Freediving & snorkelling | Exploring Cape Town’s Secret Forests

When people think of outdoor activities to do in Cape Town, they usually think of Table Mountain and the fantastic number of hikes that one can do all over the Cape Peninsula (not to mention rock-climbing, abseiling and paragliding). Hiking in the Table Mountain National Park gives nature lovers the opportunity to see some of the more than 2000 plant species that grow here, along with many animal species from sunbirds to baboons.

But while the mountains are home to many treasures, the Table Mountain National Park also protects extensive areas of coastline and areas of ocean on both sides of the Peninsula. Here, massive stands of kelp forest create a whole new world to be explored.

While the oceans surrounding Cape Town don’t receive the same attention from divers as the Great Barrier Reef or the Bahama’s, there is nonetheless a growing diving community in Cape Town. False Bay has even become the setting for several award-winning nature documentaries showcasing the extraordinary and diverse marine life that occur here, including Air Jaws, Blue Planet 2 and My Octopus Teacher! It’s also where the brilliant local photographer Helen Walne explores and documents marine life!

Diving in Cape Town’s waters

Personally, I love hiking on Table Mountain, but over the last four years diving in the kelp forests has taken up a huge part of my life and instilled in me a deep love and respect for the ocean and an overwhelming desire to keep exploring it. I started out scuba diving and within two months I also started freediving, which quickly became my preferred form of diving. It’s a lot easier to get kitted up and it’s far cheaper when it comes to buying or renting gear (a big plus if you are on a limited budget).

When it comes to renting gear, booking boat dives or doing a diving course, in Simons Town there are several dive operators you can visit, most notably Shark Explorers, Ocean Africa, Pisces Divers, Impact Divers and Cape RADD.

Other operators like Just Scuba, Animal Ocean and Cape Town Freediving are based in other parts of the city.

Where to go snorkelling and diving in Cape Town

There are a number of dive sites that can be accessed from the shore and that are full of life. Most of these are on the False Bay side of the Peninsula, with several on the Atlantic side. While every diver will have their personal favourites and special secret spots, I have identified a few sites below that many divers will agree are all amazing places to explore.

Castle Rock

This is possibly my favourite dive site, some distance away from the more popular beaches. This site is dominated by towering granite boulders jutting out into the sea, surrounded by huge stands of kelp. The kelp forms dense thickets in the shallows and towering forests out in the deeper waters.

This site is a no-take zone, so it is full of life from rare fish like the Galjoen and Red Steenbras to spotted gully sharks. The rock walls here can be covered with vibrant and colourful life forms, including seafans, nudibranchs, soft corals and sea-stars.

Windmill Beach

Right next to Boulders Beach, this small beach is very popular among Cape Town divers. Two channels in between granite boulders meet at the beach, giving divers two entry points. The left channel is shallow and rocky (ideal for snorkelers) while the right channel is deeper and leads out into kelp forests full of life, ranging from bizarre rocksuckers to large pyjama sharks and short-tailed stingrays.

Seaforth

Another spot hidden next to the Boulders Beach penguin colony, this little cove supports dense kelp forests that can get very tangled and exposed at low tide. While the conditions at this spot can be hard to predict, I have had some truly memorable dives here. This is where I saw my first stingray and spotted gully sharks. In fact, at certain times of the year, it is possible to spot large numbers of gully sharks congregating here, possibly to breed (the exact locations are kept secret to protect the sharks).

A – Frame

This site gets its name from a popular swim-through that has its main entrance shaped like the outline of an A. There is no beach here, just grass and a rocky shore, but it is still easy to access from the rocks. The towering kelp forests here shelter large numbers of fish, including several endangered species! There’s also some pretty spectacular invertebrate life on the rock walls.

Long Beach

It might not look like much at first but just off this beach the waters are full of life. Despite the patchy and stunted kelp forests, I have seen a huge diversity of animals here, hiding among the rocks or the several wrecks that are here. This is the go-to spot for newbie divers to be trained, as it is usually the most sheltered spot on the Cape Peninsula and can have good visibility when other areas are trashed.

Some of the animals I have seen here include pyjama sharks, short-tailed stingrays, leopard catsharks, Cape fur seals, a diamond skate, butterflyfish and even dusky dolphins. I have seen dozens of puffadder shysharks here on a single dive and if you know where to look you can always find an octopus den.

Millers Point

Situated next to Castle Rock, Millers Point is a popular spot for people visiting the braai spots and the tidal pool, as well as fishermen using the slipway. Surrounding the land is a diverse underwater landscape, including seaweed meadows, dense kelp forest, underwater canyons and sandy seabeds.

Stingrays are often seen here and I’ve had several memorable encounters with Cape clawless otters here. There is also a very good chance of spotting the various local shysharks and catsharks, not to mention octopus!

Cosy Bay

This beach is my go-to spot when it comes to diving on the Atlantic side. This is a very open dive site, with the major drawcards being Justin’s Caves and Strawberry Rocks. The former is popular for its swim-through’s and incredibly colourful cold-water reefs. Strawberry Rocks, which is quite a swim from the shore, is always packed with Cape fur seals (my favourite reason for diving here).

In the neighbouring bay, there is also the Antipolis Wreck, which I still need to dive on in good conditions. While conditions here are very unpredictable (and much colder than False Bay), there have been when the visibility has been 20-25 metres and the ocean is the most vibrant blue and on those days, it is pure unadulterated magic swimming alongside the playful fur seals, through the kelp or over the sand. Even the cold can’t stop the wonder.

Ocean life: what can you see while diving

The waters surrounding the Cape Peninsula are some of the richest and most productive in the world, supporting a great diversity and number of animals.

Superpods of humpback whales and common dolphins gather offshore and endangered heavisides and humpback dolphins can be seen surfing in the waves. Inshore, kelp grows year-round thanks to the African sun and as a result, the forests provide a sanctuary for many creatures, some of which are still unknown to science.

Four species of kelp grow here, with the Sea Bamboo (Ecklonia maxima) by far the most prolific and dominant. In and around the kelp forests, there are several iconic animals to pay special attention to when diving around Cape Town.

Pyjama Shark

My favourite animal to spot in the kelp, these bottom-dwelling sharks can grow up to a metre long and are easily recognizable with their black and white horizontal stripes running the length of their bodies. It’s always worth checking in caves or crevasses in case you may find several of them sleeping there, but the best sightings are when you spot one weaving its way through the kelp in search of prey.

Cape Fur Seal

The local ‘salty sea dogs’ can be seen across the Peninsula, with several rocky islets supporting densely packed breeding colonies. It is always incredible to observe their agility in the water, but you often have to be very quick with your camera to get a decent photo (and not a blur). It’s always important to respect their space when you’re in the water though, especially when it comes to the bulls.

Puffadder Shyshark

These well-camouflaged little sharks are only found in South African waters. They are some of the most numerous sharks you’ll find in the kelp, along with the dark shysharks. Their distinctive mottled markings resemble that of a puffadder snake (hence their name).

Common Octopus

An animal that tries to live its life in secrecy, octopuses are still one of the most sought after animals to see for divers, long before My Octopus Teacher was released. Every octopus has its own personality, some are shy while others are quite curious and will emerge from their dens to investigate divers.

Short-tailed Stingray

The giants of the kelp forest are still very good at hiding on the seafloor. It can be a shock when you see one for the most time and realise how big they are (over 2 metres in wingspan).

Spotted Gully Shark

I always get very excited when I see these sharks. They can be very skittish around people, but if you swim calmly they will cruise right by you. Growing up to 2 metres, they are top predators in the kelp forest but pose no threat to people at all.

Red Roman

One of the most strikingly colourful of the kelp forest fish, the males can be very big indeed with quite prominent teeth.

Gasflame Nudibranch

My favourite of the many nudibranch species, these extravagantly coloured sea slugs come in varying sizes and the big ones are quite easy to spot (at least, in comparison to the tiny ones).

Cape Clawless Otter

Traditionally one of South Africa’s most elusive mammals, some of the otters along Cape Town’s coastline can be very relaxed around people, giving divers the rare privilege of seeing the animals up close in the water.

Last thoughts on Cape Town’s diving sites and sights

The ocean and kelp forests surrounding the Cape Peninsula are as much a part of the Table Mountain National Park as the mountains and fynbos and just as exciting and enticing to explore! The diversity of life underwater matches that on the land too and makes it worth braving the cold water.

Diving really helps to connect you to the ocean and in this day and age where we are increasingly disconnected from the natural world (especially the ocean), having a new respect for it is a crucial and fundamental step towards a better future for all. The Great African Sea Forest is just waiting to be explored.

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