The primary reactions people have to my saying I dive in Cape Town are either: But what about sharks? or Don't you get cold?
To which one has to say, for starters, you wouldn't go snow skiing in a bikini. Yes Cape Town water is cold (summer time on the Atlantic side can be single digits which, believe me, is cold whoever you are) but we have thick wetsuits or semidries or drysuits to solve this problem, not to mention Old Brown Sherry to warm you up afterwards. And the Cape Town diving is worth it. It's amazing how you can ignore how cold you are when you have a playful baby seal twirling around you, or spot an orange-clubbed nudibranch in a stand of kelp, or see a klipfish eyeing you curiously from is reef camouflage
As for sharks, increasing numbers of people come to Cape Town specifically to dive with sharks, which are usually around in number. Though this is not referring to great white sharks. Those you need to go to Gansbaai for, or to Seal Island in False Bay in winter where they do the 'Airjaws' thing and leap out of the water trying to catch baby seals heading recklessly out to sea. Scuba divers in Cape Town almost never see great whites (and if they do, it's normally a bunch of open water students on their first sea dive and one amazed instructor who is the only person who realises how lucky they have been). Great whites seem uninterested in divers. Which is maybe a good thing, depending on whether you want to see one.
The sharks people dive to see in Cape Town are the graceful blues and the powerful makos, both species best seen in summer when the Agulhas Current swings close to Cape Point. Boats leave early in the morning and head south past Cape Point in search of the warm (23ish degrees) blue waters of the Agulhas. Then the search begins. Chum of sardines or maybe tuna is used to attract the blues and once they're interested, the dive is on. Into the water at about 10m level with the bait bucket and then the game (if you're taking photos) is to capture the amazing blue colour that blue sharks are. It's the most astonishing delphinium blue. Blue sharks are inquisitive and will come close in to investigate divers, often needing to be pushed away. Makos are a different story. These are the fastest sharks in the ocean and they're heavily muscled and very different to the blues. They tend to be less keen to come in to investigate the bait bucket and will rather be seen as briefly as they bullet past. Still a magnificent sight.
The sevengills, modern representatives of the most ancient shark family known, are usually to be found at Pyramid Rock an inshore dive site in about 10m of water. These enigmatic animals are coastal near-apex predators, grow to be around 3m in total length and despite being common enough to have been the basis of a commercial fishery off the Californian coast, remain mysterious. Particularly in Cape Town. It is not known what they are up at at Pyramid's kelp forest or where they go when they leave. What is for sure is that it's a great pleasure to dive with them as they swim in languid circles through the kelp, sometimes coming in close to inspect divers. On rare occasions, the smaller males start acting aggressively, in which case, it's best to get out of their way -- and out of the water if it seems prudent.
Though they may not look aggressive, sevengills favoured prey is seals and this is another great attraction of Cape diving -- the resident fur seals. These animals may be faintly comical on land as they creep and waddle about, but underwater they transform into graceful ballerinas, performs twists and twirls and underwater somersaults with the greatest of ease. Their vertebrae are specially adapted to slide over one another freely so that they can suddenly change direction, useful for avoiding sharks. Their large eyes are specially adapted for better underwater vision. Their sensitive whiskers can detect the movement of fish in water up to 30seconds after the fish has passed. They are playful animals and can come close to divers, occasionally barking underwater rather like graceful dogs and speeding around trailing bubbles. They have big teeth though so should be treated with respect
Then there's the macro life. And here descriptions tend to get bogged down for sheer weight of numbers of animals to describe. Perhaps it's easiest to say, just as the fynbos above water is a rich and diverse plant kingdom, so underwater is a proliferation and profusion of life, much of which is only found around southern Africa.
Over 100 species of nudibranch are known, most endemic, as well as all manner of shrimps, crabs and cryptic fishes. It's easy to get lost in fields of feeding sea cucumbers or transfixed by the fernlike arms of basket stars, or capturing the near fluorescent white of strawberry anemones.
Cape Town is also blessed with many and varied dive sites. Boat dives go to reefs or wrecks (there are 500 within an hour's drive of Cape Town) and shore dives are possible depending on your level of fitness. There are kelp forests, massive granite boulders heavily encrusted with life, sands inhabited by cuttlefish, bobtail squid, sea spiders and amazingly camouflaged fishes.
All of this is surely worth gearing up for the cold and taking a plunge
Jenny came to Cape Town and this is who she dived with:
Carel van der Colff of Diveinn. Specialist underwater guiding with a focus on nudibranchs and macro subjects. Carel Dives & Tours <firstname.lastname@example.org> 084 448 1601. (Carel is an instructor of PADI, RAID and DAN First Aid certification courses)
Small size launches Tony Lindeque of Learntodivetoday Tony Lindeque <email@example.com> 076 817 1099. (Tony is an instructor of PADI and SDI certification courses)
Blue sharks and makos in the deep. Morne Hardenberg of Shark Explorers <firstname.lastname@example.org> 082 564 1904
Seal snorkelling with Steve Benjamin of Animal Ocean <email@example.com> 072 296 9132
text: Georgina Jones
photo: Jenny Strömvoll
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