In 1849, a 3 mast vessel called the ‘Aliwal’ almost collided with the shoal, giving the shoal its now famous name. The ‘Aliwal’ was under the command of Captain James Anderson, and he wrote a report of his experience;
“ From the great interest you appear to take in this place and the coast in general, I think you would like to know that about 30 miles to the southwest from Natal, and distant from the land about two miles, I observed a very large and dangerous rock, or shoal, with heavy breakers.
“I do not find this rock placed upon any chart or alluded to in any directory. I hope therefore, you will speak to the captains of coasting vessels, and inform them of it when opportunity offers.”
Captain James Anderson, In the 'Natal Witness', 14 Jan 1850
Diving at Aliwal Shoal is an exciting experience. Rated by Jacques Cousteau as one of the top 10 dive sites in the world, it has a great reputation to live up to. Aliwal Shoal should not be confused with resort diving, as conditions are demanding - sometimes bumpy launches, swells and currents. This adds to the sense of adventure. The shoal lies 3 - 5 kms out to sea, so all divers are transported to the shoal on boats.
Umkomaas is the sleepy sea side / riverside town which serves as the gateway to the Aliwal Shoal. The Zulu name is Umkomanzi, which was given by King Shaka Zulu himself in 1928 on one of his royal processions with his ‘Impi’ (warriors). During a hunting sojourn, he saw a number of cow whales and calves which were basking in the shallows a short distance out to sea from the river mouth. The name Umkomanzi, literally translated means ‘The watering place of the whales’.
Umkomaas is the sea side town which provides the launch site for the shoal under the Umkomaas bridge on the river (Mkomanzi) mouth. Lying 3 – 5 kms off shore, Aliwal Shoal is on the inner edge of the Mozambiquan current, and the warm waters often provide for excellent visibility.
The Shoal runs in a north to south direction and is a little less than 5 kilometers long. It is home to a large variety of fish, coral, and mammalian life forms. The reefs location is on the inner edge of the warm Mozambique current which allows for often excellent visibility.
Annually the Ragged Tooth shark migrates to the shoal for its "resting season" and congregate at a well know area on the reef fondly known by all locals as "Raggies Cave". This migratory visit lasts from early July to late September during which divers can experience these awsome and scary looking creatures in their home environment. Apart from the excitement of "Raggie Season" the shoal has a resident population of Turtles, Rays, Manta's, Butterfly fish, and Angel fish. Also seen on many days on and around the shoal are schools of Dolphin. An encounter with these beautiful creatures is surely, for a scuba diver at least, like an encounter with an angel.
This is the area most often occupied by the ragged tooth shark during the shark season. The actual cave is not very large, but is part of a long overhang which forms the outer rim of what is sometimes called the "amphitheatre". This area is characterised by many boulder-like rock outcrops and has a large sandy patch on the bottom, which provides and ideal place for instructors to do their skills with their students. The maximum depth in this area is 18 meters and hence also within the diving range of most open water divers. Due to the protective haven that the "amphitheatre" provides, it is home to many local fish species, and is a welcome place to spend some time when the current on the shoal is a little harsh.
This section of Aliwal Shoal, leads from the outer edge of the shoal at a depth of 24 meters upto the opening to "Raggies Cave" which is at 18 meters. Due to the huge depth change there is a very nice steep rock face to dive which forms the walls of the gulley known as "Shark Alley". The botom is mostly sandy with a few rocky formations jutting out here and there. There are a number of caves going into the rockface and are home to a number of resident Potato Bass. There is also an amazing sea fern to be seen hanging off the face of the southern wall.
A second home to the ragged tooth sharks, and now available for viewing on the NET via the SHARK CAM, during the raggie season, "Cathedral" is an advance dive. Called such because of the grande entrance from the outer edge to this round cavern which sits on the ocean bed at 26 meters and rises up to a pothole opening at 18 meters, this is one of the most popular dive sites on the shoal. "Cathedral" is also home to many resident rays which use the sandy bed as a sleeping place when the divers are not sneaking in to see if the Frog Fish is home.
Also very popular with instructors because of the shallow depth of only 16-17 meters, "South Sands" is home to many Guitarfish, rays, and sandsharks. It has a ledge which runs the length of it and is home to many small fish and crustaceans. A great place to start when the current is a little strong and a drift dive is the order of the day. Futher south of this area is a fantastic spot called "Eelskins", but is not often dived owing to the turn-around time of the dives. It is a long way from shore and is the furtherest southern section on the Aliwal Shoal that is dived.
This section is a long "spine" of mountain-like rock formations that provide a haven for thousands of species of fish and is an amazing place to dive when you want to do a long, slow dive. The depth here averages between 5 meters and 18 meters, depending where you are on the ridges. There are some incredible deep potholes with caves that hide at the base of them. This provides a home for many rays and turtles. On the one side the "Pinnacles" slope down toward the "Raggie Cave" and "Manta Point" area and on the shore-side they gently slope down to the "North Sands" area. The sea-facing ledges are a lot steeper than the ones which tapes gently off to the "North Sands" basin.
The pinncles where the reason that the "Produce Wreck" is now available for divers to explore just off the north point of the Aliwal Shoal. There are a few metal shards still lying on the reef believed to have come from the "Produce".
Situated of the eastern side of the Pinnacles and one of my favourite places on the shoal is
"Manta Point". As the name depicts, this is a popular spot for the magnificent Manta Ray, and is haven to thousands of colourful reef fish. This dive has a maximum depth of around 20 meters and is on route to "Raggies Cave" should you elect to follow the spine of the "Pinnacles" southwards to the "Raggie Cave" area.
While I have tried to describe all the most popular dive sites on the Aliwal Shoal, a full description of what you can expect to find on a dive trip to this amazing place, would take me a further 1000 pages. Suffice it to say that I have dived in many places, both here in my own country, and overseas, and my heart still belongs to the Aliwal Shoal.