“From the coast of the Antarctic Ocean northwards, along the meridian of 20°E to Cape Agulhas (34°50’S - 20°00’E), the southern extremity of the Republic of South Africa (the common limit with the South Atlantic Ocean). From the region of
The changes in temperature along the coast are responsible for changes in marine life. A very visible example is prolific kelp (Ecklonia maxima) forests that prefer the colder, nutrient-rich waters of the West Coast. It is significant to note that kelp grows all along the West Coast, past Cape Point in an easterly direction, as far as
In the early years the area around the southernmost point of Africa that eventually became the Overberg district, was very thinly populated and could even be seen as being cut off from Cape Town. Over several centuries thousands of ships successfully circumnavigated the Cape between various European countries and the mysterious East. Due to reasons that was not always clear at the time, at least 140 ships perished along the Overberg coastline and the area has thus long also been known as the Graveyard of Ships. Governor Simon van der Stel sent Olaf Berg and the slave Pay Mina to do salvage work on the Johanna (1682) and Nostra Senhora de los Milagros (1686). Pay Mina was therefore the first person to dive in the seas on both sides of the southernmost point when he managed to bring out artifacts from both these wrecks for the VOC.
Before the Second World War very few people dared to dive in the sea as they feared it to be full of dangerous monsters and animals. After the War the British Admiralty sent Risdon Beasley to salvage the copper from the wreck of the Julia Luckenbach (1943) which had sunk not very far from Cape Agulhas after a collusion with another ship. Beasley’s team, with the salvage ship Twyford, managed to salvage about 1000 tonnes of copper by 1956 from this relatively deep wreck. By this time the technological advances of diving equipment and its more easily availability led to the creation of the legendary South African diving salvage team of Tubby Gericke and Brian Clark. In their search for tin, and assisted by one of the very first underwater magnetometers in the country, they managed to find most of the wrecks around the southernmost point. Tubby and Brian were also Springbok spearos and discovered and explored many of the reefs in the area. In 1965 they were the first spearos to dive on the Five-mile Banks and Tubby wrote a memorable story about that day and the thousands of fish they saw. Today both Tubby and Brian has passed along and it is sad to realise how many of their wonderful stories will now never be told. The next group to target wrecks in the area was Aqua Exploration, led by the well-known Charlie Shapiro, and their biggest success was the discovery in the late 1990’s of the VOC ship Brederode (1785).
Since the 1980’s divers have been streaming to Struis Bay/Agulhas/Arniston during summer to explore the underwater world where the Indian and Atlantic oceans really meet. While it has for many years been more of a spearfishing paradise, the increasing development of the district has meant that more and more SCUBA divers are turning up, also wanting the experience of diving with fish and sharks.
Mention the tip of Africa to any diver and images of yellowtail and Great White Sharks are conjured. Before you attempt to dive at the southernmost tip of Africa (romantic-sounding as it is), gather as much information as possible from local divers as diving in this area can be very treacherous. Diving from a boat is non-negotiable if you want to explore the reefs and wrecks.
Diving usually takes place in summer though after a typical
Due to El Nino conditions over the past few years, dving conditions have been unfavourable more often than not. Flash floods in late winter also result in rivers coming down which in turn pollute shallow reefs with silt. As there are quite a few websites that feature very good weather prediction reports, divers have a greater measure of success when planning dive trips. Accommodation is easy to find; boat charters for fishing are available but dive skippers are hard to come by. A compressor is available in Struisbaai and the hiring of equipment can be arranged. This is mainly spearo country though but some of the best Cape scuba diving can also be done in this area. Because of the nutrient-rich waters caused by the water surge where the oceans meet, beautiful coral and aquatic fans as well as lots of fish can be seen on the numerous pinnacles. Due to the
The development of the southernmost point of Africa is closely linked to the sea because it has always been seen as the halfway point in the ship routes between Europe and the East. The earliest seafarers to sail around this point was reputed to be the Phoenicians in around 600 BC. There is also a legend that the Chinese admiral Cheng He sailed this waters in 1422 with a fleet of Chinese junks. According to Lawrence Green the remnants of what was thought to be a junk was excavated on the Cape Flats but carried away for firewood before the authorities could have a closer look. The most well-known historical facts was the first Portuguese sailors to sail around the Cape namely Diaz and da Gama, who named Cabo dos Agulhas (Cape of Needles) since their compasses showed true north. The first Hollander was de Houtman while Sir Francis Drake’s also sailed past in his circumnavigation of the globe. There were many reasons why about 140 ships, from the thousands that sailed past, sank or foundered between Quoin Point and Skipskop. The thinly populated district of those days still have names that was derived from some of these wrecks with Arniston probably being the most famous due to the wreck of the ship with the same name in 1815. The oldest known shipwreck was the Zoetendal (1673) and the freshwater lake discovered by the survivors is still today called Zoetendalsvlei (it is the largest freshwater lake in South Africa). Places like Skipskop, Ryspunt, Martha’s reef, Miles Barton reef, Atlas reef, Taljanerbaai, St Mungo Bay, Otto Bay, Saxon reef, Schoonbergbaai, Northumberland reef, and many others were named after shipwrecks.
Ships that were wrecked on or close to the shore were sold by auction on the nearest beach and at least one of these beaches is still called ‘Die Winkel’ (The Shop). These shipwreck auctions can also be called the first shops in the district as most farmhouses eventually had some ships’ furniture. Sails, wood and iron were scarce trading commodities at the time and were all necessary when building a farmhouse, and some of the oldest houses today has ships’ timbers for all their roof beams. Shipwreck survivors married into the district and added their knowledge into the building style of the day, for instance, the fishermen’s houses of Arniston has their precedent in Irish and Scots style of building of two centuries ago. The earliest roads to this coast was made by Olaf Bergh’s wagons to salvage the Johanna (1682) and the Nostra Senhora de los Milagros (1686). Bergh was later thrown into the Castle’s dungeon for stealing from the latter wreck and burying his loot in the yard of his house in Stellenbosch. Today these old roads are the modern throughfares to ever-growing coastal towns. The stranding of the Schonenberg (1722) has been described in several books, while the saga of the slaver Meermin (1766) would make a very good movie. The most luxurious ship of its day, The Queen of the Thames (1871) ran onto Atlas reef on its maiden journey, and thus contributed its share to the the local houses’ furniture. The Eastern Province (1865), in its day the fastest sailing ship on the route between London and Cape Town, was wrecked at the mouth of the Ratel River. The tragic stories of the Doncastor (1836), Arniston (1815) and La Souvenance (1871), all with great loss of life, are well-known. Hundreds of shipwrecked sailors and passengers are buried in the dunes of the coast. Many other ships disappeared completely with no survivors or wreckage to show where the tragedy took place. During the Second World War German U-Boats were responsible for the sinking of many ships including the Queen Anne, Storaas and Agwimonte (all in 1943). In more modern times the strandings of the Wafra (1971) and Oriental Pioneer (1975) made front page news. Many of the forgotten wrecks were found by Tubby Gericke and Brian Clark in their search for the tin wrecks like Willem de Zwyger (1836), Borderer (1868) and the Juno (1852). Once the salvage operation of Aqua Exploration’s biggest discovery, the Brederode (1785), commences, it should make newspaper front pages all around the world as not for nothing has it long been known as one of the Top Ten missing wrecks in the world.
Today many a ships’ name given to a place, house or street are the sole and silent testimony to the many tragic shipwrecks that has taken place along this coast.
If the weather is bad or the viz is poor (for diving that is), you will find enough other activities to fill your time. Amongst these are beach combing, a visit to either the southernmost African lighthouse or the southernmost tip of