Our VIP diver

Paul Russell, not only our web designer, Paul is a dear friend and THE VIP diver of Aqua Planet Dive Centre and Charter (he even has the t-shirt to prove it … lol). From the moment Paul walked into the dive centre, in 2015, there was no stopping this bubble blowing enthusiast … with a massive passion for sharks and scuba diving, he is one of Aqua Planet Dive Centre and Charters ‘ambassadors’. When Paul is not diving … his real job is a web designer … and boy oh boy … did he design a GREAT website for Aqua Planet Dive Centre and Charter … for which we will be forever indebted, thank you Paul. Paul has been so kind as to share his experience with us about Protea Banks … and has included a few tips, for those wanting to visit this incredible dive site. Enjoy the read!!

This is Protea Banks through the eyes of Paul:

Having lived all my life inland, I remember all too vividly my reaction to a huge billboard on the side of the main road advertising shark cage diving, shortly after relocating to the South Coast of KwaZulu-Natal. It was simply this – “Whatever idiot is stupid enough to get into the deep blue sea with sharks in it, cage or not, deserves to be eaten!” – and that remained my firm sentiment for the next year and a half. To cut a long story short, I gradually got exposed to the world of diving through a friend, and finally was offered the opportunity to redesign Aqua Planet’s website, and the payment would be … a dive course or two! Now the only thing that made me actually take this offer seriously was that I knew that my wife had always wanted to dive. I on the other hand was still nothing short of petrified! Happy wife, happy life as they say, so I decided to take the plunge and well, the rest is history!

5 years and around 70 dives later, I can only say that I am forever indebted to the people who opened this world up to me! It has been an adventure like no other! I have become a hopelessly addicted diving junkie (even though I don’t dive as often as I’d like to), an ocean ambassador, and to my non-diving friends, nothing short of a Jehovah’s Witness.

I still consider myself a relatively inexperienced diver as I’ve only really had the opportunity to dive 2 reefs in my diving adventures – Aliwal Shoal, and Protea Banks. Of my 70 odd dives, a good 60 of them have been on Protea Banks.

So why Protea Banks? The short answer is this – there is nowhere else in the world (so I’m told) where you have the opportunity of seeing such a wide diversity of large sea life, i.e. sharks, dolphins, whales, etc., on one single dive site. Every few months, this dynamic reef puts out a new spread of underwater experiences for you, and make no mistake, some of these experiences are indescribable.

One of my most memorable experiences was rolling off the boat with the Skipper’s last words still ringing in my ears, “Just hang on a second”, but it was too late, I had started rolling before I could react. I dropped into the water with a classic negative entry kick or two at the surface, only to roll over and discover a huge 4m+ Tiger shark, only an arm’s length away. I almost landed on top of it! Seemingly completely unperturbed by my sudden entrance into his world, I looked around to find a Zambezi (Bull) shark not far away, and not far behind him, an Oceanic Blacktip shark. I then started looking for the other 2 divers who had dropped in seconds before me, but they were nowhere to be seen. So I got to spend about a minute, 3m below the surface, completely alone, being curiously ‘checked out’ by these 3 sharks (the other 2 divers had done a positive entry and were still around the other side of the boat). Relating this story to my non-diving friends in days to come, I was many times asked the question, “Weren’t you scared?” and the answer was simple – “not at all!”.

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Wait, hold on a second! 4 paragraphs ago, I was saying how terrified I was of sharks, and here I couldn’t get off the boat fast enough because the skipper had spotted a Tiger shark and encouraged us to get in quickly to see it! What happened? Well if you’re a diver, then I shouldn’t need to explain, but if you are not, then the answer is this – Protea Banks and Aqua Planet Dive Centre & Charter.

From the moment I put my head underwater and took my first breath, I knew I was going to love this. Now that didn’t remove my fear of sharks, but as I listened to countless stories and experiences from other divers and the staff at Aqua Planet, I slowly started to understand that my perception of sharks and the danger that they are to us as humans was completely and utterly wrong! So when I eventually had my first shark encounter, ironically, snorkelling on a baited dive, and I had a couple of Oceanic Blacktip sharks come in really nice and close, I realized almost instantly that I had nothing to worry about. In fact, within minutes, such a fascination started growing in me, that now, I just can’t get enough of them!

It is all thanks to Kym and the team at Aqua Planet, who very soon became like family, for introducing me to this beautiful blue playground, encouraging me through those ‘less than ideal dives’ and continually inspiring me to learn more, experience more and care more! Their passion for what they do is infectious and the care taken to make one’s diving experience as good as possible made me feel like a VIP. I once expressed my appreciation of this fact, and it wasn’t long after, that I was presented with the one and only Aqua Planet VIP diving t-shirt! What do you know, they even have a sense of humour sometimes!

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So if you’re contemplating learning to dive, I’m going to draw on Nike’s slogan “Just do it”! Put your concerns and fears in your pocket and get into the water! You will not regret one minute of it! Granted, diving is not for everyone, but give it a go. If you’re worried about spending the price of a full Open Water Course, without knowing whether or not you’ll enjoy it, then why not start with the very inexpensive DSD course which offers you the opportunity to experience scuba in a very easy and controlled environment. My biggest regret is not starting my diving adventures earlier!

If you’re an Advanced Open Water diver, and looking for a new dive site to experience, I do believe you’ve just struck gold! Protea Banks is a hidden gem of a diving site. For a more detailed explanation of the unique qualities of Protea Banks, be sure to read Peter’s blog post! His extensive diving experiences certainly add more weight to his claims about Protea Banks and why it’s his dive site of choice.

Should you already have booked your dive with Aqua Planet and are wanting to know what to expect, then you should expect anything. Protea Banks is incredibly unpredictable. However, here are a couple of things that will help you on your dive:

  1. Given that it is an advanced dive, make sure that you’re comfortable at depths of over 30m. If you’re prone to ‘narking’ or battle with equalizing, come down at your own pace, but don’t let go of the buoy line on your way down.
  2. The current is often times pretty strong – for example, you drop off the boat above one section of the reef, and 50 – 60 minutes later when you get back on the boat, you have drifted anything up to 7km+ underwater. These strong currents, combined with the sometimes lower visibility can result in some rather intense dives. The main thing, in these conditions is to stay in a nice tight group, and be ever aware of your dive buddy and where the Divemaster holding the buoy line is. You lose sight of him/her, and you’re technically lost at sea! If you have a camera, then this suggestion is specially for you – don’t get so lost in your shot that you lose yourself in the process – this wrecks the dive for everyone, not just yourself! I’m sorry to say that I have had the displeasure of diving with very experienced divers who have insisted on doing their own thing in such conditions and due to their lack of awareness and consideration, have caused some very stressful situations for all the rest of the divers, not to mention the Divemaster who is doing their utmost to keep everyone alive! Just show some respect to your fellow divers, that’s all!
  3. If you battle with seasickness, maybe this dive site is not the place to try be tough – go get some pills, take them well enough in advance, eat some breakfast, and when you’re on the boat, keep yourself as distracted as possible from any thoughts of being sick! I have found this to be a great recipe for keeping my breakfast to myself. The ride out to Protea Banks can be quite a wet and wild experience.
  4. Take as little with you on the boat! I generally take a bottle of water and my glasses (can’t really see too much without the latter) – that’s it! Obviously there is room for your camera etc. on the boat which is best to be stashed away while loading up the boat at the dive centre – trying to do this during the launch is not going to make you very popular with the skipper.
  5. Listen to the Divemaster’s briefing carefully and ask anything that you’re unsure of. Rather ask a stupid question and know what to do, than become a liability to the whole group because you couldn’t put your pride in your pocket for a second.
  6. When the skipper asks you to do something, do it immediately. Although the launch may not always seem that rough, the nature of the launch site has earned it the reputation of being one of the most dangerous launch sites in South Africa. This is not a problem for Aqua Planet’s highly experienced skippers, but in order for them to do their job, they need you to cooperate. Do what they say first – you can ask them ‘why’ later!
  7. As much as I would love every diver to experience the fullness of what Protea Banks has to offer on their visit, one has to be aware that we’re all still at the mercy of mother nature. So come expectant for a great experience, but if you’re only doing one or two dives, you may not be fortunate enough to have the epic Protea experience – on the other hand, your first dive you may see over 5 species of sharks with a pod of dolphins thrown in for good measure and the second dive, you may be surrounded with a shoal of 2000+ Hammerheads! Your best bet is to come for as long as possible and get a good number of dives in to make sure you have one of those epic dives.
  8. Lastly, come with a positive, friendly attitude! The staff at Aqua Planet love what they do, they are passionate about diving and are eager to share their exciting reef with you and the many experiences they’ve had over the last few decades!

All I can say in conclusion, is that I really hope you get to experience some of the many spectacular underwater encounters I’ve had the privilege of experiencing on Protea Banks! Thank you once again to Kym and the team for making my every visit to Aqua Planet make me feel like a VIP! Hope to see you on Protea Banks soon!

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