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April 24, 2005

Diving Aliwal Shoal

Umkomaas, South Africa

Tuesday - Saturday, April 19 - 23, 2005:

Raggies and Swiss-eating Fish

Among other things, Aliwal Shoal is famous for large schools of ragged-toothed sharks ( and sightings of massive potato cod/groupers ( During a total of eight dives I didn't see any of the former, as the season hadn't yet begun, but I did see several potato cod, very thick and dense at nearly 4-feet in length --- though they can reach nearly 9 feet --- which always appeared alone and would permit groups of divers to come very close up while staring unblinkingly at them. Vegar, an instructor (Norwegian) at Sea Fever and the frequent leader of the dives, liked to relate to divers how (supposedly) an enormous grouper the size of a Volkswagon had once lunged at a Swiss man who had approached the fish too closely. With the territorial fish's mouth clamped around his head and upper body, the diver's regulator fell out of his mouth and he drowned while still half-inside its jaws. The moral of the story, he said, was that we shouldn't be Swiss.

More Unsuccessful Attempts to be Mauled by Vicious Predators

On Friday I parted with a hefty $110 in order to head out with adventure dive company "African Watersports" for a dive with tiger sharks (, among the ocean's top predators. Forget the cages: Aliwal is one of three known places in the world where divers can get in the water up close and personal with these sharks and --- although the tiger shark is supposedly one of the three species of shark responsible for over 90% of all shark attacks on humans (along with the great white and bull shark) --- there have not been any attacks on any divers participating in these kinds of dives in Aliwal to date. One reason is that the baiting techniques used to attract the sharks do not induce a feeding frenzy and, in fact, barely provide the sharks with anything to eat at all. Another reason is that tiger sharks are primarily nocturnal feeders and are relatively lethargic during the day. Finally, as most divers know, sharks do not generally like the noise that scuba equipment makes and aren't prone to regard you as food so much as something that might consider them food. In other words, while they might not be quite "as scared of you as you are of them," they are nevertheless quite cautious and wary in the presence of divers.

While African Watersports is run by a 5th grade school teacher named Walter who likes to dive with sharks in his spare time (and has, I think, the perfect threat to hurl at students who do not complete their homework), his son Mark, in his early 20s, leads some of the tiger shark dives when Walter is unavailable. Mark led the dive that day, consisting of me, a vacationing British dive instructor in his 50s, and three Spaniards in their late 30s/early 40s, who boarded the semi-inflatable boat with thousands (if not tens of thousands) of dollars worth of sophisticated, high-tech camera equipment. These guys were clearly serious about their photography and I later found out that they had already been diving with tiger sharks several times before during the week in order to take numerous pictures for whatever project it was that they were working on (I never found out exactly what that was).

Once out on the ocean, the boat's two crewmen occassionally tossed some bloody water off of the back as we drifted about 3 or 4 miles off the coast. We waited for over an hour before Mark, a wiry, serious-looking guy who was probably only 21 or 22, spotted several remora darting back and forth under the surface. This was clearly a sign that sharks were nearby. Five minutes later one of the crew pointed a finger and shouted "Tiger!" A sleek, mottled-brown torpedo-shape surged in off of a wave and tore at a small piece of fish tied to a rope trailing from the back of the boat. After violently barreling over onto its back, the shark quickly vanished and after a few minutes spent trying to relocate him, Mark decided the time was right to put our gear on and descend. He went first, with two of the Spaniards. Then I went in with the British dive instructor and the last of the Spaniards. We rolled over backwards and sank immediately down into the water.

For the next hour we hovered at between 15 to 30 feet below the surface in 40-foot sandy-bottomed clear waters and watched a total of three tiger sharks circle us and the scraps of bait being dropped from the back of the boat. One shark was between 11 and 12 feet in length. Thick, snub-nosed and striped with brown slashes all along its sides, it cruised slowly and methodically through the water in wide curving motions. A second tiger shark was quite large itself at approximately 9 feet in length, while a third shark was perhaps nearly 7 feet long. Tiger sharks can reach approximately 18 feet in length and sharks that large have occassionally been spotted off of Aliwal. Watching the sharks calmly and deliberately pass us by as close as several feet away was an incredible experience --- far superior to seeing a great white shark through a cage at the surface of the ocean. While the tigers circled us lackadaisically, a couple of 4 to 5-foot long black-tipped sharks hungrily and violently snacked on the small pieces of fish that the tigers had no interest in. Perhaps nearly a dozen remoras also took part in that meal, darting in to pick up the pieces too small to interest either species of shark.

These pictures posted on the African Watersports webpage as samples of the experience, are a pretty accurate represenation of what I saw: . Also, once Mark and two of the Spanish divers left the water after about an hour, I stayed in for another 10 minutes with the remaining two divers. At this point, the sharks circled us a bit more closely. The largest shark curiously passed me within inches. I was hovering at 20 feet below in a sitting position and the shark approached me and passed the tip of my fin not more than 2 inches away. Its dull black eyes rolled back to consider me carefully as it passed. I nearly forgot to breathe (and the fact that I had nearly half a tank of air left after the dive shows that I wasn't breathing very much as it was before that).


My second-to-last dive in Aliwal was fairly mediocre and I didn't expect anything much out of my final dive an hour later. Once under the water with a group of 7 or 8 other divers, we cruised by areas I had already visited and spent 15 or 20 minutes meandering by a few small rays and one small green turtle who was munching away on a plant growing out of a patch of rocks. Then, a chirping sound emerged from somewhere in the near distance. Everybody heard it at once and (having heard it once or twice before) I knew what it meant: dolphins were nearby. On the boat ride to Aliwal two days earlier we had seen a group of them race past us while jumping halfway out of the water. I've also seen dolphins from dive boats in the Galapagos. This time, however, I got lucky.

I expected the sound of the dolphins to disappear just as soon as it started. They swim extremely quickly and, from what I understand, don't tend to approach to investigate divers, who they can see from a much farther distance than the distance within which the divers can see them. However, turning my head to my left, I saw the water 15 feet in front of me (perhaps closer) quickly fill up with a churning pod of perhaps 60 to 80 or even more bottlenosed dolphins, racing one on top of the other in a wavy up-and-down arch-shaped formation. A procession of them passed by our group (splitting it into two), singing and generally just ignoring us on their way to whereever it was they were going. Some of the dolphins were breaking the surface at the top of the water while others were rubbing their tails, backs and bellies on the sandy bottom some 30 feet down, seeming to enjoy smacking their tails and bouncing up and down on them. The space between the bottom and top-most dolphins was packed full of more dolphins --- they were piled on top of each other in close formation. All of the divers hovered motionlessly to watch the spectacle pass by. Then, when the last few dophins had passed in a blue-white blur, we all just hovered there a little more to process what we had seen. Back on the boat most of the divers indicated they had never seen anything quite like that. The divemaster just smiled and told us he sees it more frequently than we would believe.

Posted by Joshua on April 24, 2005 11:53 PM
Category: South Africa

Reached Cairo from Zanzibar on Wednesday (18th) and arrived in south Egypt ("Nubia") on Sunday morning. Am working on a long post to summarize 3 relaxed weeks in Zanz and hope to be caught up fairly soon --- air-conditioned internet cafes being a perfect way to avoid the baking desert heat...

Posted by: Josh on May 22, 2005 09:33 AM
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