I have been scuba diving for nearly three years now and in all that time only come across a handful of sharks; a fact which can perhaps be attributed to the wholesale slaughter of these much maligned animals for the shark fin industry over the past few years.
Although I thoroughly enjoy all the beautiful marine life that Sodwana and Mozambique have to offer, I was keen to observe the ‘big stuff’, so when Scubaversity -South Africa’s largest (and most fun) scuba diving club - arranged a trip to Aliwal Shoal I signed up immediately. Aliwal Shoal is a rocky reef which lies approximately five kilometres out to sea. The shoal represents the remains of an ancient sand dune and was named after the near sinking of a three masted ship named ‘Aliwal’ in 1849.
Diving at Aliwal is not for the faint hearted or first time divers. Typically, boats are launched at the Mkomanzi river mouth under the Umkomaas Bridge which can be rough. The boat rides can be equally so and take a long time to get to any of the sites. Other factors include strong currents, unpredictable weather, often murky visibility and diving depths of nearly 30 metres.
On our first dive my group and I were dropped off at ‘Cathedral’. Upon bailing over we immediately found ourselves surrounded by a number of Ragged Tooth Sharks or ‘Raggies.’ Admittedly slightly unsettled I sank down to the pothole-like Cathedral with everyone else to observe these sleek beasts of the deep which cleaved the water like hot knives through butter. As I did so I suddenly became aware of something else: whale song. Obviously there were whales in the water and they were quite close by the sounds of it. Their calls rang back and forth the entire dive which made for an unforgettable experience.
After Cathedral, the group drifted along the reef towards Raggie Cave. All manner of colourful fish made an appearance along the way and I was struck by the dark, hulking forms which characterise Aliwal’s topography. Raggies are known to flock to Raggie Cave in their droves and it was here that I had my first up close and personal shark experience. At the time of our dive a number of Raggies had taken refuge in the cave. After observing them from the vantage point of a handy ledge for a while we moved off to a nearby patch of sand where we sat and watched sharks circle overhead. One shark took a distinct interest in my dive buddy and I and it was with mingled excitement and fear that I watched it swim toward us. Much to my embarrassment instinct kicked in as it got closer and I yanked on my buddy’s arm in an idiotic attempt to get away.
Unperturbed said buddy and the shark acted as if nothing had happened and I resigned myself to the fact that I was about to be eyeballed by a two metre long predator. My fears were completely unfounded. The Raggie came so close I could have touched it yet I didn’t feel in the least bit threatened. Later my buddy joked that I tried to use him as bait.
It soon became clear that the sharks weren’t going to harm us which is in line with the fact that apparently, no scuba diver has ever been attacked at Aliwal. If anything the majority of the sharks were more nervous of us which, coupled with my own observation over a series of subsequent dives in the area has led me to agree with the sentiment that sharks really aren’t just mindless eating machines.
My first dive at Aliwal was one of the best I’ve ever had. Other popular Aliwal dive sites include Shark Alley, South Sands, Pinnacles and Manta Point. Two wrecks, the Produce and Nebo can also be dived. There’s also plenty to do for non-divers in the area. Activities include golf, tennis, bowls and horse-riding. Local shopping malls and good restaurants are plentiful and the Wild Coast Sun Casino and uShaka Marine World lie within close reach, none of which compares of course to a close encounter with one of the ocean’s most impressive and misunderstood creatures.