SHELLY CONTROL, BLACK PEARL – permission to beach please, Brian” asked Kyle.
“Yes, come straight in, but the water is just above Flat Rock,” replied Brian in the control tower.
The African Dive Adventures’ RIB was set at an acute angle to the shore as we donned life-jackets, and cox Kyle aligned the bow with the indicator posts on shore.
It showed him the way through the narrow channel, blasted through the rocks in 1972 to allow small craft to launch into the Indian Ocean’s swell.
Kyle watched the rollers carefully as they came in. A force of water generated perhaps thousands of miles away gives up its momentum in a set of tumbling, crashing waves, and we were looking for a gap in that oceanic force through which to navigate safely.
Spotting his moment, Kyle gunned both engines, the RIB launched itself and we all hung on. We steamed towards the beach at full speed. The swell ahead began to break, and the one behind reared above our heads.
The boat flew at the sand and, at the last moment, Kyle cut the engines.
The motors bounced up as the hull contacted the beach, and the speed was suddenly arrested.
Welcome to the Shelly Beach Sonny Evans Ski Boat Club. It’s the last surge of adrenaline rush of a dive excursion that started with a launch of equal heart-pumping fun, and carried on right the way through until we hit the beach.
In most parts of the world, dive-boats are a bit of a taxi run, with the only fun the dive. But here, every minute of the journey is a rush that starts and ends with a smile and the odd whoop of appreciation. This is diving Protea Banks-style.

PROTEA BANKS IS A PIECE OF FOSSILISED SEABED off the coast of eastern South Africa, in the province of KwaZulu Natal. The nearest city is Durban, about 90 minutes’ drive away.
This is no wild, desolate coastal plain, but a riviera of hamlets, villages and towns tied together along the R620 Marine Road.
The four-mile long and 800m-wide Banks lie some 7.5 nautical miles offshore from the small town of Shelly Beach, and are among the best places on Earth for getting close to sharks.
Sharks have their own seasons here. Hammerheads, for example, gather from November to February, but I came at the start of May in hopes of catching the start of the ragged-tooth shark-gathering.
Raggies are familiar to many people because they are the shark of choice for large aquariums – docile, but with lots of impressive teeth on show.
They migrate to Protea from May to November, and can be seen in shoals of up to 300 at times.
I was hedging my bets, because I had arrived during a crossover between the raggies arriving and tiger sharks departing. There could also be Zambezis (what the rest of the world calls bull sharks), plus a few blacktips and maybe another shark species or two.
I waited with some apprehension on the first dive over the northern caves, listening to the cox’s countdown: “Three, two, one, go!”.
The dive starts with a negative entry and a fin to the seabed. It’s not a race, but getting to the bottom is paramount to reaching the right spot. The seabed is at 30m, and even a slight current can treat a diver like a dandelion seed in the wind, rushing you across the small area and threatening to make you miss the site.
But as you kit up, the cox and divemaster assess the drift and select a spot upcurrent from the dive site.
They calculate it so well that we never once missed our target.
I hit the water, turned my nose to the seabed and finned. Luckily, the current wasn’t strong, and vis was decent at 20m or so. The rocky reef that makes up the Protea Banks and the holes that are known as the Caves came into view.
The raggies clearly hadn’t arrived. Both caves were empty. A short rummage found a handful of teeth left over from last year, but no sharks.
The site is a favourite with the raggies because it offers shelter in two largish holes with overhanging edges, plus a swim-through and a ridge that provides an overflow hang-out when the Caves are full.
Depth is 30m on top of the cave and 36m at the bottom, so time is a little limited.
Our dive profile pushed the bottom time a minute or so into deco, but there is an extremely slow rise to the surface, with breaks at around 20m and 15m to watch for pelagic sharks.
This clears the deco requirement before you reach your safety stop.
That first day we were joined by three blacktip sharks that cruised around us with their remoras swimming chaotically, like kids at a birthday party with two bouncy castles.
This style of diving was to be our modus operandi. To see the tiger and Zambezi sharks, however, we needed to hover in mid-water with a bait-bucket.
I’ve seen a few types of bait-buckets, but a tiger sharks’ “cockspur” teeth will rip most things to shreds except, it seems, old washing-machine drums.
It’s as if Mr Hotpoint designed them for the purpose, and then wondered if they could also clean clothes. Bung in a load of sardines that smell as good as a sewage outfall after a rainstorm, and you have perfect bait for a tiger shark.

KNOWN TO MEN IN WHITE COATS as Galeocerdo cuvier, the tiger shark is a marine dustbin. It will eat just about anything, and is fairly easy to tempt close with a Bisto-like scent trail in the water, and a couple of old tuna carcasses bought from fishermen.
Tigers have a brutish beauty, and if one thing can fire up a diver, it’s the chance to swim with a true apex predator without the need for a cage.
African Dive Adventures was having a bumper year, with plenty of tiger sharks attracted and not so many of the blacktips that seemed to have plagued Aliwal Shoal to the north. They get one or two, but the tigers tolerate them.
The bait-bucket is towed a short way to get the scent trail going, and then set free to drift in the current, away from any diving or fishing activity.
Small pieces of sardines are dropped into the water, and after 10-15 minutes the bucket is checked. If there are no sharks, the baiting continues.
This period is great for bird-watchers, as the fish and oil attracts Indian yellownose albatross, storm petrels and southern skuas. Some come incredibly close, and at times it felt as if we were feeding the birds rather than attracting sharks, but I wasn’t complaining.
How often do you get close enough to an endangered species that it could take your finger off if it wanted to
When a shark arrived, there was a frenzy of activity as people kitted up and hit the water in unison. As the bubbles cleared, the shark could be seen circling the bait-bucket.
The first few minutes are critical. If the shark is nervous and the divers get too close, or go deeper than the bucket, it can move away. They say that once a shark has taken one of the two tuna carcasses, it will hang around.
During my time on the Banks, we saw four tiger sharks. A very small one never came close. Enticed by the smell, it couldn’t overcome its fear of the bubble-blowing maniacs who got their kicks watching sharks try to eat a bucket.
Another came to the bait-bucket a couple of times on one dive but wasn’t seen again. Next was a shark I saw twice that had damage to her jaw, close to where you’d expect a hook to lodge.
She (all the tiger sharks at Protea Banks are female) could have come into contact with fishermen and become wary of humans as a result.
By the end of my trip the last, very inquisitive, shark seemed to know that there was no real food on offer. She would play with the bait-bucket for a while, and then investigate the strange culinary voyeurs around her.
A beautiful 3.5m-long specimen, she had a number of scratches on her back and a devil-may-care attitude. She knew she was the boss of the sea, as did the Zambezi sharks that approached the sinking scent trail but came up to the bucket only after she had gone.
The bait-bucket dive lasts as long as your air does. The 14m depth gives you over an hour, but time flies when a tiger shark is swimming around you. It’s the kind of exciting experience people had before video games got violent, and theme parks made adventure safe.
I would get off the boat grinning like a five-year-old in a sweetshop. Then, once dry, I would turn the corner into a modern shopping centre, and sit down for a very civilised coffee and cake.
As the dark, sticky, sweet chocolate melted in my mouth, I settled back in the comfortable leather chair. Where else in the world could you swim with a tiger shark, and then relax in an exceptional coffee shop within the same hour

PROTEA BANKS HAS A NUMBER of dive sites split between the Northern Pinnacles, Playground and the Southern Peninsula. The latter is where you find the Caves. There the migrating ragged-tooth sharks seek sanctuary from the current and the tiger sharks that prey on them. So most of our reef dives were focused on this site.
A visit to Playground revealed a large potato bass and a couple of giant guitar sharks, but they were too deep for me to reach so late in the dive.
Guitar sharks are around most of the year, but rarely seen. A cross between a ray and a shark, they look like a poorly designed surfboard that swims upside-down. The nose is pointed, the dorsal fin rigid-looking and they swim along the bottom in a comical way, like a magnetic toy dragged around a board by a kid.
The first three dives at the Southern Peninsula turned up nothing. We were dogged with poor vis, warm water and little current. But on the fourth dive, as we dropped through the water column the vis improved, the water cooled, the current was back – and I could see large, dark shapes inside the larger cave.
Looking over the edge of the hole, I counted five sharks. These were the advance guard – the first of many that arrived within days of last year’s date.
By the time I left, there were some 100 sharks around the Caves. When the current runs strongly they stay in them, but when it’s weak they can be found right across this section of the Banks.
We ventured into the Caves as the sharks slowly got used to seeing us.
Some dangled fishing hooks and line, which looked painful and out of place, but I’d rather see a shark with a hook in its jaw that will rust out than a dead shark hanging on a hook.
These raggies were all males; the females come later. They move north as the southern winter approaches, and stay on the Banks for several months before heading south again as the southern summer warms the water.
It could just be the water temperature, or a place to breed – no one knows. What I do know is that this place offers fantastic views of this magnificent shark.
Despite having enough pointed teeth to stop them closing their mouth, these are docile creatures that amble around as if half-asleep. That’s why aquariums like them, but a tank (and even the largest aquarium is too small for an ocean-going creature) is no place for such an animal.
Some we saw were more than 4m long, others less than 1m.
Around the world raggies are known as grey nurse sharks or sand tiger sharks, and to science as Carcharias taurus.
They are listed as vulnerable by the IUCN and critically endangered in Australia, so South Africa’s population is extremely important globally, yet they do not live in a protected area.
The numbers at Protea seem stable, according to Roland and Beulah Mauz, the owners of African Dive Adventures.
They have kept meticulous records of shark sightings over the past 10 years or so, which is heartening news.
Found in all the world’s tropical and temperate oceans, raggies feed primarily on fish. They are thought to be mostly nocturnal hunters, and are the only shark known to leap from the surface and gulp air, which they keep in their stomachs to neutralise their buoyancy.
Most shark species need to keep swimming to maintain a constant depth. Even nurse or cat sharks that can remain still instead of swimming do so on the seabed. Leaping could be what fish did before they developed a swim bladder, and I saw it first-hand as we approached the dive site one day.
Ahead of the boat, a grey shape lifted from the water almost up to its tail before flopping back again. A raggie was showing off its evolutionary distinction from other sharks!
To get close to the sharks meant being slow, careful and calm. Any sudden movement would spook them, and they would take off with a clap that sounded like a shotgun going off.
Luckily for them, at 36m time wasn’t on our side, and we had to leave all too soon for the slow rise to the surface.
The 27-32m average depth of Protea Banks could put some people off, but against that is the generally good visibility and warm water. Dive times are always around 45 minutes, because the slow ascent looking for sharks on the way up extends the time in the water, and you never know what might approach you from the ocean.
Divers do need buoyancy skills and confidence in the water, but contrary to popular myth this is not hard diving. If it was, African Dive Adventures wouldn’t attract the likes of Hugh and Klaus, both divers in their 70s.
Hugh, an Englishman, was diving pretty much every day for three weeks. Ignore people who say that Protea is hard to dive or that it doesn’t have any sharks – Hugh came only to see the sharks and he loves the place. It was his second visit.
Klaus, a retired clergyman, lives close by and dives every couple of weeks, dispelling any idea that the diving here is only for the brave.
As Kyle asked Brian for permission to beach for the last time during my trip, I reflected on Protea Banks.
On paper it could be seen as a tricky dive location with not much to see, but here’s the thing. I saw more species of shark here than anywhere else in the world. I found the diving a challenge, but not hard, no harder than the Maldives.
As for the surf launch and recovery, when the smile on my face subsides I’ll be able to tell you how much fun they are, too.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: South Africa Airlines flies several times a day from London to Johannesburg and then on hourly flights to Durban. The modern aircraft offer good leg room in Economy and 20kg extra for dive gear.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: African Dive Adventures has accommodation to suit everyone, including a self-catering house for dive groups, a high-quality apartment for couples and even access to beach-front apartments at Shelly Beach, www.africandiveadventures.co.za. Also check the daily dive logs at www.facebook.com/pages/African-Dive-Adventures/165181393520087
WHEN TO GO: Ragged-tooth sharks: May-November. Tiger sharks: November-May. Hammerheads: November-February. Zambezi and blacktip sharks: year round.
MONEY: Rand.
PRICES: A package including flights from London to Durban via Dubai with Emirates, transfers, seven nights B&B and 12 dives starts from £1635 per head (two sharing). Contact Safari Diver, UK agent for African Dive Adventures, 01428 644501, www.safaridiver.co.uk .
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.southafrica.net