Road Trippin' South Africa: shark diving in Aliwal Shoal

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August 8th 2013
Published: August 10th 2013
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After the three days in Durban I was very excited to go diving in Aliwal Shoal and Protea Banks. I had been expecting this for some time now. Both places are among the best dive spots in SA and have a worldwide reputation as well. This area is home to a number of different shark species. The most common ones are the Oceanic Blacktip sharks and the Sand Tiger sharks(raggies), which can be encountered year round.

Depending on the time of year, Hammerhead sharks and Tiger sharks can be seen as well. And for the “lucky” divers, they’ll spot a Great White or Zambezi sharks (Bull sharks) from time to time. This time of the year, it’s possible to see humpback whales.

I think these are more than enough reasons to dive these spots. The time I went, it was mostly whale season. No hammerheads and hardly any tiger sharks this time of year. But one can always hope.

The first stop was Umkomaas (Umkomaas), a small town from where it's possible to dive Aliwal Shoal. Here's a good link I found about the Shoal: (Aliwal Shoal link).

When I arrived in Umkomaas the first thing I did was to start looking around the dive shops, enquiring about the diving, prices, etc., before making a decision.

I opted to go for "The Shoal" dive company" and I've got to say that I was pretty satisfied with them. They own a property (their own house) that also has accommodation in the premises (for 200RD p/p a day). These are small units (2 bedrooms and a small living room). The downside was that there isn't a self-catering kitchen, so I asked if I could use kitchen of their house. No problem with that, but they closed the house at around 6pm, so I usually had to eat outside during the evening.

There was a Spanish Divemaster working there (Eduardo López) with whom I got along very well. He was working there only for a few weeks. He's married to a SA girl and has been living with her family in a township in Johannesburg for a couple of years.

In total I did 3 days of diving there. The first one we did was to a wreck called "The Produce" (a short summary of the history of the wreck is in the "Aliwal Shoal link" I put in the second paragraph).

The type of diving is very similar to what I saw in Sodwana. Dive Companies use RHIBs (Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats) with twin overboard motors. They have to leave the beach and pass the swell break. Now this is not easy and not without risk if the swell is big enough, so the skippers have to know what they’re doing.

The skipper from “The Shoal” Dive Company was very experienced and extremely good.

The dive was led by Barry Coleman, owner of “Meridian Dive” ( I got to talk to Barry during the boat ride and he's a very interesting character. He's been diving in the area for about 30 years. He also worked for the Poseidon dive gear company in Sweden, where he helped develop the MK-6 Re-breather. He's also trained Navy divers in Sweden and the UK. So, needless to say, he’s a very knowledgeable diver. Another interesting fact is that he has no legs beneath his knees. But it's actually hardly noticeable.

The dive in the wreck was a difficult one. The currents were really strong and created turbulence at the sides of the wreck, so at times it was like being in a washing machine. It was a "deep" dive (around 35m) and with a lot of current. It was good to get back to diving in more challenging environments. At one point we saw a school of about 8 huge “potato cods”. I hadn't seen so many in the same spot before (link). I really enjoyed the first dive.

The second dive was to the Shoal itself. There are several dive spots and I can't really remember where we went to, exactly. I still enjoyed that dive as well and I think we saw a few “raggies” (link).

The second day of diving I went on two baited shark dives. The first one was in a site where there are a lot of ragged tooth sharks. During the dive we were in kind of a hole with about 7 sharks swimming around the whole time. These sharks are bottom feeders and a good technique to attract them is by using a shell to make a digging sound in the sand (I learnt this after the dive).

The second one was a baited shark dive in blue water. From the boat they put a line of bait. Any sharks crossing that line will be lured to the area. The bait is intended for tiger sharks, but the most common sharks that appear are the oceanic black tips (harmless). Now, because it’s not tiger shark season, I wasn’t expecting to see them.

We spent about an hour in the water with about 20 oceanic blacktips swimming around. It was great fun. The only time I had had this many sharks was during a baited shark dive in Osprey Reef in Australia. But they were mostly reek sharks. These were bigger, so more appealing.

The guy leading the dive was Walter, a guy who founded “The Shoal” Dive Company (now run by his son and his wife). He’s one of the first people who started diving with sharks in the area and has years and years of experience.

One of the things I saw in Umkomaas and something that Eduardo corroborated is that there is an older generation of divers who are extremely well prepared and have a lot of knowledge about the Shoal and the species that inhabit them. And there are the extremely young guys who aren’t taking advantage of this. Some people would give an arm and a leg to dive and learn from these guys. I felt like a total amateur talking with these guys.

That afternoon, Eduardo and I went to the supermarket to buy meat and vegetables and we had an awesome braai. The meat was excellent and so were the salads. And we had a lot of leftovers as well.

Up to this day everything was fine. I stayed one more day to do a couple more dives in the Shoal. As the Dive Company I was diving with had no more spaces left on the boat, they sent me and Eduardo with another Company for the first dive (Blue Vision). I had been recommended Blue Vision from someone in Pretoria. But my experience with them wasn’t that good.

We were told to be at the beach at 7am and got there on time. The boat arrived 1 hour later. Second, the skipper wasn’t nearly as good as the other one I had been with. And after the dive, one of their motors had a malfunction for which we had to wait some time to be fixed. My bad experience might also have been influenced by the complaints of Eduardo.

Still the dive was very good. Very chilled actually and saw a lot of stuff, especially nudibranchs which I hadn’t seen before.

For the second dive of the day, we went with the people of “The Shoal”. And here’s my big complaint about them. The guy leading the dive was an instructor who worked there. Definitely the most negligent guy I’ve ever seen leading a dive.

Among the group were 3 older Germans (good divers) and a Spanish couple (Aitana & Nestor) who had only done a few dives in their life. They were very friendly and I got to talk with them before the dive.

The briefing was very basic and the instructor took no real notice of the fact that the Spanish were very inexperienced divers (they emphasized this, themselves). Eduardo had also warned me about him and he was completely right by saying that he was incompetent and worthless as a dive guide.

The person who leads the dives is always holding a Safety Marker Buoy (SMB) which is inflated at the surface so that the person driving the boat can follow it and know where the group is at all times.

We started the dive and the guide dived down and immediately started the dive, without seeing if everyone had descended or if anyone had problems. I stayed near the surface seeing how the Spanish couple were managing and I saw that Aitana couldn’t descend because she was underweighted. I swam to the boat, asked the skipper to get a weight off my belt, put the weight in Atiana’s gear and then pulled her down myself. Because of the SMB it was easy to find the group. And for the rest of the dive I kept an eye on them, helping them from time to time. And the guide never had a clue of what had happened.

The dive itself was very good. I really liked the landscapes with holes, drops, etc. and we saw quite a few raggies in this one.

After the dive I joined Nestor, Aitana, Luken (Nestor’s son) and Eduardo for lunch at a restaurant that’s right next to the dive shop and which is very good, both for the food and the service. It was a very pleasant lunch and at the end, Nestor invited us.

This was the end of my dives in Aliwal Shoal, unfortunately. To summarize the dive companies: in prices they all charge more or less the same and offer the same kind of dives (I visited most of the dive shops). Of the two companies I dived with, I would certainly dive with “The Shoal” again. Despite the one negligent instructor there, I found the company to be pretty good.

Like I said, with Blue Vision, my experience wasn’t the best, but I only did one dive with them. So I’d still give them the benefit of the doubt and try them once more.

Aliwal Shoal is a spot you can never get bored of diving; there's always something going on.

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