Dive Site Guide: Aliwal Shoal, South Africa

Sharks, wrecks & reefs.

28 April 2021

By Danel Wentzel

An Oceanic Blacktip shark (Carcharinus limbatus) hanging out with a crowd of Remoras.

Along the East Coast of South Africa, just South of Durban, lies a subtropical stretch of coastline known as the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) South Coast.

Visitors to this coastline are greeted by welcoming, warm waters of the Indian Ocean and fine streches of sandy beach set against a backdrop of rolling sugar cane hills interspersed with islands of indigenous bushveld. Local vendors line the highways selling everything from locally grown fruits (such as mangoes, bananas and avocados) to handcrafted curios, buckets and spades, fishing nets, and just about anything one could possibly need for a perfect beach holiday.

Umkomaas, a small town 45km South of Durban, forms part of this magnificent coastline. Renowned for the spectacular diving opportunites created by Aliwal Shoal - a large sandstone reef which is the remains of an ancient sand dune approximately 5km off the coast. The reef is covered in an array of hard corals, soft corals, sponges as well hosts a variety of tropical and sub-tropical fish species, making diving here a unique experience.

The Shoal is a known congregation site for many large marine species, which include Ragged Tooth Sharks, Tiger Sharks, Humpback whales, Manta and Devil Rays, to name just a few!

If prestine reefs and sharks aren't enough to convince you to dive here, there is also two wrecks located near the reef, the Norwegian bulk carrier MV Produce which sank in 1974 and British steamer SS Nebo which sank in 1884.

On a good day, Aliwal effortlessly lives up to it's status of being one of the top ten dive sites in the world, providing a unique and exhilarating dive experience. Be warned though that diving at Aliwal can also be disappointing as it does get effected by strong currents and the odd day with bad visibility.

A Longfin Batfish hovering over the prestine reefs of the Shoal.
Circling sharks on a baited shark dive at Castle dive site.
Our Instructor Chad as seen through a piece of the once mighty MV Produce.

Baited Shark dives.

Highly misunderstood and misrepresented, these apex predators offer an incredible experience of a lifetime. The baited shark dives here at Aliwal Shoal are one of a kind, and something that cannot be missed during your visit here. With two baited drums full of locally caught sardines and fish oil, the drums slosh in the current creating a scent trail that the resident Oceanic Blacktips (Carcharinus limbatus) follow and investigate. During Summer months (Nov-March) Tiger sharks are seen frequently and can be accompanied by a shy Bull shark (Zambezi) at times. Hammerheads can be seen as they migrate past in the summer months, and if you're lucky the odd Great White.

You never know what you might see on an Aliwal Baited shark dive! For me it was a once in a lifetime encounter with a dancing Reef Manta, ascending from the bottom of the reef into a baitball of 12+ Blacktip sharks. The curious female, I deservedly named Lara Croft, stayed with us and played for what felt like an eternity.

There is NO feeding or touching of the sharks on this dive. It provides a great opportunity to get up close and interact with sharks in a positive manner, while at the same time capturing the experience on camera.

Get Wrecked!

After the Shoal's discovery in 1894, there has been 6 documented ships that have come to grief on Aliwal. The two most popularly visited by divers is the Norwegian bulk carrier MV Produce and British steamer SS Nebo.

SS Nebo: 20 May 1884

This British steamer was the first of many to fall victim to the shallow pinnacles of Aliwal. She sank quickly and lay quietly at rest for almost a century before she was first dived.

MV Produce: 11 August 1974

The most recent of ships to fall victim to the Shoal's shallow pinnacles. The ship's captain, Captain Borge, was said to have been "taking a nap" when his ship ill-fatedly rammed into the shoal. The ship had 15 minutes to abandon ship before she capsized and the sinking began. Today the Produce is one of the most famous shipwrecks dived along the KZN coastline, with plenty of room to swim around and explore the inside if qualified.

Reef Drifts.

Aliwal Shoal is made up of a long, wide reef with varied and rugged typography. the rocky surface is cluttered with algae, sponges, soft and hard corals, anemones and feather stars. Reef fish as well as pelagics are abundant, turtles regularly visdit, there are dolphins, manta rays, whales and other large creatures, and even the rare sighting of a marlin or sailfish.

Then there are the ocean's apex predators; Ragged tooth sharks, Hammerheads, Whalesharks, Oceanic Blacktips, Great Whites, Bull sharks (Zambezi sharks) and of course the loveable Tiger shark, to name just a few.

Tiny pineapple fish, paperfish, pipefish, nudibranchs, and other macro life add to the list. And if the visual overload is not enough, all of this is often accompanied by an enchanting underwater soundtrack courtesy of dolphin whistles and whale songs.

Not just for Scuba Divers.

Imagine you are surrounded by the most amazing silence. Not the silence you hear at night with your breath on a pillow and the distant hum of everyday life, but rather a deeper silence, one emptied of any sensation so that even the thump of your heartbeat is gone and you are surrounded by nothing. You are free. Free of any equipment, nothing restraining you and you can just be one with the ocean.

Aliwal Shoal provides an opportunity for not only Scuba divers to connect with the ocean, but Freedivers as well. With a wide array of shallow reefs and rocky pinnacles to explore, with the added option to freedive with sharks!

During my stay at Umkomaas I was lucky enough to have been introduced to two incredibly passionate humans, Cassie Weinberg and Andy Coetzee, who togehter offer unique ocean-based experiences that ensure you will leave with unforgettable new memories. Cassie is the founder of Wetu Safaris and boat skipper on the excursions. His love for his job shines through on every single trip. Born and raised in Umkomaas he is a source of knowledge and can tell you anything from what wind direction you need to see a rare, five fingered frogfish on the North East pinnacles of Aliwal to which local pub to visit after your dive.

It was such an honour getting to know and dive with Cassie and Andy, as I got to learn something new on every dive and both their proffesionality made for a great experience. You can find out more about Wetu Safaris on their website or join their whatsapp group to get live updates on conditions and sightings.

Marine Calendar

Here's a little overview of what you can expect to see and when during your next visit to the Shoal.

Getting to know the salty world of Aliwal has been a privelage. Some truly special moments come to mind when reflecting back on my dives at the Shoal; seeing a Reef Manta cruise through a baitball of sharks, finding my first Brown Paperfish, watching bottlenose dolphins play on North Sands, being circled by 12+ Oceanic Blacktips and coming eye-to-eye with a Tiger.

I hope this article spurs you to make your own memories at this incredible spot and inspire you to protect the incredible reefs and extraordinary marine life that takes sanctuary here.