The Sharks of Protea Banks… It is often described as the African equivalent of the Gulf Stream. One of the world’s most powerful oceanic currents – moving almost 70 million tons of water a second!
Its name is the Agulhas Current and it forms to the south-west of the huge island of Madagascar. When the powerful Mozambique Current merges with the equally strong East Madagascar Current. From that tumultuous beginning, the Agulhas runs straight down the 2000km long east coast of South Africa. At surface speeds of up to 8km an hour, bringing with it warm Indian Ocean water rich with nutrients.
Where those waters touch offshore reef systems, along the edge of the narrow South African continental shelf, they are the catalyst and life-blood for some incredible ecosystems.
And one of the very richest of those ecosystems is the Protea Banks…
The Protea Banks
Located some 8 km offshore from the seaside town of Margate in KwaZulu-Natal province. The Protea Bank is a large submerged shoal, about 800m wide and 6km long. The average depth is around 30m, but some key locations are much deeper. So bottom times, air consumption and decompression limits are hardly abstract issues when diving there.
The shoal rises up from the short but sloping South African continental shelf. Just before it plummets down in to the 3500m deep Natal Valley. Creating an almost perfect aggregation point for the rich marine life of the east coast.
The Protea Banks enjoys a reputation as one of the best places in South Africa to dive with sharks.
And, depending on the time of year, you can see up to seven different varieties. Including Ragged-Tooth Sharks, “Oceanic” Blacktips, Zambezi Sharks, Tiger Sharks and both Scalloped and Great Hammerhead Sharks.
Often these varieties are in large, if not astonishing numbers. Particularly the Scalloped Hammerheads and the Ragged-Tooth Sharks.
It really is quite a place! But it must be said that it is adventurous diving in often quite challenging conditions. Because what the Agulhas Current gives, it can also take away!
The Sharks of Protea Banks
Where the huge flow of water that is the Agulhas Current encounters shoals like the Protea Banks and nearby Aliwal. It produces complex eddies and upwellings, rich with nutrients from the deep waters to the east. Adding to the already fertile brew coming down from the north. And creating the perfect conditions for fish spawning grounds and nurseries.
Thus, the foundation for the pyramid of marine life is created. And towards its apex are the sharks of Protea Banks. So many of them that virtually every dive is a shark dive. But the encounters vary in nature from random sightings to intense, in your face, interactions on the baited dives.
But all are in open-water – no cages here…
The Sharks of Protea Banks – “Oceanic” Blacktips
Carcharhinus limbatus – not to be confused with the smaller blacktip reef variety… Are by far the most common sharks of the Protea Banks.
Although not a true pelagic shark like the Oceanic Whitetip. They spend a great deal of time hunting in the waters in around the Protea Banks. Often appearing both during ascents to the surface and at the safety stop.
Stout bodied, medium sized sharks that grow to about 2.5m in length. Oceanic Blacktips have a distinctive light band on their flanks that stands out against their bronze coloration and light underbelly making them easy to identify.
They typically feed on smaller sharks, rays, cuttlefish, lobster and bottom fish. But are infamous for stealing fishermen’s catch and are not exactly popular among the fishing community of Margate…
Generally, they show very little aggression and seem wary of divers. But are easily enticed in by baiting and are the main attraction for the regular baited dives on the Protea Banks. In the presence of food, they are much less cautious and can become quite “sporty” around the bait box.
Obviously greater care needs to be taken at such times. But it makes for some great photo-opportunities when they do come in really close!
The Sharks of Protea Banks – Ragged Tooth Sharks
Charcharius taurus – known as Grey Nurse sharks in Australia and Sand-Tigers in the USA. “Raggies” as they are called in South Africa are also a regular feature of winter months at the Protea Banks.
They gather there as part of their mating process, with the first males arriving around the end of April. And numbers steadily increasing through May and in to June when the female raggies also appear – having migrated up from the Cape area. At its peak from mid-June to the end of July there are literally hundreds of ragged-tooth sharks patrolling the Protea Banks.
Although primarily a bottom-dwelling shark, raggies can be encountered in mid-water. And are said to steal fishermen’s catches – just like Oceanic Blacktips. They are also known to surface and gulp air in to their stomachs, which they use as a pseudo-swim bladder to control buoyancy when hunting. A technique that allows them to hover and approach their prey with great stealth!
Raggies are quite large sharks that grow to well over 3m in length and are equipped with an impressive set of teeth. Which are small(ish), needle-like and evolved to pierce, secure and hold rather than sever. They also have very powerful jaws that allow them to seize and hold on to their catch which is then swallowed whole.
Raggies hunt mainly at night. Which means they are at their most active when we have no real way of observing them. Instead we encounter them during the day when they like to hang out in gutters, caves and overhangs to shelter from prevailing currents and potential predators.
Observed this way they seem completely docile and almost kind of dumb. As they patrol slowly round and round in an apparently aimless fashion. But the reality is they are resting and have slowed their metabolism right down to conserve energy. Basically they are almost sleep-walking, or should that be sleep-swimming?
The best place to see the raggies at the Protea Banks are the two caves on the Northern Pinnacle. Referred to as the “first or main cave” and the “second cave”, both have large openings which makes entry and exit easy and safe. But they are deep at around 30m at the entrance and 35m in the cave, so bottom times are quite limited.
Spending time in those caves with the raggies is a really intriguing experience as space is somewhat limited and they are after all a quite large animal… But they seem to simply ignore and avoid you, so the best technique is to try and position yourself in a spot where they will pass by – but allow them to come to you as chasing them just does not work.
Time in the caves is the key, but it’s limited because of the depth so a degree of luck is involved in hoping that a raggie or two will get used to you and come in really close!
The Sharks of Protea Banks – Zambezi (Bull) Sharks
Carcharhinus leucas – “Zambies” as they are known in South Africa are also a regular feature of the Protea Banks and, while they can be seen virtually all-year round, are most common from November through to July.
They take their name from Africa’s fourth-largest river, the Zambezi where they have been seen over 1000 miles from the coast. Bull sharks – their name in the rest of the world – are the only species of salt-water shark that can exist for long periods in freshwater.
Zambezi’s are large and robust bodied sharks with distinctive broad, flat snouts and their overall appearance, together with their small eyes and general demeanor is why they are called “bulls” elsewhere! Their average length is around 2.3m, but larger ones are not uncommon and the biggest captured was a 4m long female.
Zambezi sharks are rated as the third most dangerous shark in Southern Africa and, as in other parts of the world, are thought to be responsible for most shallow-water attacks on swimmers and bathers.
At the Protea Banks encounters with Zambezi’s come in two flavors… first there are the random ones on both the Northern and Southern Pinnacles. These are quite common but rarely are they close encounters as the area is rich in tuna and the sharks seem well fed – so they have no reason to come and check you out other than curiosity.
The second type of encounter is on the baited dives where it is normal for between 5 to 10 Zambies to gather some 15m below the bait box at a depth of around 25m. Often they stay there and if you go down to get closer, so do they and before you know it 40m is approaching!
But occasionally they will come up, at which point the Oceanic Blacktips will quickly fade in to the background and the show belongs to the Zambesi’s!
They really are an impressive, if somewhat intimidating shark, that shows no fear or hesitation when they do come close and the encounter is clearly being conducted on their terms – very exciting stuff!
The Sharks of Protea Banks – Tiger Sharks
Galeocerdo cuvier – these large and very impressive animals completely dominate the proceedings when they appear. For two reasons… their size and their reputation.
The average size is 4m, but larger ones are quite common and while that length, combined with their incredible stripes gives them a substantial presence. It is their girth that impresses most. They simply radiate power and strength in a way that only apex predators can.
Combine that significant presence with their reputation as the second most dangerous shark in South Africa. And it is easy to understand why Tiger sharks command so much respect!
The Protea Banks is thought to be a breeding and birthing area for Tigers. And the main season to see them is from late February through to early June. But sightings all-year round are possible.
Tiger sharks typically feed on fish and other sharks. But are also well known for attacking turtles on the surface. And their large, extremely powerful, jaws are able to bite right through those tough shells.
It is their tendency for the stealthy, but devastatingly destructive attack from below that has probably earned Tigers their fearful reputation in South Africa. Such attacks on humans are more than likely mistaken identity, as opposed to specifically targeted, but because their jaws are so powerful the end-result is deadly.
As with the Zambezi sharks, in-water encounters with Tigers at the Protea Banks come in two distinct flavors – random ones on the bottom during the dive and on the baited dives.
The random encounters are exactly that and their intensity is entirely at the discretion of the Tiger… They may come in close and check you out or simply ignore you. It’s up to them, but typically they will give you at least a cursory inspection. Particularly so on the Northern Pinnacle as that seems to be a favorite spot for them.
On the baited dives they are attracted by the scent of the bait box and patrol around it as if trying to understand the source. They will often wander off and disappear into the blue in one direction. And then reappear from the opposite direction having checked out what is happening in the broader area.
Behavior that aligns with their position in the marine food chain as a truly apex predator. And also compares interestingly with that of the Blacktips, who seem totally focused on the bait box and only that!
The Tigers have a formidable presence, exuding total confidence and mastery of their surrounding environment. Eyeball to eyeball encounters with them on the baited dives are incredible. An experience that will stay with you for many years.
The Sharks of Protea Banks – Hammerheads
The Protea Banks also plays host to Scalloped (Sphyrna lewini) and Great Hammerhead (Sphyrna mokarran) sharks. They are present at various times of the year. Although encounters with them are rarely the close, in your face ones…
The Scalloped Hammerheads gather in huge schools that number in the hundreds. Sometimes several hundred from late October through to early May as part of their annual migration. But these notoriously shy animals are almost impossible to get close to.
Instead you will see them in the distance, where they appear as almost a moving wall of large animals… Other times they will pass below you during ascents to the surface or on the safety stop. But again while tantalizingly close, they are almost impossible to photograph.
Interestingly, when really large aggregations of Scalloped Hammerheads are seen on the Protea Banks. It is believed they are exfoliating by rubbing up against each other. As a great deal of slime is always present in the water.
Great Hammerheads are also present around the same time but are most common during the months of March and April. Typically, solitary animals that are usually quite shy around divers. Hammers can often be seen cruising along the bottom scanning the reef floor for prey with their unique hammer-shaped heads.
And, if you are lucky, they may be encountered (usually briefly…) in mid-water during the staged ascents to the surface.
Significant animals with an incredible presence because of their uniquely shaped and highly sensitive head. They sashay through the water towards you with total confidence. Anecdotally, it seems that higher numbers of Great Hammerheads results in significantly less Scalloped Hammerheads.
The Sharks of Protea Banks Article
The “Rainbow Nation” of South Africa is an incredibly diverse and interesting country with much to see and do on land. It also offers some tremendous diving that varies from the semi-tropical reefs of Sodwana Bay near the Mozambique border in the north-east to the Great White shark cage diving around Cape Town.
In between those extremes is the rich marine eco-system of the Protea Banks and its remarkable shark population.
However, it has to be said that diving the Protea Banks is not for everyone… The conditions can be downright challenging and you really do need to be a competent diver to make the most of what there is to see there.
But accept those challenges and prepare properly and you will be richly rewarded with some exceptional encounters and truly adventurous diving!
I have been very fortunate to dive the area extensively and documented my experiences in an extensive eight-page article that was published recently by the global dive magazine X-Ray. You can use the following link to download the Sharks of Protea Banks article.