Umkomaas, Aliwal Shoal

By Amilda Boshoff

The river of whales

ImageIn a small town on the south coast of Kwazulu Natal you can find one of the best dive spots in the world, known as the Aliwal Shoal. The Aliwal shoal is a 1,5 km wide reef and 5 kms off shore from Umkomaas and on the inner edge of the Mozambiquan current and in addition the warm waters often provide for excellent visibility. The shoal is approximately 5kms in length, and runs in a north to south direction. It was named after the Aliwal, a ship that sailed from London in September 1849 and was nearly wrecked here. The captain, James Anderson, then wrote a letter to the Natal Mercury newspaper to warn other sea users of the locality of this dangerously shallow and unchartered reef.

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’. It is said that the whales swam up the river mouth to give birth but today the river is too shallow to form a sanctuary for pregnant whales.

ImageThe reef doesn’t consist of the numerous corals of the northern parts along the coast but have a beauty of its own. In chronological terms, Aliwal Shoal has a very short history. Thousands of years ago, the area around the shoal consisted of a bed of sand dunes. Heavy rainfalls caused sand & shell to dissolve forming a compound of calcium carbonate, which was to form the core of the shoal in what, became dune rock. The continental plates shifted, which caused a rise in the sea level of the Indian Ocean and hence flooding of the dune. When the sea levels rose, the dune was submerged, and with more deposits of sand, seashells and other reef-building materials, a massive and elaborate sandstone structure was created. The topography was very rugged with pinnacles, gullies and caves. Coral polyps formed large colonies on the sandstone, and Aliwal Shoal was born. Over time, the shoal has developed into a fascinating site with an abundance of soft corals, sponges, and hiding places. These have combined to attract over 1200 species of fish, as well as turtles, rays, sharks and whales.


At the beginning of 2005 the shoal became a marine protected area, so hopefully this will help to save the reef for our children.

The shoal is best known for the Ragged-tooth Sharks you can find here in the winter months at Raggie cave and Cathedral. During the months of June through to November you are sure to see Ragged Tooth Sharks as they congregate on the Shoal to mate. It is not uncommon to find 15 to 150 of these ferocious looking but docile animals on a single dive. In summer you have every chance of seeing huge Tiger Sharks and Hammerheads. Depending on conditions the best dives are Cathedral, Raggie Cave, Shark Alley and a number of other spots. Close to the reef is a wreck known as the Produce and divers travel all over the world to come and see this. The Sardine Run also passes by this area annually and is well known for the tumbling swirls of sardines mixed with sharks, birds and dolphins.

Aliwal enjoys typically hot South African summers and cooler winters, although the best time to dive here is from early May to late July, as sea conditions are at their best. A dry/semi dry suit is recommended, but it is not necessary. Today Umkomaas is a flourishing diving community with more than 15 dive operators and a wide variety of accommodation and restaurants to choose from. The accommodation ranges from guest houses to hotels, lodges and back packers, depending on what you are prepared to pay and what suites your taste. There are dive shops and schools in the area that can supply equipment, air-fills and extras, although this is all pre-organized and taken care of when travelling with the dive charter.

ImageThis is a launch site that you will never forget one of the biggest and most daring boat rides in the southern parts of Africa. The Umkomaas, Scottburgh and Rocky Bay launch sites are home to some of the best Surf launch skippers in the country. There is a roomer that if a skipper gets taught here and was skipping here for a long time, then they can skip almost everywhere. There are two types of launches; one from the river mouth where you get into the boat and drives out the mouth to the ocean and the other a beach launch where the divers have to push the boat to the water and jump in as soon as it is in deep enough. (The latter is alien to our European visitors who are usually first on the boat, doesn’t matter- male, female or hairdressers!). The launches is weather and tide depending, like a lucky packet, you never know what you are going to get.

The shoal offers a variety of dives from open water, advanced and shark to wreck diving. Although the boat ride could be long it is really a nice and different kind of dive every time you go out. Compared to Sodwana, Aliwal is a game park and Sodwana is more a zoo type of dive. There are more than 14 different dive sites and 2 wrecks to choose from, enough to keep you busy for a week or so – that is if you want to dive 2 dives a day, every day!! The different sites also depend on the current and weather conditions, thus it is better to choose a few when booking your dives at the charter. There are two wrecks dived near the shoal and is known as the Produce and the Nebo.

The Produce

The Produce is an old cargo vessel that was carrying molasses. It is 119m long and lies facing North. She has come to rest on her starboard side and her back is broken leaving her midship very flat and scattered. (She is facing the Umkomaas River and is lying on her right side). Her propeller has been salvaged, however her spare prop can still be seen on her bow. There is a number of swimthru's for the more experienced diver and it is advisable to bring a torch with on this dive to have a better look inside as light doesn't penetrate in al the swimthru's.

The host of Giant Brindle Bass, which are massive, fish about 3m long, and 1.5m wide, and very shy of people. Divers can also see Harlequin Goldies all around the wreck; they are endemic to the wreck and can only be found on her and the Nebo at times. Scorpion fish and Stonefish is regularly found on the wreck, camouflaged and blended into the scenery. Manta Ray and game fish can also be spotted in the big blue if the visibility allows it. The coral on this wreck consists more of soft than hard coral. Some of the soft coral found here is Fire coral, Whip coral, Green fern coral, Polyp coral and yellow Turret coral.

The Produce was traveling from Durban, headed south when it struck the Pinnacles on Aliwal Shoal in 1974. There were no lives lost as a rescue party launched from the Umkomaas River managed to reach her and saved all the people on board. The Janson brothers, two commercial fishermen that still operate in the area, were responsible for the rescue in dangerous seas for which they received our countries highest award for bravery (the Honorous Crux). There were two more lives saved than what were registered in the ships log, as to the number of people on board. They were two ladies from the Point Road area (Red Light District) of Durban that were there to maintain the moral of the crew. She lies on a depth of 18 to 32 meters.

The Nebo

The Nebo is reported to have been carrying materials for the Van Stadens- river bridge, back in the 1800's when she was sunk due to incorrect loading. She was very top heavy and when she encountered rough seas she, simply went belly up and sank. The wreck, which is over 100 years old, is broken into two main parts. If the visibility is good or you have an experienced dive master, it is a simple navigation exercise to get from one part to the other. She lies at a depth of 18 to 26 meters.

One regular fish species found on this reef is the Natal Catfish, swimming in and out and around the wreck. Harlequin Goldies are also seen on the wreck and is endemic to this area. Round Ribbontail Ray, Sharpnosed Stingray and Greyspot Guitarfish are just a few visitors in the sand around the Nebo. Squid, and Scorpion fish were also found, lingering about. Schools of Fusiliers, Tuna and Hammerhead Sharks have been spotted in the blue; also have an eye out for game fish patrolling the area. Soft coral like Green Fern coral, different colours Polyp coral and Green and Yellow Turret coral are found on this wreck. Always remember about the Fire coral, you don't always see it but touch your face and you will know it was there somewhere.


The different dive sites on the Aliwal shoal surely have something to everyone’s taste, including the shark fanatics!

Cathedral

Imagine a cave surrounded by a craterlike rock formation with Ragged-tooth sharks swimming in and out patrolling their territory. The rest of the reef onwards is plateau with the edges dropping five to ten meters at some places
The main attraction at Cathedral is obviously the Ragged-tooth sharks. All sizes, coming in and out like a busy landing strip in the summer holidays. Some of them are tagged and under constant surveillance with tracking systems that is placed near the caves to monitor the migration of these incredible animals. The average depth on this site is 12 metres with a maximum of 27 metres.

ImageChannel

Expect to find a cave full of Sharks and Tropical fish. Not a lot of light penetrates the cave; this makes it a scary dive with Sharks swimming nearer to see you. Channel is also known as a channel where sharks move around all the time, and is near Reggie's Cave. The marine life in this area mostly consists of Ragged-tooth sharks patrolling the area. Turtles have been spotted as well as Sand sharks and Ribbontail Rays in the sand patch near the channel. Raggie Scorpion fish is common in this area. The fish life includes Wrasse and some tropical reef fish. The coral is also much less than the north coast. The average depth on this site is 12 metres with a maximum of 17 metres.

Eel Skin

At this reef you can find shattered rock formations with a wall on the side full of caverns and overhangs with lots of marine life. The scenery on this dive is one of the best on the shoal; you will see the widest variety of starfish, colours, shapes and sizes. If you can, bring a camera along on this dive. Cleaning stations are to be seen in the small caverns. False stonefish, Peacock Manta shrimp, Puffer fish and Box fish are but some of the species seen on this dive. Coral consist more of soft than hard coral. Green fern coral with clouds of Goldies, and Nudibranchs on the rock formations are a must see. Don't forget to be on the lookout for game fish that lurks in the big blue. The average depth on this site is 13 metres with a maximum of 19 metres.


Half Acre

This area has huge boulders, nice gullies that are connected to a flat piece of reef. The boulders look as if they were dropped from heaven. The rock formations on this reef can cause the divers to loose sight of the dive master. It is advised to stay in a close group. Coral consist more of soft than hard coral. Surfaces are covered with seaweed with lots of Nudibranchs in and between the crevices. Tropical fish roam around freely. Be on the lookout for Crayfish in small caves and overhangs. Natal catfish, Batfish, Trumpet fish and Idols are a common sight. Game fish are always in the vicinity.
The average depth on this site is 17 metres with a maximum of 23 metres.

Hammer Reef

ImageThis is a deeper dive, where you will find deep crevices. There is also a ledge running from north to south where you will find ledges. Hammer reef was named after Hammerhead sharks normally found here. This is still an unspoilt part of the shoal that isn't dived allot. The coral here is mostly unbroken and a wide variety of hard and soft coral can be seen here. As far as marine life goes there are schools of Kingfish passing by. Curious Potato Bass always in the vicinity, Bonitos, Hammerhead Sharks, Fusiliers, juvenile Clownfish, Boxfish and Scorpion fish can also be found in this area. We also saw Nudibranchs, but not the average size, much bigger. This reef looks peaceful and if you look carefully you can find Triggerfish taking a nap in the holes in the reef. The average depth on this site is 20 metres with a maximum of 30 metres.

Howard's Castle

This dive has channels with walls of reef on either side. In these walls you can find overhangs and swimthru's. In the channels there are a few sand patches where you can find interesting ocean stuff. Coral life is few, but the hard coral like Leather coral, Porous coral and sponges are found. Soft coral like Thristle coral and the bright yellow Dead-man's finger coral are found in the crevices. Fish species include Flute mouth fish, Trumpet fish, Devil Fire fish, and the common reef fish are found in this area. Game fish are always in the vicinity and Tiger sharks are regular visitors on the shoal. The average depth on this site is 17 metres with a maximum of 21 metres.


Inside Edge

It is a wall stretching three to six meters high, with ledges, caves and overhangs where the most activity is along the side of the wall. Along the one side there is a big sand patch with scattered rock formations. Along the wall there are various soft coral. Goldies and other juveniles usually form a big cloud around the Black coral. Be on the lookout for Raggie Scorpion fish and False Stonefish because they are camouflaged so well that you really have to look carefully to spot them. Other regular visitors on the sand patch are Guitarfish and various Rays. The regular tropical fish will be found amongst the coral and crevices. Guineafowl moray eels and beautiful Nudibranchs also occupy space on this reef. The average depth on this site is 15 metres with a maximum of 23 metres.

Manta Point

ImageHere, there are huge rock formations with caves big enough for Ragged-tooth sharks to fit in, overhangs and ledges with clouds of fish hiding underneath. Swimthru's and gullies are also on the list of interesting landscaping in this area. This is a great multilevel dive. Ragged-tooth sharks are on the menu in November, found patrolling the gullies and caves in this area. Schools of tropical fish are also found, along an array of hard and soft coral on the edges of the reef. There are parts of the reef that looks as if it was draped by the Leather coral with bits of sea grass in between and a sea urchin here and there, really a beautiful sight. The average depth on this site is 12 metres with a maximum of 22 metres.

North Sands

This is a huge sand patch on the northern part of the Aliwal Shoal and is surrounded by various other dive spots. This area is known for the great amount of Round Ribbontail Rays found buried underneath the golden sand and under the edges of the surrounding reef. Guitar sharks are also a common sight in the summer months. Be on the lookout for Sole covered underneath the sand with only the eyes sticking out. For the inquisitive diver, the sand patch has lots of old shells as well as old sharks teeth if you are interested. Game fish are always in the vicinity. The average and maximum depth is 17 meters.


Outside Edge

This edge runs from the north to the south part of the Shoal. The wall is on the seaside of the shoal. There are different dive spots on this edge like Reggie's Cave, Cathedral and Sharks Ally. Some caves and overhangs can also be found on this edge. Tropical fish were found here as well as turtles. The coral included hard and soft coral and amazing landscape scenes. Always keep an eye out in the midwater for game fish swimming by. The average depth on this site is 16 metres with a maximum of 26 metres.

Pinnacles

ImageThanks to Pinnacles for the wrecks that we can dive on Aliwal Shoal. Pinnacles standing out from the bottom to as much as six meters from the surface, you can find gullies, caves, overhangs, swimthru's and big holes in the reef. This was a relaxed enjoyable dive because it is rather shallow, with more time to explore the beauty of this reef. There are quite a few gullies, swimthru's, overhangs and ledges to inspect the coral and marine life. The average depth on this site is 11 metres with a maximum of 17 metres.

Raggies Cave

This area has rock formations with great amount of caves, overhangs, gullies and swimthru's. Big caves, where you can easily fit in a couple of scuba divers and Ragged-tooth Sharks. The coral life consist more of hard coral than soft coral on this reef and fewer reef fish. In the gullies and crevices the juvenile fish hides during the day. False stonefish and Scorpion fish are commonly found in this area. This dive is known worldwide for the Ragged-tooth Sharks. Shark teeth can be found inside the cave and also in the surrounding sand patches. The average depth on this site is 12 metres with a maximum of 19 metres.

South Sands

This area is a sand patch surrounded by reef. On the sand patch you will also find scattered rocks. The reef life is rather quiet when you first approach, but underneath the rock there is a market of sea life. Reef fish hide in the crevices away from the predators. Lovely Boxfish, Pufferfish and even Crayfish can be found if you take the time to look. Sand sharks and various kinds of Rays are seen on a regular basis on this sand patch. On the reef patches there are Leather coral, yellow turret coral, Thristle coral also in various colours. Wide range of Nudibranchs are also found here. Don't forget to look around for other game fish visiting the area especially when schools of tuna passing by. The average depth on this site is 14 metres with a maximum of 18 metres.


Tiger Cove

This is part of the inside edge and is basically a big overhang that form a cave at the bottom of the wall. Named after the great amount of Tiger cowries found in this area. Along the wall there are big green Fern coral, Black coral, Whip coral and various other soft coral. Goldies and other juveniles usually form a big cloud around the Black coral. Be on the lookout for Raggie Scorpion fish and False stonefish because they are camouflaged so well that you really have to look carefully to spot them. Other regular visitors on the sand patch are Guitarfish and various Rays. The regular tropical fish will be found amongst the coral and crevices. Guineafowl moray eels and beautiful Nudibranchs also occupy space on this reef. The average depth on this site is 12 metres with a maximum of 18 metres.

There are medical facilities and recompression chambers in Durban should an emergency arise. For those prone to seasickness, dry biscuits or ginger tablets may be useful. There is a hospital and doctors in the closest town of Scottburgh but no recompression chamber available.


For the Non Divers:

The KwaZulu-Natal South Coast is an absolute pleasure for non-diving companions as it is a very well developed tourist area catering mainly for family holidays.

  • Indigenous Art's & Crafts, shops and stalls along the major roads
  • Deep Sea Fishing
  • Golf Courses in Umkomaas as well as Scottburgh and all along the coast.
  • Croc Farm, near Scottburgh
  • Tennis, bowls, horse-riding
  • Boat & snorkel based Dolphin & Whale watching
  • Gorge Swing the highest swing in the world, contact a tour operator in the area for more info
  • Kayaking - Guided/escorted River & Estuary Exploration by Kayak, 1 to 5 hour (any fitness/ skill level).
  • Sea Kayaking
  • Visit to Vernon Crookes Game Reserve
  • Shopping malls can be found at Scottburgh almost 20km south of Umkomaas.
  • For those looking for more excitement, the Wild Coast Casino is situated near Port Edward; approximately 2 hours drive to the south.
  • Lovely long protected beaches can be found at Scottburgh and Durban for those that want to bathe in the temperate waters.
  • Visit the U Shaka Aquarium and water world approximately an hour’s drive to Durban.
  • In the town of Umkomaas is a Dive Museum with some of the oldest dive gear to be seen and very interesting tales of the industry that will interest even the non-diver.


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Author: Amilda Boshoff