As you would expect from the shark-diving epicenter of the world, there are many, many dive centers selling shark experiences in South Africa. From Cape Town to the Mozambican border, hundreds of operators offer encounters with whichever apex predator is most prevalent in their location. African Dive Adventures stands out for professionalism and friendliness, as well as their commitment to shark conservation. One of the best places to see this on display is Protea Banks.
Their passion and dedication to raising awareness of the sharks’ plight at the hands of thoughtless recreational angling companies kick-started a nationwide furor. This year, the same fishing charters that were killing sharks two years ago were involved in a Paddle Out promoting shark conservation, wherein representatives from a wide variety of water users (surfers, fishermen, divers, freedivers) gathered on backline to spread wreaths on the surface of the ocean. Borrowed from a Hawaiian tradition for honoring dead surfers, the Paddle Out began in 2012 as a protest against the mass shark deaths in the shark nets further north; now in its third year, the awareness campaign has sister events in Port St. Johns and Shelly Beach as well. Many dive companies speak of their dedication to protecting sharks, but few make good on their conservation commitments as tangibly as African Dive Adventures have done, and continue to do.
Diving Protea Banks
It makes perfect sense that the owners and staff members of this charter should feel so strongly about shark conservation, after all, Shelly Beach is the launch point for Protea Banks, a site that surely has one of the greatest concentrations of sharks in the world. Essentially a series of sand dunes fossilized over time, Protea Banks provides a brief ledge in an ocean that drops away to the dizzying depths of the continental shelf. As the shallowest point for miles around, it attracts many pelagic species, including large game fish and an almost endless array of sharks.
The topography of the reef is convoluted, creating a fantastical landscape of gullies, overhangs, pinnacles and swim-throughs. Protea Banks is famous for its tiger and bull sharks, and also for the incredible aggregations of ragged-tooth sharks (also known as sand tiger and grey nurse sharks) that gather there during the South African winter. Depending on your luck and the season, it is also possible to spot great whites, threshers, copper sharks, duskies, sandbar sharks, guitar sharks, oceanic blacktips and shoals of schooling hammerheads numbering in the hundreds and even thousands. In the shoulder seasons between summer and winter, up to six species of shark can be seen at any given time on Protea Banks. African Dive Adventures has been providing the gateway to this shark lovers’ paradise since 1994, and their passion for the sharks (whether resident or temporary visitors) is infectious.
Shark dives on Protea Banks come in two distinct formats. First, divers can explore the banks on a conventional reef dive, where the chances of encountering sharks are high due to the sheer density of animals in the area. This is a great way to experience the reef and the rest of its flora and fauna while encountering sharks organically; from June until October, divers can also expect to come face-to-face with hordes of ragged-tooth sharks.
These fantastically photogenic creatures gather in groups across the landscape of the reef to mate each year, and in season, close sightings are almost guaranteed. Alternatively, African Dive Adventures offers drift dives specifically designed to see the area’s bull and tiger sharks by using a bait drum suspended in the blue at around 40 feet/12 meters, which creates a scent slick without actually feeding the sharks. In this way, divers can view these incredible animals up close without impacting on their natural diet and behavior. This is one of the few places in the world where encountering these species is possible outside a cage.
Divers should be aware that the conditions at Protea Banks make it suitable for advanced divers only: the reef depth averages over 100 feet/30 meters, and strong currents are often present. Even the shallower, baited dives require divers to have excellent buoyancy control and awareness, and for some, being so close to some rather large sharks can prove a little nerve wracking.
In reality, with the correct precautions and the expertise of operations like African Dive Adventures, shark diving is perfectly safe, as proved by the company’s unblemished accident record. In fact, the sharks in Protea Banks have far more reason to be wary of humans than we have of them; with the sole exception of the great white, it is still legal to catch and kill certain quotas of all shark species in South Africa. However, with charters like African Dive Adventures fighting to alter public perception and achieve protective legislation for sharks, perhaps that is a situation that will one day change.