 

The Okavango’s waters are shallow, ranging between 17 and 50 feet (5 to 15m). Because crocodiles (like many big shark species) hunt from below, it is important to spend as little time as possible on the surface. Crocodile dives are conducted using a negative entry, and divers must stay as close to the riverbed as possible during their time in the water. It’s also important to remember that even though you may not be able to see the crocodiles, there’s a good chance that they can see you. You must remain calm at all times, and upon spotting a crocodile, approach it from the back rather than the front so as to remain out of striking range. As daunting these dives may seem, however, these rules are in place to allow you safe passage into a world few others will ever experience. The delta below the waterline is every bit as mesmerizing as the topside version, a watery wonderland of bright sunlight filtering greenly through forests of slender vegetation. Although crocodiles breathe air, they are capable of remaining submerged for hours at a time. In the Okavango, the best place to find them is in ‘crocodile-caves,’ the gloomy recesses tucked away beneath the overhang of the riverbank, where sunbeams give way to still enclaves of green-tinged shadow. 

The white gleam of their protruding teeth signals their presence before your eyes adjust and the rest of their form comes into focus. Where the crocodiles often seem sluggish and obese when seen basking on the mud-caked banks above the water, here, in their element, they are things of beauty. Washed clean by the floodwater, their skin is a checkered patchwork of gold and black. Their eyes are molten metal, and the pale whiteness of their underbellies and their rows of pointed teeth contrast spectacularly with the dark recesses of their caves. Divers sometimes see the crocodiles out in the open sand, where they walk rather than swim to conserve their energy. To see the Nile crocodile from this perspective is to gain a more favorable insight into an animal that has previously only been regarded with fear and revulsion. In the same way that the world’s perception of sharks is beginning to change, so crocodile encounters have the potential to change the way we think about these freshwater predators. This is the frontier of big-animal diving, and as such, there is still a lot more to learn about diving with crocodiles. 

To make your encounter with these fascinating creatures as safe as possible, make sure that the outfit you dive with has the knowledge and the experience necessary to keep risks to a minimum. When planning your trip to the Okavango, also take time to explore the magnificent topside flora and fauna of this unique environment, and your trip to the heart of Africa will be truly unforgettable.