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Taking the plunge - a beginner's guide to snorkeling in Cape Town

Updated: Dec 19, 2021


Camps Bay and the Atlantic ocean. Pic by Taryn Elliot

Have you ever wanted to dip your toe into the underwater world of snorkeling, but have been unsure of where to start? Through countless of my own day-trips I’ve found some beautiful little havens in which to explore the underwater world with confidence and admiration. I hope the following tips will be a guide for you to do the same :)



GEAR


The bare minimum you need for snorkeling:


  • Mask & snorkel

  • Mayyybe a wetsuit (see my reasons below)


This is seriously all you need to give snorkeling your first go. Yes, I know most people you see are wearing wetsuits, weight belts, and flippers. But these mostly add comfort and maneuverability. You can get yourself a decent mask and snorkel for anything between R300 – R600 at Sportsman’s Warehouse. Make sure you fit that mask on before you buy it though and check that it seals properly on your face. (Most salespeople will be able to assist you with this).


Now if you’ve never swum in the Atlantic Ocean before, I would definitely recommend a wetsuit. However, if you can slowly get used to the temperatures, snorkeling without a wetsuit is the full immersive experience. There’s something about feeling the water and the kelp moving past your skin that is so deeply calming and soothing.


Extras

  • Flippers – you can manage without flippers but it makes for more comfortable swimming and means you can see more underwater because you can cover more "ground" quickly.

  • Weight belt – Only if you are planning to dive and do long explorations. The weight belt helps to prevent you from bobbing up when you want to dive and stay down. However, for a beginner, it might be overwhelming because it also lessens your buoyancy at the surface. I personally hate them, and would rather grab onto kelp to descend than have a weight belt.


Lol, so cold my eyes can't open anymore! But worth it :)

SAFETY


Whilst I’m an avid supporter of doing things alone, I would recommend trying out these snorkeling spots with a buddy at first. It can be daunting rocking up at a beach solo, not to mention getting into very cold water and putting your head into it. Then there’s everything you’ll see! Sometimes is quite freaky at first to see so much depth under you in the water, and having a friend in the water next to you can help. However, once you get used to that feeling, exploring the kelp forests can be massively rewarding (even on your own).

This also might seem like an obvious tip, but if you are trying this for the first time, make sure you go at your own pace. If you only feel comfortable in water that you can stand in, by all means, enjoy the feeling for as long as you need! Snorkeling is about admiring the underwater world, not about trying to become The Octopus Teacher in one day. If you have a friend that keeps pushing you to dive deeper or hold your breath for longer, kindly tell them that you’ve got this and that they are most welcome to push themselves if they feel comfortable. The goal of your first session is to leave wanting more, not to be traumatized.



WHERE TO GO


ALL THE TIDAL POOLS (CAMPS BAY, ST JAMES) It really cannot get safer than this. The water here will be slightly warmer than in the ocean (but don’t be fooled, it’s still gonna be icy!), and there will probably be a bunch of cold-water-immersion-people about, so you shouldn't feel too alone. Afterward, you can spoil yourself to a coffee at one of the many hipster coffee shops that surround these tidal pools. My favourite is OKJA on the Camps Bay strip.

Things to see: little shoals of fish, sea urchins, sometimes even a lonely octopus.


Pic by Taryn Elliot

BETA BEACH AND BONDI BEACH (IN BAKHOVEN)

These two beaches face each other, over the same little bay. Both beaches are very popular when the weather is good, but not many people brave the water, so you will have loads of space to explore. Low tide often offers calmer conditions, but then it’s hard to wade through all the kelp that are sticking their heads out of the water. High tide provides easier swimming.

If you want to try holding your breath underwater, you can use a single kelp to pull yourself down a little bit, making sure to stay relaxed, using as little effort as possible (this will conserve your breath). I would personally recommend blowing air out gently as you go down, as a reminder that you’re underwater and shouldn’t breathe in at this point. But I’ve heard that you can also take the snorkel out of your mouth when you descend below the surface – so that when you pop back up you can take a nice fat in-breath.

Things to see: shoals of fish, rockfish of different colours and sizes (they can get as big as a pawpaw!), pajama sharks (they’re tiny and harmless, not to worry), tiny shrimp colonies, jellyfish, octopus, crabs, crayfish, and sometimes an inquisitive seal.


Getting some sun after a quick exploration of Bondi Bay (opposite Beta Beach in Camps Bay)

OUDEKRAAL AND COSY BEACH

Oudekraal is a SANParks area and requires an entrance fee of around R40. The reserve has lovely nooks and crannies where you can picnic, braai, and set up for the day, so this is a great option if you have some friends along. Go early, as it gets very busy. There are a variety of little bays that you can explore, some being more sandy whilst others are more kelpy and in between big granite boulders.


Just opposite the Twelve Apostles Hotel, is Cosy Beach. This is a favourite spot for free-divers and scuba-divers, and you can often see the wetsuit-cladded humans busy gearing up or gearing down next to their cars. The beach is tiny, but there are big boulders you can explore surrounding the bay. What makes this spot extra special is the seal colony that lives on a big granite rock, about 50m out to sea. If you’re feeling brave (and take someone with you), you can swim out in that direction and hope that a young, inquisitive seal will come out to meet you. However, don’t get too close to the rock, as the parents can become protective (and they do have teeth). Even if you don’t get to swim with a seal, the kelp around this area is beautiful and well worth the exploration.


Things to see: Basically all the things you could see at Beta Beach, but maybe even bigger things, because this bay is a little more out into the ocean than Beta Beach.


Oudekraal, overlooked by the Twelve Apostles. Pic credit Cape Town Magazine

WINDMILL BEACH, SIMONSTOWN

It would be wrong to talk about snorkeling spots and not mention Windmill Beach. Its popularity stems from the fact that it’s just around the corner from the touristy Boulder’s Beach. You get the same ocean and sometimes even some penguin action, without paying the entrance fee next door. Being on the Indian Ocean side (False Bay), this spot is also significantly warmer than its Atlantic brothers.

Be sure to visit Simon’s Town for fish & chips after your snorkel :)

Things to see: shoals of fish, pajama sharks, penguins, seals, loads of sea urchins, octopus, crabs, crayfish, starfish, rockfish, potentially small sharks.


Windmill Beach. Pic credit holidayapartments.co.za

If you're ready to up your game and check out some more advanced snorkeling spots, here's some great extras that I didn't mention above. Just make sure you know how to get to these (sometimes a long swim or a boat ride is needed): https://www.cometocapetown.com/8-best-snorkeling-spots-cape-town/


See you out there in the kelp forest!

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