10 ocean adventures fans of ‘My Octopus Teacher’ can enjoy in SA
From a walking sea safari to snorkeling with seals, there are many ways you can have an unforgettable encounter with our country's marine life
On the international awards circuit, the South African documentary My Octopus Teacher is proving to have as many tentacles as its silent star, sucking up virtually every prize that's out there, including the Holy Grail of movie accolades, this year's Best Documentary Feature Oscar.
Its dreamy scenes of freediver Craig Foster drifting among the kelp forests of False Bay and, of course, his endearing relationship with the octopus, have no doubt piqued many people's interest in the ocean as a destination in itself.
Admittedly, none of the following are likely to lead to your becoming besties with a sweetly sensitive mollusc, but there are several ways to have your own sea-life encounters, appropriate for all levels of adventurousness and budgets.
1. SNORKEL WITH SEALS
Plett Seal Adventures will take you on a 20-minute boat ride from Hobie Beach in Plettenberg Bay to a 6,000-strong seal colony in the marine-protected waters of the Robberg Nature Reserve for a guided snorkelling adventure.
The trips are 90 minutes in total, with 30 minutes in the water.
If you don't fancy actually getting in, you can go along as a spectator (the price remains the same). They also have trips where everyone just enjoys the seal action from the boat.
The cost is R895 pp. See plettsealadventures.co.za.
2. A WALKING SEA SAFARI
Visitors to De Hoop Nature Reserve in the Western Cape's Overberg can book a two-hour guided marine walk with the De Hoop Collection.
This walking trail takes you, at low tide, along coastal rock pools and sandy beaches while a qualified guide will point out — and often let you handle — the interesting marine life found along the way.
The cost is R250pp. See dehoopcollection.com.
3. LEARN TO FREEDIVE
Those most serious about gliding in Foster's wake will have to go under with no more oxygen than what their lungs can hold.
For beginners, Cape Town Freediving has recreational courses that focus on the skills and safety aspects of open-ocean freediving. The entry-level course will have you reaching up to 10m deep.
If you're comfier on the surface, they also do snorkelling trips, and weekend wellness retreats on which, besides exploring "the magical African sea forest", on-land experiences include yoga classes and breathing exercises.
The two-day, entry-level freediver course is R3,200. Find out more at capetownfreediving.com.
4. LAPS OF LUXURY
If you're an opulence-loving sort, make a meal of it with a stay at Tintswalo Boulders in Simon's Town, which has a two-night package for exploring the underwater world of False Bay, where My Octopus Teacher was filmed. The plush hotel has unobstructed views across the delightful Boulders Beach penguin colony.
It includes two nights' accommodation with breakfast and some other meals/snacks, plus guided snorkelling through kelp forests in the marine-protected area of the Table Mountain National Park, and kayaking through the protected coves of Boulders Beach.
The cost is R5,250 per person sharing (SA residents' special). See tintswalo.com.
5. SHOW UP FOR SHARKS
Marine Dynamics offers shark-cage diving in Gansbaai, Western Cape, with marine biologists on board the custom-built boat to up the education factor. Meanwhile, you're lowered into the water in a cage on the side of the boat, in the hopes of seeing great whites, copper sharks and even the occasional stingray pass by. If you don't fancy submersion, you can also watch from the boat.
The strategy of chumming to attract the sharks is controversial, but Marine Dynamics has been the recipient of several responsible tourism awards, and says its mission is to operate "with due care for the marine and terrestrial environment" and also to boost conservation awareness in its visitors. It also invests heavily in research as a means of contributing to conservation, and part of your spend goes towards that goal.
The cost is R1,500 per adult, R850 for children under 12 (South African special rates). See sharkwatchsa.com.
6. INLAND LEARNING
Landlocked Gautengers need not feel left out — several schools around Joburg will teach you how to dive in giant pools, and then take you on underwater adventures both around SA and in foreign climes. Some noteworthy options include:
Urban Dive in Northcliff, which has several courses for beginners, who learn the basics in a 3m-deep pool and then head off to a "dive dam" at Miracle Waters near Hartbeespoort for the open-water practice required for the Padi certification. The entry-level course is R5,495, which includes six sessions of about three hours each, ending in a Padi certification and the ability to dive to 18m. See urbandive.co.za.
Another option is Scubaversity in Roodepoort, which in addition to courses in both scuba diving and freediving has self-study options where you can work through the theory in your own time. See scubaversity.co.za.
Baby steps? Scuba Evolution in Glenvista has a dip-your-toe in programme for R500, where you can experience the basics of diving in a pool without certification. See scubaevolution.co.za.
Once you're up and swimming, a great closer-to-Jozi dive site is Marico Oog, pictured above, near Lichtenburg in North West. This is a natural spring made up of several crystal-clear interlinking pools, all surrounded by reeds and filled with water lilies, whose stems create a magical underwater forest. See marico-oog.co.za.
Mpumalanga also has an inland diving option at Komati Springs, about 320km from Joburg. This former mine now filled with natural groundwater boasts an intricate cave system and a fully equipped diver centre. See komatisprings.com.
7. THE GREATEST SHOAL ON EARTH
Each year from May to July, billions of sardines migrate up the East Coast of SA from the southern Cape to KwaZulu-Natal. Travelling in huge shoals, they stay close to the surface and shoreline and attract a vast array of predators, including birds, larger fish, sharks, whales and dolphins — all creating a spectacular opportunity for humans to witness some incredible sea action.
Myriad operators have trips to witness the run, both from boats and getting into the water.
Operating out of East London, Blue Wilderness has a seven-night, all-inclusive package with five days at sea for R38,000. They also have a day-trip special where South Africans can join the expedition (space permitting) at almost 50% below the standard rate. See bluewilderness.co.za.
8. THE AGE OF AQUARIUMS
Aquariums, of course, offer the easiest way to commune with the creatures of the deep without getting wet. But they do offer immersive experiences too.
At Cape Town's Two Oceans, absolute beginners can do a two-hour course, after which you get to dive in the Ocean Exhibit tank with turtles and stingrays for R850. Those with an open-water qualification can dive in the kelp forest or shark tank for R950.
If you'd prefer to stay (almost) dry for your creature interaction, their Penguin Experience gets you a private hangout with a guide and some adorably quirky rockhopper penguins. R750 for adults, R600 for children aged 8-17 (cheaper for members).
The above prices include the basic entry price, which is R210 for adults and R160 for children aged 14-17 and R100 for 4-13. See aquarium.co.za.
In Durban, Sea World at Ushaka is the self-proclaimed largest aquarium in the southern hemisphere and also has several interactive experiences on offer. These include walking "like an astronaut" on the floor of the Open Ocean exhibit (R195 per person) and cage diving in the shark tank (R213). Find these and more at ushakamarineworld.co.za.
9. RAYS YOUR GAME
Rated among the world's top 10 dive sites by iconic French explorer Jacques Cousteau, Aliwal Shoal, 4km off the coast of Umkomaas in KwaZulu-Natal, is a famed spot for swimming with black tip and ragged tooth sharks.
Last year, PhD student Michelle Carpenter discovered that it's also an important site for highly endangered shortfin devil rays, which use the area as a cleaning station (which they visit to have parasites removed or wounds cleaned by cleaner fish). Having visited the site almost daily since last year, Carpenter says she's been overwhelmed by the ray diversity as well as the numbers encountered. "Aliwal Shoal has even more diversity in terms of rays than it does sharks," she says.
Several companies in the area offer scuba and freediving lessons, but for extra insights on the rays, Carpenter's partner Kent Taylor owns Freediving South Africa, whose courses focus on learning how to interact with marine creatures at depth.
Their one-day, entry-level freediving course is R1,750. See freedivingsouthafrica.com.
10. TACKLE COASTEERING
Otherwise known as "extreme rockpooling", coasteering entails exploring the intertidal zone of a rocky coastline on foot or by swimming. The term is a combination of the words "mountaineering" and "coast".
Gravity Micro Adventures in Simon's Town is the first company to offer the experience in SA. A two-hour excursion includes rock jumping, swimming through kelp forests and snorkelling.
The cost is R695 per person for groups of two to four; R650 for groups of five to 12. See gravity.co.za.