An Insider's Guide to Diving Aliwal Shoal, South Africa
By Nicki Gibson
Aliwal Shoal must be one of the diving world's best kept secrets. It's said that it was one of Jacques Cousteau's favourite spots in the world. In fact the South African contingent of the movie crew for his 2016 biography, The Odyssey, even came to film here.
Contrary to most tropical dive destinations in the world, Aliwal Shoal is not coral reef but rather fossilised sand stone. It was where land met water, until 5.3 million years ago, glaciers started melting and the coastline became more and more submerged over time.
1.5 km (.93 miles) wide and 4km (2.48 miles) long, Aliwal Shoal is split into various dive sites. Starting at 5m (16.4 feet) on the pinnacles to 27m (88.5 feet) at the bottom of Cathedral. There are 2 wrecks around the reef, the SS Nebo at 27m depth and MV Produce which rests at 32m (105 feet). Surrounding reef systems go as deep as 90 - 100m (295 - 328 feet).
SS Nebo sank in 1884. © 2022 Matt Jacobs
Scuba Diving Aliwal Shoal
"The Shoal", as its endearingly known, has many faces. From the most placid waters to the most adventurous oceans.
The launch is done through the surf, we're lucky enough to have a river mouth to launch from so there's no boat pushing on most days. These surf launches themselves are the start of the adventure. Having read Matt Jacob's article The Wild Coast | Sardine Run, Sharks and South Africa you'll know that some days you need your "white knuckle death grip" and other days it can be pretty "boring" to the thrill seeker. The skippers (boat captains) are highly experienced at navigating the surf and getting divers safely through the waves.
The shoal lends herself to snorkeling, free diving, even discover scuba diving (try dives) all levels of diving are welcomed by her including technical divers and rebreather divers.
All dive operators use 8m rubber ducks (zodiacs/ribs) to get from shore to sea. These rubber ducks by law in South Africa take a maximum of 10 divers.
Zodiac full of divers headed out for a day of adventure. Image courtesy Nicki Gibson and Blue Ocean Dive Resort.
We don't rave about Aliwal because we are here, we are here because of Aliwal. Of all the places to have chosen to set up shop, Aliwal Shoal is the place we wanted to be.
The abundance and diversity of marine life here is phenomenal. You can experience more in one dive here than traveling to more than four worldwide destinations - no joke! It's not unusual to see up to 7 species of shark in a single dive. Ragged tooth sharks (grey nurse sharks/spotted sand tigers) migrate here in the winter for mating. We have white tip reef sharks all year round, hammerhead sharks pass us by on their migration, during our summer months, bull (Zambezi) sharks can be seen lurking the ocean floor, tiger sharks patrol the centre water column, while oceanic black tip sharks are frequent visitors on most dives.
Can you spot the diver? © 2022 Matt Jacobs
Other Species on Aliwal Shoal
Any diver will know where there are sharks, there is food and other predators. These come in the form of (see if you can hold your breath while reading this part) bull rays, eagle rays, manta rays, round ribbon tail rays, spotted blue rays, electric marble rays, leopard rays, bull rays, devil rays, butterfly rays, devil rays, honey comb eels, black cheek eels, starry eels, geometric eels, yellow mouth eels, hawksbill turtles, green turtles, bottlenose dolphins, humpback whales, southern right whales, goliath groupers, potato groupers, various species of angler fish, scorpion fish, stone fish, angel fish, bat fish, damsel fish, trumpet fish, puffer fish all the way to amphipods, nudibranchs and other macro life.
Round ribbontail ray © 2022 Andrea Kozlovic
A true wonder of the world, Aliwal Shoal is a Marine Protected Area to protect the hundreds of species of fish and mammals.
No matter who you are or what your preference Aliwal Shoal will fulfill your diving experience.
"The Agulhas current moves warmer ocean water from the Indian Ocean along the Eastern Coast of South Africa. Then, it pushes up nutrient-rich water from the depths of the ocean towards reefs like Aliwal Shoal. This, in turn, allows marine life to flourish." - Bio on the Go.
Longnose hawkfish. © 2022 Nicki Gibson
Where to Stay
Situated off the coast of the sleepy hollow, Umkomaas (Zulu: River of Whales). This little village homes various dive operators since the popularity in diving has grown and a few offer accommodations. One dive operator, Blue Ocean Dive Resort, offers dive centre, hotel, restaurant, and bar all on one location. Roll out of bed and into your wetsuit!
Everything is close to everything, guest houses and dive operators are all situated close to shops and restaurants with a variety of cuisines to choose from.
Roll out of bed and into your wetsuit, then grab a burger and beer after your dive. Image courtesy Nicki Gibson and Blue Ocean Dive Resort.
Whether you're a seasoned diver, a newbie, or are just looking for a good meal, Blue Ocean Dive Resort has a variety of accommodations for its guests. © 2022 Matt Jacobs
The easiest way to get here is by arrival at King Shaka International Airport - Durban. Most dive operators offer transfer from the airport for the 45min drive to Umkomaas. Other alternatives are to rent a car for the duration of your visit or take an Uber. There are shuttle services available but these run on schedules for limited operating hours.
Seasons for Diving Aliwal Shoal
Summer: December through February
Air Temp: 28 - 35℃ (82 - 95°F)
Water Temp: 25 - 27℃ (77 - 80.6°F)
Sightings: manta rays, tiger sharks, bull sharks, hammerhead sharks
Autumn: March through May
Air Temp: 25 - 28℃ (77 - 82°F)
Water Temp: 23 - 25℃ (73.4 - 77°F)
Sightings: tiger sharks, bull sharks, ragged tooth sharks
Winter: June through August
Air Temp: 12 - 20℃ (53.6 - 68°F)
Water Temp: 19 - 21℃ (66.2 - 69.8°F)
Sightings: ragged tooth sharks, humpback whales, sardine run
Spring: September through November
Air Temp: 20 - 25℃ (68 - 77°F)
Water Temp: 21 - 23℃ (66.2 - 73.4°F)
Sightings: humpback whales, ragged tooth sharks
Sightings: turtles, dolphins, rays, eels, trumpet fish, puffer fish, oceanic black tip sharks, white tip reef sharks, guitar sharks, macro life, and a plethora of fish.
Aliwal Shoal is ripe with a number of different aquatic animals. No matter the time of year, you're bound to witness a fantastic sight. © 2022 Matt Jacobs
Whether you're an avid diver, photographer, videographer, researcher, beginner or adventure seeker, Aliwal Shoal is the place you definitely want to tick off your bucket list.
Nicki Gibson was born and bred in the rat race that is Johannesburg, Nicki worked Corporate sales in the Courier Industry. Her calling to move to the ocean came at the age of 30 after the diving bug had bit. Her life evolved from corporate into the diving industry where she met her partner, Gary, and joined him in running and growing their business, Blue Ocean Dive Resort. Blue Ocean Dive Resort was opened by Gary in 2014 and has since become the biggest Dive Operator in Umkomaas, if not the South Coast. Besides running the business, Nicki is a Dive Instructor and loves underwater photography. Inspired by Ikelite Ambassador Matt Jacobs, Nicki now has her very own Ikelite housing again with GH5 camera and is ready to undertake a new angle of photography underwater.
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