South Africa Photography: A Guide to the Best Underwater Locations
South Africa photography offers a haven for underwater photographers, and unveils a breathtaking spectrum of diving destinations, each with its unique marine panorama.
From the cool embrace of the Atlantic seaboard to the temperate havens of False Bay and the warming currents along the eastern coastline leading to Sodwana Bay, the country is a treasure trove for exploration.
Navigating these destinations demands an understanding of seasonal nuances, emphasizing the importance of planning to fully appreciate the unique beauty each region unfolds.
In this article, we’ll explore some of the best dive spots for underwater photography in South Africa.
Photography essentials: macro and wide-angle setups
South Africa’s underwater photography experience seamlessly blends colourful macro life, expansive vistas, kelp forests, and encounters with larger marine animals.
Whether capturing the intricate details of macro life or the grandeur of wide-angle seascapes, the equipment choice is crucial.
A 60mm or 90mm lens suffices for macro shots, while fisheye lenses excel for wide-angle opportunities, especially in unpredictable visibility.
Read more: A Guide to Underwater Macro Photography
Boat diving – from sedate to exhilarating
Boat diving here is typically done using “Rubber Ducks” (Zodiacs or RIBs). In Cape Town, these boats launch from the harbours, while at other dive sites along the eastern coastline, the Rubber Ducks launch directly from the beach.
This often involves divers pushing the boat into the water and hopping on once they are in waist-deep water.
The boats then navigate through the waves, providing an exhilarating (or, for some, a potentially terrifying) launch experience.
To safeguard their cameras during these launches, I recommend underwater photographers invest in a padded cooler bag for secure storage and protection on the boat.
Read more: 8 Tips for Photographers on Boats and at Sea
Adapting to varied conditions: from Cape Town to Sodwana Bay
Divers exploring South Africa’s diverse destinations should anticipate fluctuating water temperatures, particularly cooler conditions between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth.
It is recommended to pack layers, booties, open-heeled fins, gloves, and hoodies, shedding them gradually as they progress toward warmer waters near Sodwana Bay.
Cape Town’s Atlantic seaboard to Hout Bay: a seasonal marvel
Dive into the wonders of Cape Town’s Atlantic Seaboard from October to May, aligning with South Africa’s summer for clear and calm waters.
The southeasterly wind during this season brings cold Antarctic waters through the Benguela current, offering usually clear but chilly conditions ranging from 10º to 13°C, occasionally dropping to 8°C.
Dive sites cater to both Open Water and Advanced divers, providing a diverse underwater landscape.
With the clarity of the chilly water, underwater photographers can use wide-angle lenses to capture kelp forests, colourful granite boulders, playful seals, and wrecks.
Simon’s Town: Winter Charms and Marine Diversity
Simon’s Town, on False Bay’s western coast, is ideal for diving from June to September, the South African winter, benefiting from the prevailing northwesterly wind for optimal conditions.
Clear water and temperatures of 12°C to 18°C reveal wrecks and dive sites with expansive granite boulders, scattered rocks, coarse sand, and enchanting kelp forests.
There are many dives suitable for both Open Water and Advanced divers.
The underwater landscape showcases vibrant sea fans, soft corals, and sponges, often within marine-protected areas teeming with marine life.
Additionally, some 40 nautical miles off Simon’s Town, where the warmer waters come closer to the coastline, there is the chance to photograph Blue and Mako sharks. Simon’s Town is a playground for both macro underwater photographers and wide-angle enthusiasts.
Gordon’s Bay: The hidden gem of macro photography
Gordon’s Bay, nestled on False Bay’s eastern side, is a must-visit destination, particularly from October to May when the prevailing south-easterly wind ensures clear waters for ideal exploration.
Even in winter (June-September), certain reefs offer year-round diving, with water temperatures ranging from 12°C to 19°C.
The underwater landscape, catering to both Open Water and Advanced divers, features steep-sided walls, ridges, and gullies.
Gordon’s Bay is a macro photography mecca, providing opportunities to capture nudibranchs, spider crabs, cuttlefish, octopuses, pipefish, puffadder shy sharks, and colourful reef fish. The reefs showcase vibrant marine life, including kelp forests, sponges, soft corals, sea fans, and noble corals.
Divers may encounter playful Cape Fur Seals, rays, and occasional gully sharks and seven-gill cow sharks.
For underwater photographers, the allure here lies in capturing macro marine life against pristine reefs and exploring the vibrantly covered topography and kelp forests for wide-angle opportunities.
Read more: The Secret Underwater World of Nudibranchs
Knysna: A macro photographer’s dream
Explore the enchanting underwater world of Knysna where water temperature ranges from 15-23 degrees, providing visibility between 5-15m.
The wreck of the Paquita, and Knysna Lagoon, are suitable for Open Water divers and Thesen’s Jetty is home to the endangered Knysna Seahorse.
Advanced divers can explore Christmas and New Year, home to ragged-tooth sharks and vibrant corals, East Cape Wall’s impressive coral formations, and Bruce Se Bank, a stunning reef with colourful corals.
For underwater photography, seize the macro photographer’s dream with endemic sea horses and diverse marine life in nutrient-rich waters.
As visibility can be unpredictable, be sure to set up your camera for macro on your first dives, and if you are diving later in the day, or the following day, change to wide-angle underwater photography if conditions allow.
Plettenberg Bay: a captivating blend of encounters
Embark on a mesmerizing underwater journey in Plettenberg Bay, where vibrant shallow house reefs, just a short swim from the shore, create a photographer’s paradise.
Plettenberg Bay offers both boat and shore dives, with temperatures from 16 to 22 degrees Celsius and depths from 6m to 40m. Visibility ranges from 4m to 20m, ideal for exploration.
Top dive sites include Playground, an immense reef near Tsitsikamma National Park, featuring large terraces rising from 24m to within 10m of the surface, providing shark and game fish sightings.
Jacobs Reef, Dolphin’s Column, Deep Blinders, and Grootbank enrich the diving experience with spectacular walls, vibrant coral, diverse marine life, and the frequent sighting of ragged-tooth sharks.
Plettenberg Bay offers a captivating blend of unique marine encounters and stunning underwater photography opportunities for both wide-angle and macro underwater photographers.
Read more: How to Photograph Dolphins Underwater
Port Elizabeth: vibrant reefs and diverse marine life
Dive into the captivating underwater world of Port Elizabeth, where Algoa Bay offers diverse marine life, vibrant reefs, and exciting dive sites. Water temperatures range from 14°C in July and August to 20-22°C in December and January.
Here you may be lucky enough to encounter ragged tooth sharks, locally known as “Raggies,” in their natural environment, and witness the awe-inspiring annual Sardine Run featuring dolphins, whales, seals, penguins, sharks, and birds in April.
Top boat dives include Evans Peak, near St. Croix Island, featuring a striking pinnacle adorned with soft corals and giant sea fans.
Riy Banks is also worth a go, with a deep reef system that promises spectacular drop-offs and walls. For those seeking shore entry, Slipway & Postman’s provide easy access, making night dives and exploration convenient.
Close-focus wide-angle photography is a great option here, allowing photographers to capture larger marine animals against beautifully vibrant marine life.
Read more: How to Photograph Ocean Giants
Protea Banks: adrenaline diving for shark enthusiasts
I highly recommend exploring the extraordinary world of Protea Banks, situated 8km offshore from Shelly Beach. It is an absolute haven for shark enthusiasts.
Influenced by the powerful Agulhas Current, Protea Banks showcases a rich marine ecosystem driven by warm Indian Ocean waters.
But be aware; diving here is for confident, advanced divers only.
The Southern Pinnacle (best dived December to May) is home to Zambezi sharks and, from October to April, Giant Hammerheads and vast schools of Scalloped and Smooth Hammerheads.
In contrast, the Northern Pinnacle (best dived June to November) is the pinnacle of adventure, featuring challenging caves and diverse marine life, including Zambezi sharks and seasonal appearances of Giant Hammerheads.
With its unique topography and marine diversity, Protea Banks stands as an exhilarating destination for wide-angle underwater photography encounters with the ocean’s apex predators.
Read more: How to Photograph Sharks
Aliwal Shoal: A Jacques Cousteau ‘Top 10 Dives’
Aliwal Shoal, listed as one of Jacques Cousteau’s “Top Ten Dives”, spans 1.5 km in width and 4 km in length. The shoal ranges in depth from 5m to 27m, and two wrecks, SS Nebo and MV Produce, add intrigue.
This marine protected area is teeming with marine life, a dream for underwater photographers, offering encounters with up to seven shark species, rays, eels, turtles, dolphins, humpback whales, and diverse fish.
Seasonal variations provide distinct sightings, with July to November optimal for ragged tooth sharks. Be sure to do your research before planning a trip to ensure you will see what you want to photograph!
Although Aliwal Shoal promises a dynamic underwater adventure for wide-angle underwater photographers, there are also great macro subjects such as rhinopias, small eels, frogfish, and nudibranchs to be captured.
Sodwana Bay: a photographer’s oasis on the east coast
Sodwana Bay, derived from the Zulu words “Siso dwana” meaning “us alone,” is a captivating dive destination on South Africa’s east coast. It is part of the UNESCO World Heritage site iSimangaliso Wetland Park, the country’s largest marine protected area.
Rich biodiversity thrives both on land and beneath the waves, providing a safe haven for endangered turtles and hosting the rare coelacanth in its submarine canyons.
Accessible year-round, Sodwana Bay features diverse dive sites, with Two Mile Reef being a standout – over 1.8km long and 900m wide, with gullies, overhangs, and swim-throughs.
Popular sites like Wayne’s World, Caves and Overhangs, and Coral Gardens showcase vibrant corals and marine life.
Anton’s, known for schooling fish and turtles, and Bikini, a macro photographer’s delight, add to the allure.
The reefs harbor an array of marine species, from butterflyfish and damselfish to sharks and nudibranchs.
Underwater photography enthusiasts can capture the beauty of this pristine marine environment which provides both beautiful wide-angle opportunities and a host of smaller macro subjects.
Read more: How to Photograph Sea Turtles
In the depths of South Africa’s coastal treasures, a diverse array of underwater photography opportunities awaits.
You’ll find no shortage in subjects here, from the vibrant corals of Sodwana Bay to the captivating marine life of Cape Town; each destination offers a unique spectacle.
South Africa’s marine world beckons, inviting photographers to explore and preserve the mesmerizing stories each dive site unfolds!
You’ll need more than a few days here to see and photograph all that our underwater world has to offer.