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Oceans & Beaches

From a close encounter with a great white to a UNESCO marine walk, get up from your sun lounger and see a whole new side to South Africa’s shores

There’s more to an ocean holiday than beaching and surfing (not that we don’t love those too). South Africa’s coastline stretches more than 1,770 miles (2,848 km), from the border with Namibia on the Atlantic coast, down to the southern tip of Africa and then northeast to the border with Mozambique on the Indian Ocean. There are many wild and wonderful ways to enjoy the sea and the shore in South Africa. Here are just three of them.

Diving with sharks

Imagine being mere metres away from the jagged teeth and powerful jaws of the apex predator of the ocean, the great white shark. There’s nothing but a steel cage between you and the sharks, but it’s totally safe, according to shark dive operators Marine Dynamics who’ve been doing this for over 15 years in Gansbaai in the Western Cape.

The area is part of what’s known as the “whale coast”, close to one of the world’s most accessible populations of great white sharks, enabling visitors to view and dive with these magnificent and endangered creatures in their natural environment.
It’s not just about the dive. It’s a whole day’s experience starting with a 25-minute boat trip from Kleinbaai harbour to the dive spot. On any given day, you’re likely to spot at least a couple of members of the marine big five, which includes sharks, dolphins, whales, seals and penguins. Marine Dynamics are serious about marine research and conservation and are Fair Trade Tourism certified. You’ll get a crash course in marine biology and the low down on sharks and their behaviour from one of the on-board experts.

Divers don the wetsuits and masks provided and get into the cage. The cage is firmly secured to the boat close to the surface of the water, and you can get in and out of the cage whenever you like. The sharks are lured to the boat for an up-close experience. You’ll come back with a tale to tell and a new love and respect for these graceful predators.

Interpretive marine walk

Ever wondered whether you can eat sea lettuce? Or how sea anemones catch their prey? Well, here’s your chance to find all the answers on a guided, low-tide amble along the rocky shore, beach and rock pools of the De Hoop Nature Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site of extraordinary beauty and diversity.

The two-hour interpretive marine walk, offered by The De Hoop Collection, is a delight and an education. It’s one of those rare and special outings that everyone in the family can appreciate. Toddler and grandparents are equally rapt when the guide stops and carefully removes a starfish from its rock to show the suckers on its underneath, or describes how certain fish species can actually change gender.

If you are lucky, you’ll see some rather larger sea treasures, because this area offers some of the best land-based whale watching in the world. From June to November, the southern right whales come up from Antarctic in great numbers to breed. They come so close to shore that you can watch them from the sand dunes.

The Sardine Run

Every year, between June and July, massive shoals of sardines move north up South Africa’s East Coast. The Sardine Run, as it’s called, is thought to be the largest biomass migration on the planet. Where the shoals go, the predators follow. What transpires is a dramatic marine bunfight featuring various types of sharks (including the copper, dusky, blacktip and spinner), marine mammals like Cape fur seals and dolphins, gamefish, and birds of all feathers.

But how best to experience it? If you’re lucky you’ll be able to see the shoals of little fish and their larger predators from the shore. They are often washed up on or close to the beach, much to the delight of the locals who come down with nets and buckets and baskets and whatever else they can lay their hands on to scoop up supper.

Charter boats take tourists out for a closer look, or to deliver scuba divers and even snorkellers into the sea for an underwater experience. If fishing is your thing, get local intel on where best to try, or take a fishing boat trip through a charter company.

The trouble, from a holiday planning point of view, is that the timing is hard to predict. The sardines can arrive just about any time in June or July, but until they are spotted, no one knows quite when. They come from the south, so if your dates are early, you’d be better off further south, and the opposite is true if you’re heading to the coast in July – rather pick a spot a bit further north. Then follow the topic on social media or check out the KwaZuluNatal Shark Board’s Facebook page, and drive to where they seem to be headed.

If you strike it lucky, it’s a real once-in-a-lifetime wildlife spectacle. Millions of shimmering fish, thousands of birds diving after them, frenzied dolphins and sharks whipping up the water. And if you don’t catch the fish, you can still have a lovely winter break in balmy KwaZulu Natal.

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