Swimming safely at SA’s magnificent beaches this summer

By Staff Writer


With 2,800km of coastline, two distinctly different marine ecosystems, two different oceans and seas ranging from the most dangerous to the safest and most placid waters, it is only natural that South Africa has a large number of the most magnificent beaches in the world.


Think of our beaches and names like South Beach, Clifton, Bikini Beach, Santos, King’s Beach, Gonubie, Umhlanga, Sodwana Bay, Plettenberg Bay, Langebaan, Port St John’s or Muizenberg immediately come to mind. But there are many, many more.


Because of the great variety in location and natural conditions at these many beaches, questions arise. Which are the safest? What safety measures are in place? Which are family beaches and which are populated by younger crowds? Which have the best facilities? What about crime? Which are the nicest and best for swimming or water sports? What should one beware of?


Answering these questions for the entire coastline would fill a book. But we have compiled a short list of some of the most popular beaches, as well as a brief guide covering some of the general dos and don’ts applying to all beaches, and what to expect at some of the more popular or better-known beaches.


Just follow a few simple rules and you’ll be safe to enjoy our beaches to the fullest, taking home lifelong memories of the good times you’ll have. Ignore the rules, and tragedy could strike at any moment. But above all, enjoy the great pleasures and variety to be had from South Africa’s many magnificent beaches.


Most Popular & Best Beaches


In compiling a list of South Africa’s best and most popular beaches, an injustice is committed: they are all “best” and popular, each offering its own unique attractions. But yes, some are safer for swimmers than others; some are less crowded than others; and some offer better facilities. As we cannot list them all, here is just a small sample of some of them.


Clifton, Cape Town


Cape Town’s world-famous Clifton beach consists of 4 beaches – first, second, third and fourth beach. All of them are well-protected by the steep rise of the mountain behind them from any howling summertime Southeaster, contributing to Clifton’s popularity, but the water is a little on the icy side. 4th Beach is popular with the younger in-crowd, although it is also popular as a family beach. But it is here the tanned and trim bodies come to show off. Clifton is also a favourite with foreign tourists, adding to its atmosphere. Snow-white sand, placidly lapping azure blue water, yachts anchored close to the beach, a spectacular backdrop of mountain and luxurious bungalows, mansions and apartment blocks, as well as trendy crowds, good ablution and beach shower facilities, beach police, alert life guards and Blue Flag status make Clifton what it is. In addition you are just a short walk away from some really good restaurants and pubs for an after-beach sundowner or snack. Clifton is also where you will find some of the most expensive real estate in Africa. Traffic and finding parking on popular beach days can be a problem, so consider using public transport. Move over, Rio’s Copacabana beach.


Umhlanga, north of Durban


The golden sands of Umhlanga and the warm Indian Ocean draw millions of people to this beach annually, a favourite with locals and tourists alike. Close to Durban’s international airport and buzzing shopping malls, the wide beaches are lined with exclusive hotels and apartment blocks. At sundown people take to the O’Connor promenade that stretches all the way from Durban View Park to Breakers and the start of the Umhlanga Lagoon Nature Reserve. After a day on the beach you can make your way to one of the many excellent pubs and restaurants nearby. The safe swimming waters of Umhlanga makes it ideal for families with small children. In the past it has achieved Blue Flag status, designating it as clean, safe, aesthetically pleasing, and promoting environmental responsibility.


Santos Beach, Mossel Bay


Just before the start of South Africa’s famous Garden Route lies the bustling town of Mossel Bay with its magnificent beaches, premier of which is Santos Beach. The Victorian-style beach pavilion built in 100 years ago and the only remaining one in South Africa, now housing apartments and a restaurant, is an iconic landmark of the town and beach. Nowhere will you find safer, more placid swimming waters than here, while boats and yachts criss-cross the deeper waters from the nearby Mossel Bay Yacht Club. The beach, with its light golden sand and thatched umbrellas, offers stunning views of the hillside town, the harbour, and across the waters, the imposing Outeniqua Mountains. Pubs, restaurants, shops and museums are all within walking distance. Sea temperatures range between a comfortable 20 to 22 degrees Celsius during the summer months and 13 to 14 degrees Celsius in winter. Lifeguards are on duty between November and January. Facilities are excellent and the beach has Blue Flag status along with several other Mossel Bay beaches.


Hobie Beach, Port Elizabeth


Port Elizabeth, part of the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro, has a string of popular beaches along its pleasant coastline, but arguably the most popular is Hobie Beach. In summer you will be challenged to find an open spot among the many colourful umbrellas packed onto the beach, which is also the venue for the annual “Splash Festival”, beach volleyball and world boardsailing championships. Hobie Beach is a favorite for swimming, sunbathing, body surfing and small-boat sailing, as its name suggests. The beach has Blue Flag status, meaning it is safe, clean and has excellent facilities. Right behind the beach is The Boardwalk and an abundance of restaurants, pubs, shops, a casino, and an aquarium, while jutting into the sea is the landmark Shark Rock Pier.


2nd Beach, Port St Johns, Eastern Cape Wild Coast


Popular with backpackers, surfers and locals, 2nd Beach Port St Johns is less safe or well-serviced than other beaches, with several shark attacks having taken place here. But what it may lack in safety and amenities, it certainly makes up for with some of the most spectacular scenery. If you are looking for an unspoilt beach off the beaten track that will remind you of the popular movie, The Beach, this is it. Powerful Wild Coast waves and a river mouth are set off against a backdrop of forests and green hills dotted with local villagers’ homes. Several backpackers’ lodges are found in the area, as well as some lovely restaurants and watering holes. Just remember, you may have to share the beach with some lazy cows from the nearby farming villages.


Bloubergstrand & Big Bay, Cape Town


Extremely popular with families, the young crowd, surfers, kite surfers and paddle skiers, this beach also offers you the most famous, iconic view across its calm waters – Robben Island and Table Mountain. It is easy to reach, with plenty of parking and convenient public transport, good facilities, and life guards on duty. Adjacent to Big Bay is Eden on the Bay with its luxury apartments, many fine restaurants, surf shops and other stores. On windy summer’s days the bay and other nearby beaches quickly fill up with a multitude of brightly coloured kites with kite surfers performing tricks and amazing high jumps at breakneck speed. And of course, after a hard day’s sun and sea there is the nearby, ever popular Blue Peter Hotel where the beach crowds gather for some refreshing beer and pizzas. You can also make Big Bay the starting point of a refreshing 10km beach hike to Melkbosstrand.


Gonubie Beach, East London


Set in a tranquil, almost rural setting at the mouth of the Gonubie River next to a small village some 10km north of East London, this beach offers the ultimate in laid-back, forget-about-the-world beach experiences. Poke around in the pools and mong the rocks, laze in the warm ocean, or just soak up the sun on the beach. Don’t expect too much in the way of facilities, but bring along all you need for a lazy day’s picnic on the sand. And when you’ve had enough of the sun, head back to nearby East London and all it offers. East London and the surrounding areas of course have a number of other truly wonderful beaches to choose from.


Plettenberg Bay, Eastern Cape


In summer this town transforms into one of South Africa’s most popular playgrounds as holidaymakers fill every corner of the place. It is also a favourite retirement destination for the wealthy. Beach days can range from being windy affairs with choppy seas to absolutely windless days with calm waters. From the main beach you will also always have a view of the iconic Beacon Island Hotel. For a less crowded, more isolated beach experience you van venture out to nearby Keurboomstrand. And when you tire of it all, head into town to sample the many restaurants and pubs. Water sports in all its varieties are popular here, while large rubber inflatables will take groups of visitors on tours of the bay. A real holiday town.


South Beach, Durban


This is another of South Africa’s favourite holiday playgrounds located along Durban’s famous Golden Mile and its Promenade. The backdrop is a high-rise skyline of luxury hotels and apartments. The beach is right at the centre of the city and close to many shops, restaurants, facilities, the famous uShaka Marine World, and many other attractions and activities. Swimming is good all year round in shark-protected, warm Indian Ocean waters. Life guards are on duty and there are ample amenities, while visitors can enjoy some sightseeing with a Zulu rickshaw ride, amusement parks, waterslides, curio markets, or join the ice-cream licking strollers along the Promenade and watch the passing parade. This and other Durban beaches are also very popular with surfers. But be warned, on Christmas and New Year’s days the beach becomes extremely crowded as locals from the surroundings suburbs and inland areas flock to the beach for a day of fun.


Bikini Beach, Gordon’s Bay


Set at the foot of a spectacular mountain backdrop and alongside a busy small-boat harbour and naval academy, Bikini Beach with its white sands and calm sea is hugely popular with locals from the surrounding areas. In summer this beach, and the nearby main beach, quickly fill up with holidaymakers and locals, so go early to find a nice spot.  Bikini Beach has Blue Flag status and offers everything you would expect. It is also a popular social gathering place for students from nearby Stellenbosch University.


These then are just a handful of the many spectacular beaches you will find along the South African coast. There are many, many more to choose from. Enjoy!



Safety Tips When Going To The Beach


Here are some of the dangers to be aware of and the general rules applying to them when going to any of our beaches this summer. Try and find out as much as possible beforehand about the beach where you wish to swim and play: how do the tides affect safety conditions; find out about currents, riptides and backwash – these can all land you in serious trouble instantly; establish whether sharks pose a danger; will you be competing for space in the water with motorised pleasure boats or surfers; are there lifeguards on duty; and beware of blue bottles, also known as the Atlantic Portuguese man o’ war, and their terrible sting.


As their name suggests, blue bottles look like small little blue bubbles or bladders with blue strings attached to them. They float in schools on or under the water, or appear washed up on the beach. Avoid them in all instances, as their sting is poisonous and can cause much pain. Their long venomous tentacles are typically anything from a few centimetres to about 3m long, but can sometimes reach up to 10m in length.


Also do not swim, bathe or fish in water affected by red tide, which can be harmful and poisonous to humans and sea life alike. Red tide occurs along most of South Africa’s coast and is an outbreak of harmful algal bloom caused by large concentrations of red or brown-coloured micro-organisms that discolour the water. Seafood such as mussels, crayfish and oysters that have been exposed to red tide are poisonous to humans. Never eat anything taken off the rocks or from the sea if you don’t know what it is or what it can do to you.


Never dive off rocks or manmade structures into the sea if you don’t know for sure that the water is deep enough for a safe dive. Many people have broken their necks like that. Never venture too far into the sea if you are alone or not a strong swimmer. Don’t swim alone at night, and certainly not where any of the above-mentioned dangers may be present. Never swim under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or when you are on medication or not feeling well. It is forbidden to bring alcohol onto most South African beaches and you could be arrested, fined and removed at worst, or have your expensive alcohol confiscated with a stern warning at best.


Try to stick to beaches that have lifeguards on duty. Take note of signage at the beach that displays the telephone number of the local station of the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) in case of an emergency. Also read the information boards usually posted at beaches about local conditions and rules.


During the months of December and January our beaches are often overcrowded. Make sure you know where your younger children are at all times, and look out for other kids too. Each year a number of small children die or get separated from their families under these conditions.


Most South African beaches are crime-free, but as anywhere in the world, some of the more isolated beaches may attract petty criminals – mostly thieves or bag snatchers. All major beaches at South African coastal cities and towns have police officers patrolling them; not always so the more isolated ones. Don’t park your vehicle where it is vulnerable to break-ins, and don’t leave valuables inside the car that will attract criminals.


Sunburn. South African summers – and even the winters in some parts – are hot, with high temperatures and a sun that burns relentlessly, its ultraviolet (UV) rays capable of causing severe sunburn in a very short time. Always wear protective clothing, sit in the shade of you can, and apply effective sunscreen products to all exposed body parts. During the summer months radio and TV weather forecasts often include warnings about prevailing UV factors.


Too much exposure to the sun can cause skin cancer. South Africa has the second highest incidence of skin cancer in the world after Australia, and in particular one of the highest incidences of malignant melanoma worldwide, as far as Caucasians are concerned, while  some 20 000 South Africans are diagnosed annually with non-melanoma skin cancers. Note that anyone, regardless of skin type or race, is at risk of sunburn and skin cancer.



Sharks…And What You Need To Know


Sharks are an ever-present reality along South Africa’s coast and are very active especially, but certainly not only, along those stretches with warmer water temperatures. Almost 100 species of sharks may be found in South African waters, alongside rays and skates. Among the more fearsome and dangerous sharks are great white sharks, whale sharks, tiger sharks, ragged tooth sharks, Zambezi or bull sharks, black tip sharks, hammerhead sharks, mako sharks, cow sharks, copper sharks and dusky sharks. In recent years numerous attacks have been recorded on swimmers, divers and surfers alike.


The KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board Maritime Centre of Excellence (KZNSB) is a global leader in bather protection against sharks while minimising environmental impact. It provides protective shark nets and other safety gear at 37 of the province’s beaches. This protection consists of shark nets that are 214m long and 6m deep and are secured at each end by two 35kg anchors; all have a stretched mesh of 51cm. The nets are laid in two parallel rows approximately 400m offshore and in water depths of 10-14m.


Alternatively drumlins are deployed, consisting of a large, anchored float (which was originally a drum) from which a single baited hook is suspended. Most beaches are protected either by two nets or by one net and four drumlines, but the quantity of gear varies from beach to beach.


The KZNSB also conducts research into the biology of sharks and members of the public are educated with dynamic audio-visual shows and shark dissections by the KZNSB.


Further south, along the spectacular coastal areas of the Wild Coast and the Garden Route, are also many very popular beaches. However, as these beaches are not protected against sharks and are prone to shark attacks in some parts, find out as much as you can from locals and be extra cautious and vigilant.


A Shark Spotting Programme, the only of its kind in the world, was introduced at the beaches of Cape Town, particularly along the False Bay coast with its warmer water temperatures. The programme was introduced after Cape Town, over the last few years, experienced an increase in the number of great white sharks sighted in the in-shore zone.


The programme is community-driven and employs 15 to 20 shark spotters at nine of Cape Town’s popular beaches. These include Muizenberg, St James, Kalk Bay, Fishhoek, and Kogel Bay, covered 365 days a year. Noordhoek, Clovelly, Glencairn and Monwabisi have seasonal shark spotters. The shark spotters scan coastal waters with binoculars for sharks from an elevated platform during daylight hours and strict protocols are in place to effectively warn water users of the presence of sharks and assist them out of the water if necessary. Daily data is recorded on sea conditions, numbers of sharks detected and the number of water users.


During the period 2005 to 2008, 476 shark sightings were recorded. The popular Fish Hoek beach is also protected by a shark exclusion net, making for very safe swimming. Be extra aware on summer as normally shark sightings begin in late August and continue to April, with most sightings experienced during mid-summer when the sea is filled with frolicking holidaymakers.


The Shark Spotting Programme makes use of a system of signal flags to inform the bathing public about shark conditions on any given day.


The Shark Flag System




SA’s Blue Flag Beaches


The Blue Flag beaches project is an international programme that annually awards Blue Flag status to beaches that meet a standard of excellence in the areas of safety, amenities, cleanliness, environmental information and environmental management. According to the World Tourism Organization, it is the most well-known eco-label of its kind in the world.


Currently, there are almost 4,300 Blue Flag beaches and marinas around the world in more than 40 participating countries, with the strict criteria being set by the international coordinators of the Blue Flag campaign in Europe, the Foundation for Environmental Education. South Africa was the first country outside Europe to be granted Blue Flag accreditation for its beaches.


The Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (WESSA) manages the programme in South Africa in partnership with participating municipalities. South Africa has, for the 2016/2017 season, been awarded no fewer than 58 Blue Flag beaches.


The Blue Flag programme offers many benefits for beach-goers, such as improved tourism facilities, enhanced management of coastal ecosystems, increased awareness of the coast, capacity building of coastal municipalities, and the assurance of world class beaches, offering safe, clean and well-managed facilities.


Here is the complete list of South Africa’s Blue Flag beaches for the 2016/2017 season:


Western Cape


City of Cape Town Metro:

Silwerstroomstrand, Clifton 4th Beach, Camps Bay, Llandudno, Muizenberg, Strandfontein, Mnandi, Bikini Beach (Gordons Bay), Melkbosstrand, and Fishoek.


Overstrand Municipality (Hermanus area):

Kleinmond, Hawston, and Grotto (Hermanus).


Hessequa Municipality (Swellendam district):

Witsand, Preekstoel, Lappiesbaai and Gouritzmond.


Mossel Bay Municipality:

Santos, De Bakke, Hartenbos, and Klein-Brakrivier.


Eden District Municipality (George):



Knysna Municipality:

Buffalo Bay and Brenton-on-Sea.


Bitou Municipality (Plettenberg Bay):

Robberg, Keurboomstrand, Nature’s Valley, Lookout and The Dunes.



Eastern Cape


Kouga Municipality:

Dolphin Beach.


Nelson Mandela Bay Metro (Port Elizabeth):

Humewood, Kings Beach, and Hobie Beach.


Amathole District Municipality (East London):



Ndlambe Municipality (Port Alfred):

Kariega and Kelly’s Beach.





Ray Nkonyeni Municipality (Port Shepstone / Hibuscus Coast):

Marina, Trafalgar, Lucien, Southport, Umzumbe, Ramsgate and Hibberdene.


Ethekwini Metro (Durban):

Westbrook and Ushaka.