Aliwal Shoal

Aliwal Shoal is a coral reef system located 7km off the coast of Umkomaas; a small coastal town located along the south coast of KwaZulu Natal and is a Marine Protected Area to aid in the protection of all the incredible life it houses, making it a diver’s dream.
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Aliwal Shoal is a year-round dive destination, however there are specific seasons in which you have a greater chance of spotting certain marine life.

This reef is famous for its high shark population, and therefore offers incredible shark diving.

A dive destination that has so much to offer and is right here in South Africa.

Table of Contents

Marine life sightings on Aliwal Shoal

There are a number of tropical and subtropical fish that populate Aliwal Shoal. 

Everything from snappers, kingfish, tuna, the friendly resident potato bass’s / groupers, brindle bass (the size of a small car), Batfish, trumpet fish, pipefish, octopus and seabrimes.

The 'IT' destination for Shark Diving!

Ragged Tooth Sharks in Cathedral

This are is famous for its shark diving and shark encounters, with the chance of spotting up to 7 different shark species on one day of diving.

A must do dive is the baited shark dive where you can have up to 40 Black tip sharks around you.

Other Shark species include:

    • Ragged tooth shark / Grey nurse shark,
    • Black tip shark,
    • White tip reef shark,
    • Bull shark,
    • Tiger shark,
    • Dusky shark,
    • Hammerhead shark.

Most of these sharks can also be seen during the Sardine Run, which is during the months of June & July.

What is a baited dive?

The baited shark dive occurs on a dive sight called Howards Castle which is located on the southern point of the reef.

Once arriving at the site, the staff will put two bait drum filled with sardines / fish bait which are attached to a fixed line which is attached to a floating buoy on the surface, into the water.

After putting the bait into the water, you will usually wait a couple of minutes to let the scent of the bait spread and for a few sharks to pull in.

At this time, everyone will kit up and enter the water. The shark guide will usually hang out closer to the drums to give them a little shake to get the scent into the water to attract the sharks and keep them circling the bait stem.

The sharks are not fed during this process as the drums are closed and by baiting the water, we are attracting them with scents peaking their interest.

So, a lot of you are probably wandering where you hang out for this whole process?

If you are on scuba this will be a mid-water dive meaning you do not dive on a reef but rather in the mid water between 6-8m in a semi-circle formation around the first bait drum where you are fully immersed in the action.

For the freedivers and snorkelers , you will be on the surface.

What sharks do I dive with on the baited dive?

You will mainly dive with the resident Black tip sharks with the chance of having an appearance from the beautiful Tiger and bull shark. Maybe even a Dusky shark. 

Is the baited shark dive dangerous? 

Because we are scenting the water this attracts the sharks to come in in more of a ‘scavenger mode’ and not an attack mode as they can sense that the fish are already dead.

There are several safety measures that divers adhere to and with the aid of very experienced shark guides, this experience is not one to fear!

Rays of Aliwal Shoal

Eagle Ray encounters

Aliwal is home to an array of ray species. These majestic marine creatures are found all over the reef; nestled in the sand, on the reef and gliding through the mid water.

The water is extraordinarily rich in plankton which researchers acquaint with the large amount of ray populations.

Some Ray species include:

    • Devil rays 
    • Manta rays (both Oceanic and Reef)
    • Eagle rays,
    • Bull rays,
    • Sting rays,
    • Round ribbon tail rays,
    • Whiprays.

Humpback Whales

Humpback Whale Tail

These majestic giants migrate past Aliwal Shoal, making the boat rides out to ‘the shoal’ a full-on ocean safari, so make sure you have your camera ready to capture there impressive breaching and playful fin slaps on the surface.

They can be quite shy underwater and often pass overhead the divers when no one is looking (as the skippers tell us), but they surely make themselves heard to all divers as they sing their signature whale songs.

For more about their migration past Aliwal Shoal click here!

Bottlenose Dolphin

An experience that will surely warm your heart, spotting these dolphins whether you are on Scuba, Freediving, Snorkel or Technical diving. If they are in a playful mood, you are in for one fun encounter!

They are often traveling in bigger sized pods which is super special as you get to meet the whole dolphin family, mom, dad and baby!

Turtles

Aliwal Shoal is home to 4 types of turtles:

  1. Loggerhead turtle,
  2. Green turtle,
  3. Hawksbill turtle
  4. and the occasional Leather back turtle. (these are more rare to see)

The Green and Loggerhead are more commonly found on Aliwal and there are a few residents that are loved by those who remember them!

I have seen the biggest green turtle and he is a resident that likes to hang out on the Northern pinnacles and potholes, so if conditions allow, pop your head into each pothole to check him out.

It’s well worth asking your dive master to help you identify the differences before your dive.

Let's not forget the "Small Stuff"

Due to the reef being a fossilized sand dune it has impressive topography with lots of cracks and caves, which is perfect for small critters, such as:

  1. Pipefish,
  2. Pineapple fish,
  3. Peacock mantis shrimp,
  4. Paper fish,
  5. Scorpion fish,
  6. Weedy scorpionfish,
  7. Stonefish,
  8. Ghost pipefish,
  9. Razer fish,
  10. Cuttle fish,
  11. Harlequin shrimp,
Nudi's of Aliwal Shoal

Nudi Branchs; These marine gastropod molluscs look like bright, colourful worms with the cutest faces. Aliwal houses over 150 different species & counting can and be found scattered all over the reef.

Dive conditions on Aliwal Shoal

When is the best time to dive Aliwal Shoal?

You can dive Aliwal Shoal year-round and have completely different experiences each time which is just one of the things that makes diving Aliwal Shoal so exciting.

The ‘best time’ will depend on what you look for in dive.

In terms of ocean conditions, during the summertime due to the heavy rainfall inland it causes the rivers to flood into the oceans and with the changing tides and winds it can take that river water over the reef effecting the visibility.

The great thing about the flow of river water on the reef is that it brings a lot of life and great sightings.

Summertime is also season for the bull sharks (Zambezi shark), Tiger shark and hammerhead season.

Winter diving in Aliwal is also fantastic (late May – late August) and the visibility is usually lovely. This time of year coincides with the Ragged tooth shark and Humpback whale seasons.

What are the water temperatures diving Aliwal Shoal?

Temperatures usually range from 22-27 degrees Celsius, with it occasionally dropping below 20 degree Celsius.

In terms of exposure protection, it is going to depend on what type of diving you are doing. For recreational divers a 5mm wetsuit with a hoodie is recommended. For technical divers doing longer dives, an 8mm or dry suit is recommended.

All of this is dependent on how well you handle the cold, so if you are like me, I feel the cold a lot and benefit greatly from diving with a hoodie.

Aliwal Shoal Dive Sights

Aliwal Shoal reef is around 5km long and runs in a North to South direction as shown on the map. It has a pinnacle ridge which runs down the middle and from there it slopes off on each side.

The reef topography is incredible as it has many overhangs, swim throughs, ledges, potholes and the famous cathedral formation which is famous all over the world.

Aliwal Shoal Reef Map
Aliwal Shoal Reef Map

Northern Pinnacles: Depth range: 6m-17m

A great multilevel sight with many overhangs, potholes and is suitable for all diving experience levels.

The resident Batfish love to hang out on the pinnacle ridge and love to visit divers on their safety stops.

North Sands: Depth range: 12m-16m

This giant sandy patch is the IT place for rays; whether they are nestled under the sand with their eyes popping out, to them gliding over the sand ripples.  

Not to mention, tis sand patch is a great place to pick up some shark teeth.

The more common teeth to find are those of the Ragged Tooth shark and this is due to their sheer numbers found on during their season.

Chunnel: Depth range: 10m-15m

This chunnel has many overhangs and swim throughs where the Ragged tooth and white tip reef sharks like to hang out.

Chunnel is a long stretch of reef and is a great place to spot the smaller critters. 

Don’t keep your head buried in the reef too much as the bigger marine creatures, like pods of dolphins, Rays and sharks are spotted in the mid water.

Eel skins: 12m-19m

Eel Skins is a beautiful stretch of reef and sits on the Southern end of the reef and has a lot to offer.

A great reef to spot a Tiger shark in season! Also a relatively flatter reef system and has beautiful ridges with smaller potholes.

Cathedral: 18m-27m

A dome like structure is a world renown dive site with people traveling all over the world to experience its beauty.

It got its name as it is shaped like a cathedral church and during the Ragged tooth shark season you can have up to 40 Ragged tooth sharks circling in the structure, a Photographers dream!

Also a great place to pick up ragged tooth shark teeth at the entrance of Cathedral.

Overall, one of my favorite dive sites on the shoal.

Ragged Tooth Shark in Cathedral, Aliwal Shoal
Photo By Alex Kock - Ragged tooth shark in Cathedral

The Aliwal Wrecks

Aliwal Shoal is home to two wrecks; the first and most popular being the MV Produce wreck and the SS Nebo wreck.

1. MV Produce wreck

This stunning 176m long ship is positioned more Northwards from the reef as it sunk by hitting the Northern Pinnacles of Aliwal Shoal, leaving the crew 30 minutes to abandon the vessel.

She is resting on her starboard side at a depth of 32m. The middle section of the wreck has collapsed, but the stern remains very intact and houses a ton of life.

2. SS Nebo wreck

This 2000-ton steam freighter was carrying 4500 tons of materials from Britain to Durban and sunk due to colliding with a unknown rock pinnacle. Due to her weight, she capsized and sank directly facing the beach.

It is wooden vessel and is smaller than the MV Produce, which sank in 1884 making it the older of the two wrecks.

Things To Do On Non Diving Days

These are just some of the amazing things to experience on your non diving days.

    • Microlight Flights 
    • Eat & dine at local restaurants 
    • Hiking
    • Biking 
    • Forest walks 
    • Learn how to surf
    • Beach walks

Click here to see our full list of things to do in Umkomaas.

This is why Aliwal Shoal is rated as one of the TOP dive sites in the WORLD!

This coral reef system is suited for snorkelers, scuba divers, freedivers and technical divers.  Leave it to us to plan your next Aliwal Shoal Dive Holiday!

Feel free to get in touch with our travel agents or visit our FAQ page.

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Shannon Stewart
Shannon Stewart

I am co-owner/founder of Travel To Dive. Also a PADI Scuba instructor.

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