By Dr Jade Maggs, Marine Scientist…
Protea Banks is a beautiful rocky reef system situated in the South-West Indian Ocean on the east coast of South Africa. More specifically, it is located on the sunny south coast of the KwaZulu-Natal province, just 80 km south of Aliwal Shoal. Protea, as it is affectionately known by locals, lies within the subtropical Natal Ecoregion with warm waters year-round. This reef is for the slightly more experienced diver and is famous for encounters with large pelagic predators, such as sharks and gamefish.
Protea Banks on the east coast of South Africa
The dive site is 8 km offshore and is accessed by boat, primarily from the Sonny Evans Small Craft Harbour at Shelly Beach. This boat launching site is situated 161 km (1 h 41 min) south of the King Shaka International Airport. The much smaller Margate Airport is only 12 km (14 min) south of Shelly Beach, but caters mostly for domestic flights. There are experienced and well-equipped dive charter establishments located at the Sonny Evans Small Craft Harbour.
Diving Protea Banks
There is no doubt that Protea is most famous for its specialised shark diving experiences, but the occurrence of sharks is strongly seasonal. This is a good reason to dive with one of the specialist dive charters who know just which months of the year are best to see the various species.
Although famous for shark diving, Protea Banks also offers exciting reef dives with complex bottom topography. The reef is about 3 km long, up to 800 m wide, and is home to a variety of large charismatic species, like potato bass Epinephelus tukula, round ribbontail rays Taeniura meyeni and even brindle bass Epinephelus lanceolatus, which is the largest species of rockcod (grouper) in the world.
The best diving conditions are usually encountered during early winter (May-June), when there are light winds and less rain to cause river discharge. Visibility ranges from 5-40 m. Water temperature ranges from about 19° C in the late winter (July-Aug) to 24° C in the late summer (February).
Diving Protea is generally for the more experienced diver and an advanced dive qualification is recommended. The shallowest part of the reef is 25 m with some parts dropping off to 60 m. The current can also be fairly strong. As with most other dive locations in South Africa, all dives at Protea are drift dives.
The charter operators at Protea Banks specialise in baited shark diving. In South Africa, this practice usually involves attracting sharks to the dive vessel by deploying a liquid chum. Once sharks appear at the vessel, a steel drum filled with bait is lowered to a depth of 5-10 m, where it drifts in the water column next to the vessel. Divers then enter the water with a dive master and drift mid-water with the steel drum, where they are able to view and photograph top predators up close. This can be a tricky dive as there is no seafloor in sight. Without the seafloor as a reference point, buoyancy and depth must be monitored constantly.
The top predatory shark species to see on Protea are the tiger shark Galeocerda cuvier, ragged-tooth shark Carcharias taurus, Zambezi or bull shark Carcharhinus leucas, blacktip shark Carcharhinus limbatus, dusky shark Carcharhinus obscurus, and scalloped hammerhead shark Sphyrna lewini. The mid-water baited shark dive is most certainly a bucket-list experience, but sharks may also be seen on the standard reef dives. Although some species are seasonal, you are almost guaranteed to see some sharks on every dive.
There are three well-known diving areas on Protea Banks – the Northern Pinnacles, Southern Pinnacles and Playground.
Northern Pinnacles is best dived in winter through to late autumn (May-November). This part of Protea lies at a depth of 28-38 m and features a series of caves with complex topography. The drift on this dive usually takes you past First Cave, Hole in the Ground, Tunnel, Canyon and Second Cave, most of which are deeper than 30 m. This is where vast numbers of ragged-tooth sharks stop over from July to September during their annual northward migration.
Southern Pinnacles is best dived from October to April (spring to mid-autumn). This part of Protea lies at a depth of 26-40 m with a number of gullies and is a great place to see gamefish like yellowfin tuna Thunnus albacares. The drift on this dive usually starts at Southern Cave, before moving past Lord of the Rings and Kingfish Gully. However, an absolute must-see on this part of Protea is Sandshark Gully, which is a large sandy patch where up to 60 giant sandsharks Rhynchobatus djiddensis aggregate on the seafloor like fighter jets parked at a runway.
Playground is a recently discovered part of Protea with spectacular reef topography. The drift on this dive usually begins at a site called Canyon and moves past Whale Rocks, Clown’s Head and Corksrew, before ending with a descent into a large cave.
Protea is not formally protected by legislation, but there are restrictions on certain activities on parts of the reef by virtue of a “gentlemen’s agreement” among local fishers and dive charters. This is called the “Voluntary Protection of Part of the Protea Banks” and was initiated by the Shelly Beach Ski-Boat Club. This agreement describes an 18 km2 “Red” zone demarcated by four sets of geographic coordinates.
Within the “Red” zone, there is to be no bottom fishing, no bait fishing (only artificial lures), no chumming, and no fishing whatsoever from 1 August to 30 November each year. The reasons for these restrictions are partly for conservation and partly to reduce the escalating incidence of shark depredation on hooked fish.