Beneath the waves: Africa’s best dive sites
Shipwrecks, sharks and shoals — here’s where to back-roll into brilliant worlds around Africa’s coastlines
With endless kilometres of idyllic coastline peppered with tropical islands lifted straight from a postcard, it’s not hard to see why so many travellers flock to Africa’s beaches and islands for a fly-and-flop holiday.
But while the landscapes on the beach are beautiful, they’re nothing compared to what lies below. From unforgettable scuba diving on wrecks and reefs to adrenalin-pumping free-diving with sharks, Africa has much to offer beneath the waves, so strap on your mask and fins and plunge into our guide on the continent’s best dive sites.
Cage-diving with great white sharks has long been a tourist highlight in Cape Town, but the recent arrival of orcas in False Bay seems to have encouraged the ‘men in grey suits’ to move further up the coast. No matter, because an even wilder shark experience is waiting in the deep waters 25 nautical miles south of Cape Point. With boat charters out of Simon’s Town Harbour, specialised shark diving operators offer day-long outings to snorkel, scuba and free-dive with pelagic mako and blue sharks. They are rarely aggressive to humans, so there’s no cage required, ensuring a close-up interaction with these graceful travellers of the deep.
Winter on South Africa’s east coast sees millions of sardines (Sardinops sagax) leave their traditional feeding grounds to follow a corridor of cooler waters inshore. In their wake follow vast numbers of aquatic predators, from dive-bombing gannets above to sharks and whales devouring bait balls from below. While you can admire this aquatic feeding frenzy from the shoreline, the best viewpoint is on a boat out at sea. Operators up and down the coastline offer day trips and multi-day adventures of snorkelling and scuba diving out on the big blue.
Madagascar is famous for its biodiversity, and that extends to its sub-aquatic attractions. In the north you’ll find the islands of Nosy Be and Nosy Komba, which offer gin-clear waters and unique underwater adventures. Nosy Be is a popular holiday island that’s ideal for novice divers taking their first backward roll strapped into a tank, while just north is Nosy Komba; well-known for its rich coral reefs and abundant marine life, with shipwrecks and dramatic drop-offs for more experienced divers.
While the deep-sea waters off Watamu are most famous for their marlin fishing, the varied topography and thriving coral reef systems of the Watamu Marine National Park have – since 1968 – created an underwater wonderland that draws divers from across the globe. There are more than 20 recognised dive sites within easy reach of the numerous beach hotels. A sheltered coral lagoon and plentiful shallow sites make this an excellent destination for novice divers. Diving is best during the northeast monsoon (November to March), which brings warm waters, excellent visibility and the chance to see whale sharks offshore.
The waters off Unguja, the main island in the Zanzibar Archipelago, are rightly popular for a dose of sun and sand after an East African safari. But for the best diving, you’ll want to head for the smaller islets offshore. Mafia Island, some 200 kilometres south, delivers creatures big and small, from rich coral reefs to the chance to dive with migrating whale sharks and humpback whales (November to January). If Mafia’s too far-flung, Mnemba Island, off the north-east coast of Unguja, boasts a glorious lodge and a top-notch dive centre run by experienced safari outfit andBeyond. Dive operators also visit the Mnemba reefs on day trips, but overnight visits are worth adding to the bucket list. Room rates include two dives per day.
The Red Sea is home to some of the world’s most famous scuba diving sites, but it’s a huge area to cover, so where to start? Top of your list should be the Ras Mohammed National Park at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, known for its diverse marine life and beautiful coral reefs. Another icon is the SS Thistlegorm, a British cargo steamship sunk by German aircraft in 1941. More than 80 years on, the decks are still crowded with tanks, army trucks and motorcycles, and it’s considered one of the world’s finest wreck dives. Last, but certainly not least, is the Blue Hole in Dahab, famous for its underwater arch, its crystal-clear waters and – more than anything else – its reputation as one of the most dangerous dive sites on the planet, having claimed the lives of around 200 divers in recent years. The Blue Hole really isn’t to be attempted, and we mention it here purely for reference and reflection, rather than any kind of recommendation to try it. Please don’t attempt it if you’re in the area, and instead focus on more accessible sites that can easily be enjoyed and are just as rewarding.
Senegal played a pivotal role in the slave trade, and a visit to the island of Goreé, near Dakar, offers a powerful reminder of the human suffering that took place here. But offshore of the island is another reminder of this dark period in history: dozens of shipwrecks, masts akimbo, that have lain on the seabed for centuries. Iron chains strewn across the seabed are a stark reminder of the lives lost both at sea and to the brutal plantations of the New World. Beyond Goreé, nearby N’Gor Island and the Madeleine Islands offer vibrant reefs and wonderful marine life.
Along Mozambique’s 2,400-kilometre coastline there’s certainly no shortage of wonderful diving, but the Bazaruto Archipelago National Park has an (oversized) ace up its sleeve: dugongs. These endangered ‘sea cows’ are, admittedly, not often seen, but remain a magnet for underwater adventurers in the archipelago, a protected marine national park since 1971.
Aside from the dugongs, you can also deflate your BC (buoyancy compensator) to drop onto Two Mile Reef, famous for its vibrant coral and diverse marine life, while experienced divers will love the drift dives of Canyon Deep and Marlin Pinnacles, which are known for their high concentration of pelagics.