SHARKS outnumber the divers and the action is so frenetic you wonder where to look next. One thing is guaranteed when you dive Protea Banks - you are in for an unforgettable experience.
As you plunge in for the first time, a close encounter with a truly wild bunch of sharks is only seconds away. This must be one of the few places in the world where you can dive with sharks in their natural state, for unlike the sharks elsewhere, these ones are never fed. The only morsels they get are from fishing lines, which they take much to the fishermens annoyance.
Protea Banks is fairly easy to reach, just five miles off the tourist resort of Shelley Beach on South Africa s east coast, an hour south of Durban. For many years it has been a favourite location for local fishermen, but has only recently become popular with scuba divers. I was diving with Trevor Krull, who pioneered diving on the Banks, so I knew I was in good hands. Trevor saw the potential for diving on the Banks during his time spear-fishing in the early 1990s. In mid-1994 he decided to pack away his speargun and start taking small groups out to dive.
Now the idea has caught on: local and international television companies, professional photographers and shark experts from around the world are all making a beeline for the Banks to experience the sharks close up.
The diving area stretches barely a mile in length, but it is a mile of concentrated activity. The Banks, once impressive sand dunes, are now fossilised and offer shelter to a great variety of tropical reef fish and crustaceans. The bottom varies in depth from 27m on the southern pinnacles to between 33m and 40m in the central and southern sections, and between 55m and 60m on the seaward side.
The terrain is mostly flat, with a few caves, overhangs and gullies. There is no coral reef as such, but there are plenty of soft corals, sponges, gorgonia and some very colourful sea pens. The Banks lie close to the continental shelf, and are the shallowest spot for miles around. In the summer months large schools of game fish arrive here to rest, feed and hang out in the warmer water. With them come the sharks, and by mid-summer the water is thick with schooling hammerheads, tigers, Zambezis, guitar sharks, sand tigers, coppers, duskies, sandbars and even, on occasion, great white sharks.
You are almost guaranteed to see sharks all year round. Some come, stay a while and move off, others are just passing through. However, the Banks are not to every divers liking. Cruising with potentially dangerous sharks at depths of 30m or more, in sometimes strong currents, is definitely for the more experienced only.
In late winter, from August onwards, South Africas favourite shark arrives - the sand tiger, known locally as the raggie, or ragged-tooth shark. They come in their hundreds from the colder Cape waters of the south. Filling up the caves and overhangs, they crowd onto the Banks like pigeons in Trafalgar Square. They do not come for hand-outs but to mate, which they do several times during their stay.
If you visit the Banks in spring, just before the raggies move on, you will notice how scarred the females become from the over-attentive mating rituals of the males. They are considerably larger than the males, and when they are ready to give birth they move further north to rest up in the waters of Mozambique. The males and the smaller juvenile raggies hang around a little longer before returning south.
Around the same time as the raggies arrive, you encounter the runs of sardines. They also come from the waters of the Cape, often in such large numbers that they can deplete the surrounding water of oxygen. Many die as a result and are washed up on to nearby beaches.

Like the raggies, the sardines come to reproduce, and to let their spawn develop in the warmer water. While the locals have a field day catching them on the Banks, scooping them out of the water with buckets, divers watch in amazement as copper sharks dance in and out of the huge shoals, occasionally jumping clean out of the water and pirouetting like dolphins. They are normally bottom-feeders, but seem to revel in the easy feast provided by the sardines.
By early summer, the raggies have all but left and the Zambezis begin to arrive. They are the most commonly encountered sharks here, and are impressive, stocky-looking power machines. They are probably one of the most feared sharks after the great white.
During his years spearfishing on the Banks, Trevor Krull learned to respect these awesome predators. He once watched one bite a hammerhead shark in two. The hammerhead, admittedly a small one, had been caught by a fisherman and had just been released. The Zambezi has an incredible sensory system and can detect a struggling fish from a long way off. During our dive briefings, Trevor emphasised how important it was to remain calm, because sharks can also detect a nervous diver in the water. We were told to hot-tub it if things got a little too active down there, and at the end of the dive we had to tuck our legs and fins under the boat before quickly getting back on board, so as not to tempt the sharks in for a nibble.
During my week there, every dive was as exciting as the last. It might not always be a shark we spotted, but who could complain when a group of eagle rays glided past or perhaps a majestic manta ray, silhouetted by the morning sun
A days diving on the Banks starts at 5am, when Trevor knocks on your hotel-room door. His company African Dive Adventures operates from the Kennilworth-on-sea Guest Lodge in Margate, just a short distance from Shelley Beach, where the surf launch takes place.
It is important to make an early start before the winds pick up around midday. It is exciting enough launching through the surf in calm conditions, but if the winds pick up, your boat trip to the Banks will be more like white-water rafting on the Zambezi River!
The boat, a 5.5m rigid hull inflatable with twin 60 Yamaha engines, is fitted with foot straps and ski ropes to ensure that no divers are washed overboard during the launches and high-speed beaching. In case of accidents, there is always a first aid kit and oxygen on board.
The trip to the Banks takes between 20 and 25 minutes, depending on the sea conditions. This allows plenty of time for your mind to dwell on images of huge bodies with massive teeth heading straight for you. By the time you arrive, the adrenalin is pumping and your mind is focused, and you know there is no going back.
When you arrive, you can usually see the Zambezis right under the boat. The water is often very clear because it catches the Mozambique currents, and visibility can be as much as 40m. The sharks probably get as much of a fright seeing a mass of divers coming towards them as the divers get seeing them.
On our dive the visibility was around 25m. Swimming down as fast as we could, we spotted a couple of Zambezis, which quickly moved away, but they made for a good start to the dive. It was late November, so things were still warming up for the season. By March, the water would be full of Zambezi sharks, much bigger than the ones we were seeing now. As usual, a fair to strong current was running from north to south, and we let it glide us through the schools of game fish, big-eye jack, yellow-tail jack, Bank steenbras, German, slinger, and mangrove snapper.
We came to one of the main overhangs of the southern pinnacles. From underneath came a large blue parrotfish followed by a couple of Cape knifejaws. Alongside them were adult and juvenile Natal knifejaws - the juvenile with its unmistakable pretty yellow and black stripes.
Hearing a few muffled cries from my buddies, I looked up and saw a Zambezi heading our way. I swam towards it with the camera, hoping it would come close. It came within one or 2m, checked us out and gracefully moved off. For just one moment I was staring this awesome predator right in the eyes. Had I shown fear, who knows what might have happened.
We glided on through a gully which was clothed in colourful sponges, and sheltered several coral reef fishes, including moorish idols, butterfly and angelfish. We passed a ledge where a massive potato bass was hanging out with five large lobsters. A rare species of electric ray was recently discovered here, and this is also one of the shallowest places the golden soapfish has ever been seen (it was previously thought only to inhabit areas in excess of 50m). I was not lucky enough to encounter either, but I did come across one of the largest hermit crabs Ive ever seen and I spotted my first ribbontail ray.
The bottom began to deepen, signifying the start of Kingfish Gully. Gliding over it we spotted several patrolling guitar sharks. It was my first sighting of this rather unusual shark - yet another species to tick off the list of close encounters. As we began our ascent, we kept our eyes on the blue water above and in front of us. Sharks are often seen here at shallower depths towards the end of the dive, and today was no exception. A dusky and a sandbar shark came towards us, shyly circling some 15m to 20m away before disappearing into the blue.
Due to extremely strong currents, we were able to dive the more scenic northern pinnacle only twice during the week. Descending on one dive to 36m and into one of the caves the raggies often frequent between August and November, I dropped right into a whole bunch of resting raggies! Luckily they tend to be fairly docile in the warm waters of the Natal coast, but even so, I moved towards them with just a little apprehension.
Back in their native Cape the raggies are known to be quite aggressive and, on occasion, harass divers. There was not much room in the cave for Trevor, myself and over 30 raggies, but I still managed to manoeuvre myself into a position where I felt reasonably safe.
I waited patiently. It is better to stay in one place in case you disturb the raggies and they move off to another resting place.
Our time was limited but I did not have to wait long. Within minutes a large female passed straight over me, so close I could almost count her teeth. I remained motionless as if my life depended on it. I wondered whether the flash would upset the shark at such a close distance, and decided to take the risk. I depressed the camera shutter, and a split second later watched this awesome creature pass gracefully over my head. It was one of the most exhilarating diving experiences I can remember. Ascending, we looked up and saw two scalloped hammerheads passing right over us. These beautiful creatures are rather camera-shy, so I was lucky to catch them on film.
During the decompression stop, I was busy checking my computer when Trevor suddenly grunted at me and pointed over my shoulder. I turned and could not believe my eyes as a manta ray, only 20m away, glided effortlessly past like a giant kite. It was a fitting way to end a great dive.