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A Mermaid’s Guide to Diving in Aliwal Shoal.

Oceanic black tip sharks at Aliwal Shoal

Disclosure: Blue Ocean Dive Resort invited me for 2 dives in return for this review – thank you!

Oceanic black tip sharks at Aliwal Shoal

I love sharks. Long before I went diving in Aliwal Shoal and before I became a diver there was a brief incident when I was snorkeling with some baby blacktip reef sharks in Malaysia and was terrified of them. Well not quite terrified but I approached them overly cautious in my attempt to get a picture. I couldn’t get the picture even had I given it an honest effort – they were way too fast for me.

When I did my Open Water certification I was still cautious and worried to go diving with sharks. My instructor calmed me down, told me to be worried about triggerfish instead (he was very right about that!), and I quickly learned what an honor and absolute privilege it is to dive with sharks and see them in their natural habitat.

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A few years ago I went to Durban on a press trip and we went out with a shark netting boat. Some of the beaches in Durban are guarded by a shark net due to a few unfortunate incidences and some very bad press that followed. I was incredibly sad when the guide told us how many sharks and other marine animals like turtles get caught in these nets and die all in the name of tourism.

It made me realize even more about what a privilege it is to see these majestic predators in the wild and how much they needed our protection.

While I have seen my share of white-tip, black-tip, and grey sharks in the Maldives, wobbegongs and epaulet sharks in Raja Ampat, whale sharks in Thailand, and last a guitar shark in Mauritius (though he is technically a ray) I had yet to see some of the big ones and this girl was ready for some hammerheads and tiger sharks!

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To be honest, I have done very little shark diving in South Africa. Simply because I mainly stay in Cape Town and the water is too cold. I get cold easily as it is and consider any water temperature below 28 degrees absolutely freezing. As the idea of getting dry suit certified has never appealed to me either, I have dived in Cape Town twice. While I enjoyed the seals and the seven-gill sharks, I didn’t think it needed repeating in these temperatures. I am a proud warm water diver!

But when I was flying back from Mauritius I was faced with a layover either in Johannesburg or in Durban and quickly decided that it was a sign from the scuba gods: Aliwal Shoal aka shark haven was just an hour’s drive from Durban.

Diving in Aliwal Shoal

Apparently, Jacques Cousteau already called Aliwal Shoal one of the top ten dive sites in the world. I like to call it shark heaven instead (in a good way because the sharks are very much alive here!).

While the idea of going shark cage diving in Durban or Cape Town has never appealed to me the idea of doing a baited shark dive in Aliwal Shoal very much does. Sharks are not being fed but the divemaster will take 2 drums with “fishsoup” (blood & fish bits) on a rope underwater that attract the sharks. All a diver has to do is kick back and enjoy the show – welcome to diving in South Africa!

When I arrive in Umkoomas, an hour’s drive from Durban airport, at the Blue Ocean Dive Resort I am told that I am unfortunately not lucky with the visibility. Due to some heavy rain, there is an almost visibly brown curtain of slushy water in the ocean, not ideal for our dives. Mind you, that doesn’t deter any of us when we get kitted up in the morning – if the sharks are at Aliwal Shoal, South Africa, so will we.

Aliwal Shoal diving is a little more involved than your regular fancy boat or liveaboard dive, at least for me. Dives are conducted from huge rubber ducks that launch from the beach close to Umkoomas. I dare say it is not for the fainthearted or those getting seasick especially when the swell is rough as it is for us. You know it is going to be bumpy when the captain hands you a lifejacket!

Rubber duck launching at Umkomaas beach

After a somewhat wild ride and chats with some other boats to find sharks and somewhat good visibility, we get to our dive site. Before we go overboard we get a detailed briefing of what Aliwal Shoal shark diving entails.
While even Open Water divers can do it since the dives aren’t particularly deep, it is super important for divers to have good buoyancy. When doing a baited shark dive you are required to stay as still as possible in the water, keep vertical, and keep at a given depth. Sharks do not appreciate divers splashing and bobbing up and down too much. The same goes for limbs dangling and sticking out so we are told to keep our arms close and our cameras closer (I am actually not cold in this picture I am just trying my best to keep my arms tucked to my body).

What can you see when going diving in Aliwal Shoal? The correct question should be what you cannot see! But seriously, this area is a shark lover’s dream come true. Depending on the time of the year you can see giant guitar sharks, hammerheads, tiger & bull sharks, whale sharks and ragged-tooth sharks which breed here. And even if you don’t get lucky enough to see any of those there are always plenty of oceanic black-tips around!

We are hoping for the latter as well as a tiger or bull shark and are told that if either of them makes an appearance we need to huddle and stay close together. Those predators like to separate individual prey from the safety of the group.

After those details are announced we do our backroll entry and go down to 8 meters where our divemaster Danie puts up the first drum. As we are taking over the spot from another dive boat we don’t even have to wait for the sharks to arrive, they are already there.
For a moment the view takes my breath away: there are at least a dozen majestic oceanic black-tips which seem to have nothing in common with their counterpart, the black-tip reef sharks that I know. They are huge and instead of a distinct black tip, they shimmer with a dark copper stripe. They are beautiful and that dozen is just the beginning – I quickly give up counting.

Oceanic black tip sharks at Aliwal Shoal and diver with pink fins

Swirling all around them are their little sidekicks, funny looking remoras. All we do is stay put, observe, and take pictures. To be honest, it is not the easiest. With only the drum as a visual indication about the depth, I feel like I am doing quite a bit of going up and down but neither our DM nor my dive computer or the sharks seem to mind, so I guess I am doing somewhat alright.

Oceanic black tip sharks at Aliwal Shoal and diver with camera

Needless to say, you are never supposed to touch a shark (or any other marine creature for that matter) but they don’t seem to have gotten the memo. The amount of times a shark bumps into me or my fins is staggering. It gets crowded at our dive site as more and more sharks appear and it seems the more are coming the more I relax. I am not scared, I am just in awe that I can witness such beauty up close.

Oceanic black-tip shark with remoras

Eventually, we decent a little deeper and that is when it happens. Danie takes his fingers to his forehead to mimic horns: he has spotted a bull shark below us and immediately we huddle. The excitement is palatable though, to be honest, I am not crossing bull shark off my ‘to see’ list yet – I wouldn’t have recognized it if he hadn’t told me, the bull shark just looked like any other shark only a little chubbier than the rest.

After an hour we come back up and make our way along the coast to find a second dive site. Even if you are not into sharks (we can’t be friends though!) there is something for everyone in Aliwal Shoal: the MV Produce, a wreck, the Chunnel Cave, and the Cathedral – the crown jewel of dive sites here. We take our surface interval in the form of a long and bumpy boat ride trying to find a suitable second dive site. The visibility seems to be getting worse and after we have to call a dive at the Produce we settle on the Cathedral.

The Cathedral is known as a breeding ground for ragged-tooth sharks and we are in luck. We also get chased by a giant grouper and see some rays on our way up. While the visibility is still pretty bad, I can see while this dive site holds such an appeal to divers.

When we return to shore I am sore (have I mentioned you need to hoist yourself from the water into the rubber duck?!), my knuckles are bruised, and my skin is sunburnt. I take a quick shower before I devour the biggest lunch in the history of lunches, and pack my car to drive back to Durban. I am knackered but happy. Finally, I know what all the fuss is about when people talk about diving in Aliwal Shoal.

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Ins & Outs for Diving in Aliwal Shoal

Deck with sofas and tables at Blue Ocean Dive Center
  • Blue Ocean Dive Resort is one of the premier dive centers in Umkomaas and is located about an hour’s drive from Durban airport. You can either take a rental car or book a transfer with them. The drive is pretty straightforward but I dare they Durban drivers are something to get used to and are not too fond of indicating.
  • You can find various Umkoomas accommodation, but personally, I loved staying with Blue Ocean as their rooms are all newly renovated and really cozy, and they also have a great deck/bar for the evenings. A light breakfast is included with your room and I even got my lunch for free as a late breakfast. They also offer dive & stay packages.
  • You can pay for everything with credit card but don’t forget to leave some cash tips for the team!
  • They also offer various PADI courses and guided dives and also have a wide range of technical dive equipment. You can either rent or bring your own equipment, usually a 5 mm wetsuit will serve you well.
  • As I said, getting in and out of the water is a bit tricky if you are not a very fit person but luckily the crew is always there to give you a helping hand or literally pull you on board if needed.
  • Make sure to take something for seasickness if you are prone as the ways to the dive sites can be quite long (and as I mentioned bumpy), wear lots of waterproof sunscreen and a hat and/or a bandana as well as long sleeve t-shirt for the surface intervals (chances are you will want to take your wetsuit at least partially off).

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4 comments

  1. Yep Aliwal Shoal is next on my dive list. In December 2019, I did protea banks off shelly beach for a non-bAited DEEP DIVE and yeah with almost 2m swell it was a bummy ride out and seasickness got the best of me. eVEN WITH THE POOR VISIBILITY AND NOT MY BEST DIVING EXPERIENCE, I SAW HAMMERHEAD SHARKS.

    1. Oh wow, I am so envious of your hammerheads! Would love to see some 🙂

  2. Wow! This must be an incredible experience!!

    1. It really really was – can’t wait to get back underwater!