Exploring Agulhas’s graveyard of ships

[Originally published in the July 2023 issue of Ski-Boat] By Johan Smal
THE southern part of the meridian 20° east of Greenwich, stretching from Antarctica to the southernmost point of the African continent, makes landfall at the little town called Agulhas. Renowned for separating the great Atlantic from the Indian Ocean, this famous line of longitude cuts neatly through the heart of the notorious “Graveyard of Ships”, the fishing theatre we focus on in this article.
The seas that pound our shores, although enchanting, are some of the most treacherous in the world. Legendary for its sudden weather changes with gale-force winds whipping up the seas, this area sees massive, fast-moving swells exceeding 10 metres. The 130-odd shipwrecks which lie scattered along the coastline, bear testimony to this phenomenon.
And yet, these treacherous and captivating waters also provide recreation, adventure and sustenance for thousands. Famous for its annual bumper yields of yellowtail in particular, the area’s rich marine life and breathtaking sea- and landscape scenery, is appropriately considered as a place of plenty.
The continual mixing of the icy north-flowing Benguela current up the west coast and the warm south-flowing Agulhas current hugging the east coast, generates one of the five richest marine ecosystems in the world. This Agulhas area has been synonymous with fishing for millennia, and Arniston (also named Waenhuiskrans in Afrikaans) and Struisbaai, with its quaint little harbour, are two of a few remaining line-fishing communities along the Cape’s east coast.
From September to April, the mighty Agulhas current sweeps across the Agulhas Banks, swathing very large inshore areas with generous plankton- and baitfish-rich warm eddies. The abundance of fish species caught in the area, especially at this time, fuels the zest of fishermen even from afar.
For this article in the popular Where to Fish series, our focus area stretches from Die Dam near Quoin Point in the west, up to Cape Infanta, located at the mouth of the Breede River some 125km east along the coast. Die Dam is where Rob Naysmith finally cut his line in Part 4 of this series, “Exploring the Overberg”, in the January/February 2022 issue of SKI-BOAT.

Due to the rocky nature of the coastline, there are only two official launching facilities serving this huge fishing area. If you want to fish both the Atlantic and Indian oceans in one day, then you launch from Struisbaai harbour.
This is the home of the Suidpunt Deep Sea Angling Club that stages the popular Two Oceans Marlin Tournament and Yellowtail Bonanza. (For further details please contact the club manageress, Marinda de Kock on 0761913744 or
Struisbaai is the only conventional breakwater launching and trailering facility, and over 95% of all boat anglers fishing this huge Agulhas area launch there.
Built in 1986 though, it was not designed to cope with as many boats in a short space of time as is experienced nowadays. On busy holidays, when over 150 craft could make use of the facility on fishable days for example, some serious logjams are caused with boats queuing far back into town. The harbour also sometimes sands up, resulting in very low water levels being encountered around the slipways during spring low tide. A three or four hour no-go safe window is usually then observed to avoid boats getting stuck on the sandbar which would cause damage to drive mechanisms, especially on the bigger craft.
Renowned for breaking heavily at times, another risk is the very shallow bank called Borrelgat located to the port side immediately as you leave the harbour. During heavy breaking waves skippers must also take note of the risks associated with the remaining engine block of the Oriental Pioneer (S34 48 783 E20 05 295) located off Northumberland Point. The Chinese ore carrier ran aground in July 1974, and the engine block still sticks out at spring low tide.
Launching from the Arniston harbour also needs sober, clearheaded and well-prepared skippers and crews. Running your precious ski-boat down this unique, 7° angle concrete slipway on special wheel modifications, directly into the oncoming surf, makes for exceptional challenges and exciting launches.
Deprived of the normal thrust at your disposal due to disproportionately trimmed engines to prevent prop and drive gear damage, and even further disadvantaged by the excessive drag created by the detachable wheels fitted on the sides of the boat, one must negotiate the surf at greatly reduced speeds.
With very little margin for error and no opportunity to turn away from oncoming waves or run to protected areas, the skipper’s timing must be impeccable. This is especially crucial during low tides when he must also negotiate the narrow six-metre wide gap between protruding rocks, which is the only passage out to sea. Fortunately, after unclipping and stowing the wheels, the last 80 metres of incoming surf can be faced at full thrust if necessary.

Situated entirely on top of the Agulhas Continental Shelf, although annoying to mariners around the globe due to its treacherous nature, the area offers relatively shallow fishing grounds. Referred to as some of the best fishing waters in South Africa, copious quantities of a large variety of both bank- and gamefish species are lifted from these productive waters each year.
The area is broadly shaped like a skewed, upside-down triangle. Sited on the western extreme, we have the Brandvlei area that is popular for kob. To the south-east of that you find the Agulhas 6-Mile Bank (also called Blougansie) which is located 13km diagonally offshore and produces good yellowtail and geelbek at times.
On its seaboard side, located 28km from the Struisbaai harbour and essentially signifying the outer range for Category C craft, is the famous Agulhas 12-Mile Bank. Having to negotiate the busy shipping lane that runs around Africa means that sometimes numerous huge cargo ships will cross your path, but it’s worth it, just go carefully. This bank boasts two very productive 30m deep pinnacles, producing vast yellowtail catches at times.
During high summer months the areas along the 100m contour line stretching further beyond the bank, is a very popular choice for tuna, marlin, and other gamefish species.
If you head straight into the rising sun some 6km out of the Struisbaai harbour, you’ll find the Struisbaai Vlakbank, the most popular structure where mainly yellowtail are targeted. Due to the strong flowing current, anchoring is seldom possible and catches are taken either on the troll or drift.
Many years ago this bank was known as the seventy-four bank and yielded hundreds of tons of this fine table fare. Although seventy-four numbers have recovered remarkably further up the coast, only a few small fish have lately been reported hooked and safely released since they were fished out in the area around the mid-1950s.
Also referred to as the Bulldog, the treacherous Saxon Reef is located further up the coast at Struispunt, only 3km west of Arniston. It is a shallow structure that runs diagonally seawards from shore and is demarcated by a 13m high solid stone beacon erected in the intertidal zone many moons ago.
Anglers pulling trolling baits parallel to the reef and as close as possible to the structure can catch giant yellowtail and yellowfin tunny within 100 metres of the shore. Several of these trophy yellowtail specimens have brought their catchers the first prize spoils of the annual Suidpunt Yellowtail Bonanza. However, this fishing spot is jealously guarded by razor-sharp rocks cunningly concealed underneath the serene beauty of the surrounding waters, so skippers must take the utmost care and maintain vigilance while working this area.
At the top end of the “triangle” in the eastern corner near Cape Infanta, there are also some popular fishing spots. These are fished by boats which launch in the Breede River from Witsand and then work their way down in a south-westerly direction.
The popular Skipskop bank area located some 24km from Arniston, often yields good catches of various species, especially yellowtail, geelbek and santer. When good catches are reported in this area, it is not uncommon to experience a real traffic rush with many Struisbaai boats also joining in to get some of the bounty on offer.
This area is located near the world famous De Hoop Nature Reserve, legendary for its countless whale sightings and considered one of the most diverse floral habitats on this planet in terms of the biota. The reserve’s offshore extension, the De Hoop Marine Protected Area (MPA), is zoned as a restricted no-take area. Conserving a vast and fascinating variety of marine life, this World Heritage Site is one of the largest marine protected areas in Africa.
At the bottom, southernmost point of our triangular area, essentially the outer limits for Category B craft and located 65km south from Cape Infanta and 75km from Struisbaai harbour, you’ll find our own unique underwater archipelago — the Alphard Bank. Because it’s so shallow, this area has been defined as a Traffic Separation Scheme, as ruled by the International Maritime Organization.
Due to its distance from shore and because adverse weather conditions sometimes curtail the approachability, it remains the most unspoiled and fish-rich angling destination in the Agulhas theatre. Rising to depths of between 48- and 15m, some 20 apexes above the 50m contour of the underwater islands offer excellent trolling, jigging and soak-baiting opportunities for intrepid anglers. Even Cape snoek are taken here on jigs at 60m depths.

Other articles in this series have comprehensively covered all the basics required to fish off the South African coast, including general tackle and boating requirements, so I’m not going to go over those. Instead, I’ve opted to share our general local practices when launching for a day out on the deep blue.
Obviously planning should begin with assessing reports of recent catches so you can determine what species to target, the route to take (noting the most important marks) and where to commence the first lines-down. Based on species abundance, availability, endangered status and habitat, I’ve also loosely classified the day’s intended proceeds in logical groupings, categorised under two main headings: Reef Species and Gamefish Species. These are further subdivided into species specifically targeted and bycatch.
Although there are substantially more species found in the Agulhas areas, I’ve focused on the most important targeted and bycatch ones.
During summer months the Agulhas hallmark, yellowtail, is always on top of the list for the day’s pickings. If they’re not available, kabeljou, geelbek, red steenbras and red stumpnose (in order of priority) tend to be the targeted fallback species. The remaining reef species, essentially caught among the targeted species and usually not purposely targeted for the day, are classified as bycatches.
Having searched for the abovementioned target species for some hours without any reward, the crew might well be treated to a last-chance decision by an emptyhanded skipper to stop over a known spot on the way back home. These are the points that tend to yield more bycatches than targeted species.

A highly nomadic species that aggregates and moves between offshore reefs.
Main areas: 2, 3, 4, 13, 16 and 17.
Time of year: Habitually, from September or October with huge shoals of small (2-3kg) fish massing in the area, but reluctant to go on the bite. Catches slowly improve exponentially with bigger fish (2-6kg) taken until about December. Bumper catches of shoaled fish up to 14kg are then sporadically taken for some months. A limited number of loners up to 25kg are also taken. Numbers start to dwindle again towards the end of April when catches become much scarcer. Their most productive feeding times are usually early morning and late afternoon.
On the troll: If they are not feeding on or near the surface, try hard diving lures such as Rapalas in a mixture of sizes and colours. When the ’tail are feeding on the surface, switch to skirted lures and spinners in a mixture of sizes and colours.
Drifting or on anchor: Jigs of various sizes and colours can be used. If you opt for bait, the best is fresh pilchard or pike, sandwiched with a piece of octopus or squid. When the ’tail are in an eating frenzy, they’ll take anything you throw at them.
Water temperature: Over 16°C
Size: 2 to 25kg, with the bulk of catches during high season being 4- to 13kg fish.
(Interesting to note that juvenile amberjack have also been caught on both the Agulhas 12-Mile and Skipskop banks, with a tropical yellowtail caught from a boat anchored in the Struisbaai harbour during a marlin competition.)

Both species are very mobile. Silver kob are mostly found on moderate and low-profile reefs in 20-120m depths, with dusky kob predominantly found in the near-shore marine environment, river mouths and estuaries. Based on the numbers taken lately, both these species are under serious pressure.
Main areas: 1, 4, area 5 to 6, 8, 11, 13, 14, 15 and 16
Time of year: Mostly December to June. Usually found in shoals, but individual fish are often taken amongst other species, especially geelbek shoals.
Drifting or on anchor: Use the large baits or cut baits shown.
Water temperature: Over 18°C
Size: up to 45kg

A shoaling species found over sandy and shallow rocky substrata to depths of 150m throughout their distribution.
Main areas: 2, 3, 4, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16 and 17.
Time of year: Mostly Nov to Apr. The geelbek is a nocturnal feeder and normally caught at night, but for daytime fishermen the best time to catch them is during morning twilight. Experience has shown that the moment the sun appears on the horizon they go off the bite … meaning that if one of the crew members “oversleeps” and launching is delayed, the whole crew might have to do without that so wanted geelbek for dinner.
Drifting or on anchor: Use the large baits or cut baits shown.
Water temperature: Over 18°C
Size: Up to 12 kg.

These coppery-red fish with large canine-teeth are the largest of the seabream family and feed mainly on reef fish. The older males become more yellow in colour with black markings on the head and back.
Main areas: 3, 4, 9, 10, 11, 13, 14, 15, 16 and 17.
Time of year: They tend to remain in deep water during the winter months, but are caught on reefs closer to shore mainly from September to June.
Drifting or on anchor: Use the large baits or cut baits shown. For this species the best bait is a live steentjie or one with the backbone removed and the “calling flaps” swaying enticingly in the current.”
Water temperature: Over 14°C
Size: Mostly young fish from 3- to 10kg but can be up to 57kg like one specimen that was caught on the Agulhas 12 Mile Bank.

A highly resident species found on offshore reefs to depths of 150m, red stumpnose have partially lost their localised migratory patterns due to severe population depletion.
Main areas: Found on all reef structures, but as they are seriously under pressure please think long and hard before removing them.
Time of year: More abundant from August to May, but they are also caught during the winter months.
Drifting or on anchor: Use the cut baits I’ve detailed. Red stumpnose are not very fussy, but a longish piece of octopus leg usually does the trick, nicely and quickly.
Water temperature: Over 14°C
Size: Up to 5kg.

Highly resident species with a small home range, less than 100m in linear extent. Of all the bycatch species it is the most prolific, being found on all reefs and caught all year round. Mostly juveniles have been caught lately, and this is yet another species under pressure.

This is my favourite table fare. A nomadic species, santer move up to 10km between structures, with local movements into shallow waters following cold water upwelling events. They are caught on most reef complexes during the summer months. Some 5kg specimens have been caught, but catches are also dwindling notably lately.

This is a shoaling species with adult fish mostly found in further offshore water columns just above high-profile reefs from 50-200m. Juveniles are found on shallower reefs 10-40m with individuals usually caught among other species on all reef structures.

Adults are found on high-profile inshore and offshore reefs down to 100m, with juveniles found in the rocky surf-zone and shallow subtidal reefs. Catches are also dwindling.

Catches in this area are mainly juveniles which are found on most rocky reefs from the surf zone down to 200m.

This is not a bycatch species nor specifically targeted regularly, but adults up to around 25kg are found all along the Agulhas nearshore surface waters during the summer months.
Popping or spin-fishing whilst casting into the surf zone from a stationary boat, or trolling lures, spinners or live-bait near the surf zone are the only ways to reach them from a craft, but unfortunately have not proven to be very effective. Leervis are usually caught while feeding on shoals of spawning elf close to shore during December and January, using a live elf as bait.

It’s mostly black- and striped marlin that are caught in this area, but blue marlin and the odd white marlin, as well as the odd sailfish, have been caught in the Agulhas 12-Mile bank (especially along the 100m contour), Struisbaai Vlakbank, Skipskop Bank and Alphard Bank areas. These are caught during the high summer months of January and February, using both lures and livebait, of which a yellowtail, if available, yields very good results.

Yellowfin tuna, skipjack tuna and Atlantic bonito (katonkel) are regularly caught in the Agulhas area from December to March. Use a mixture of lures, Rapalas and spinners to target them.

Dorado are regularly caught during the high summer season, with the odd wahoo also showing its face inbetween marlin and tuna. Dorado are usually caught in the warm current further offshore.
My thanks go to local fishermen Traill Witthuhn, Johan van der Walt and Henk Aggenbach who eagerly assisted in compiling this article. Lekker stywe lyne vir almal daar buite op die diep blou!


Atlantic Ocean

1 Brandfontein S 34 49 31 E 19 52 22
2 Agulhas 6 Mile bank S 34 55 46 E 19 56 53
3 Agulhas 12 Mile bank S 35 01 40 E 19 55 31

Indian Ocean

4 Struisbaai vlakbank S 34 50 43 E 20 08 08
5 De Mond S 34 44 61 E 20 06 02
6 Oubrand S 34 42 11 E 20 13 32
7 Saxon reef S 34 42 28 E 20 15 4
8 Klippe S 34 42 70 E 20 21 71
9 Straights S 34 41 21 E 20 21 68
10 Miles Barton reef S 34 38 95 E 20 21 80
11 Volieklip S 34 38 50 E 20 24 07
12 Die Hel S34 38 18 E20 29 09
13 Skipskop bank S 34 37 28 E 20 27 04
14 Infanta 6 Mile bank S 34 33 65 E 20 43 78
15 Groot Sandkop S 34 51 20 E 20 06 47
16 Halfway house S 34 59 61 E 20 28 47
17 Alphard banks S 35 02 34 E 20 51 75

De Hoop MPA

S 34 27 130 E 20 52 250
S 34 28 378 E 20 55 653
S 34 30 378 E 20 53 904
S 34 10 295 E 20 51 277
S 34 31 880 E 20 48 865
S 34 30 416 E 20 45 593
S 34 29 950 E 20 41 128
S 34 30 438 E 20 34 900
S 34 32 329 E 20 29 699
S 34 37 600 E 20 23 757
S 34 34 940 E 20 21 890

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