CAGELESS SHARK DIVING AT ALIWAL SHOAL – 14TH JULY 2014
Aliwal Shoal has a reputation for giving you a cageless shark diving experience you will never to forget. Their specialty is oceanic black tips and boy, do they have a lot to share around. The reef is about 7km off shore and diving there has the reputation of being one of the top 10 dive sites in the world. The special baited shark dives are only at max of 20m deep so they offer opportunities for both scuba divers and snorkelers.
Aliwal Shoal is situated one hour south of Durban, on the east coast of South Africa on the Indian Ocean. The dive boats go out of the small beachside village of Umkomaas by either a beach or nearby river launch using semi-rigid inflatable boats.
We took the opportunity to organise a single baited shark dive whilst on our way further south to Protea Banks. At 7am we met up with Aliwal Dive Centre’s operators Clare and Basie Ackermann on a dropdead gorgeous, 24C, blue sky day, with a water temperatures of 19-21C. We had four in our party as well as their four crew in the boat.
Aliwal Shoals is an amazing surf beach, which means divers get to experience a thrilling beach boat launch with a difference. Most Australian dive operators would never dream of tackling waves and conditions like these, but to the locals, this is the norm and they haven’t lost a diver yet! In fact is quite a local spectator sport watching the boats go out and coming back in to the ramp. This is only to be enhanced by the 45 degree slope on the actual boat ramp itself, adding further challenges to the whole process!
Once out of the surf breaks, it is a short 20 min boat ride to the baited shark dive site. This is not actually on the reef itself but is based on a sandy bottom, with a depth of only 20m or so and excellent visibility. There was already another boat at the site when we arrived so we had to negotiate with them to be able to set up our bait boxes a short distance away from theirs to be able to share the sharks. The process is such that there are two bait boxes filled with local frozen fish such as pilchards. One is set about 10m deep, the other 20m deep to leave a scent or scum trail to attract the sharks.
On the sandy bottom near our deep blue bait box was where the small numbers of sardines and remora ‘shark sucker’ fish generally hung out. Maybe they felt safer being down there rather than higher up where the shark population was.
The Zambezi or bull sharks and tiger sharks tend to be attracted by the deeper box throwing the scent and then they slowly come up to the more shallow bait box. It should be noted that this is not a shark feeding dive, just a baited dive where there is only enough fish to keep the sharks interested and not enough for an actual feed, so the dive operators are not altering the natural behaviour of the sharks.
When we looked and swam up we saw many oceanic black tip sharks which is what they specialise in here. These are a sleeker looking shark with a streamlined fusiform body shape for fast manoevering in open ocean waters. They have a pointed nose and black tips on all fins. They grow to about 1.5m and are usually wary of humans so they may take 10-20mins to gain their confidence around the divers and the bait boxes. But once confident, they crowded us in their numbers. It was amazing to have so many sharks swimming around so close and to experience the thrill of seeing so many oceanic black tip sharks all in one place totally surrounding us. There would have been 40-60 sharks on our dive and we were right in the thick of it.
We didn’t see any bull sharks on our dive but this same dive site last week had a tiger shark which is very unusual for this time of year as the usually are seen from March to June.
Oceanic black tips have been known to attack humans when there is food around. So it is only at the end of the dive when we were all back on board the boat that the operators threw the remainder of the bait fish into the water. The ‘boiling water’ and ‘shark soup’ beside the boat at the end of the dive was a spectacle in itself. There were sharks everywhere, fighting for the last morsel, often breaking the surface with the classic shot of shark fins thrashing around. The boys loved it! You couldn’t wipe the smile off their faces.
To crown it all off, a loggerhead turtle swam by as we surfaced at the end of the dive.
What a day, what another diving experience. Thanks Basie, Clare and the Aliwal Dive Centre team for an African shark diving experience of a lifetime. I’m sure we will be back.
[For more photos taken by Tony Isaacson see Photos-Diving Photos-South Africa]