Shark Week 2015 – Aliwal Shoal, KwaZulu Natal

On 21 March 2015 we attended the first ever Aqua-Lung Fun Day which was hosted by Manex Marine in Gordon’s Bay. Though the day saw it’s share of sub-par surf conditions, we had an absolute blast diving the reef of “Steenbras Deep” where I tested out my new Knog Qudos Action video light for the very first time, yet still on it’s stock mount which gave insane amounts of backscatter as you may recall from the review video I posted. What I didn’t mention was that a prize draw was held on the day for several prizes, and as fate would have it, our humble ticket number 002 landed us a 5-day breakaway for two to the luxurious Blue Marlin Hotel in Scottburgh, together with baited shark dives and a PADI AWARE Shark Conservation certification and with the compliments of Crystal-Divers SA! Although we could not book it immediately like we initially wanted, things eventually played out for the better with us being able to book it from 6 to 11 July, also known as Shark Week 2015!

So here follows the details of our very first diving experience outside of Cape Town:

We awoke to crisp temperatures and complete darkness in Cape Town at 04h30 on Monday, 6 July in order to make the baggage check in at 06h00 for the first Mango flight to Durban. I had booked us the earliest flights possible to ensure that we could make the most of our time during the trip and although we dreaded the early wake up on the first real day of holiday, excitement quickly shook us up as we made our way to the airport full of smiles. Before we knew it, we were on our way and witnessed the most amazing sunrise as we made our way East towards the South Coast of South Africa: Kwazulu-Natal, home to Aliwal Shoal which rates among some of the best diving to be had in the country. Two hours later we arrived in good old Durban, where the high humidity and lack of constant wind the likes of which we are used to in Cape Town ensures pretty constant temperatures across all seasons, embracing us with a very comfortable 24 degrees and partially cloudy skies. Seeing as we were already in the area and did not have any diving planned for day one, we decided to head straight to uShaka Marine World and wet our appetites on their incredible exhibits.

Sunrise captured over the wing of our plane as we headed to Durban
Sunrise captured over the wing of our plane as we headed to Durban
A panoramic view of the Blue Marlin's outside area, including pools and beach bar
A panoramic view of the Blue Marlin’s outside area, including pools and beach bar

By lunch time we had had our fill at uShaka and were ready to make the 70km trip to our hotel, the Blue Marlin. Located conveniently just off the N2, the recently revamped Blue Marlin sports all the comforts we would expect from such a well known establishment with exceptionally friendly and helpful staff, divine catering and a palm-crested ocean view that soothes the soul to an extent where you dread the thought of ever having to return home. One of the most valuable features for us as divers was the fact that Crystal-Divers SA, the dive shop who sponsored the prize we won, was super-conveniently located inside the hotel meaning that all of our diving requirements could be catered to without leaving the property, with boat launches happening in the surf right in front of the hotel. As soon as we were all checked in and settled, we sought out our dive contact and started planning the week’s dives. Sadly the weather forecast for Tuesday was horrendous with huge swell, high winds and plenty of rain, so we decided to do our first dive first thing Wednesday morning… and when I say first thing…

A panoramic ocean view from the Blue Marlin Hotel
A panoramic ocean view from the Blue Marlin Hotel

Dive 1: Wednesday, 8 July – South Sands, Aliwal Shoal

At 05h30 my phone lit up on my bedside table and I experienced a strange mixture of excitement and dread, however as soon as I was up I was readier than ever to hit the water. By the time we reached the gear room, Keith was already waiting with hot coffee and our gear was laid out & ready to go. A quick wetsuit don later we were finally heading out to our first dive outside of Cape Town. We met up with ScubaXcursion who would be our charter for the day, and after a quick briefing I realized that launching a boat in Cape Town and launching one in KZN were two completely different things… The boat was ceremoniously dropped in the shallow breakers, swiftly spun around and pushed in deep enough to drop the motors just enough to prevent being washed out, after which all divers hopped on board and geared up for the ride out.

The engines slowly puttered as we waited for a gap in the waves at which point we flew off with some of the finest skippering I’ve ever seen. Before long the waves were behind us and we began our 5km ride to our designated site. Unfortunately the stormy weather of the day before had left the ocean in quite a state with less than ideal viz and some pretty significant swell, but my Stugeron played along for the most part and after our final checks we rolled back into the warm, blue waters that awaited us…

Some colourful reef and the fish that call it home
Some colourful reef and the fish that call it home
A lone Scorpion fish stays perfectly still, hoping we don't spot him...
A lone Scorpion fish stays perfectly still, hoping we don’t spot him…
More jagged reef sporting all matter of life
More jagged reef sporting all matter of life

As soon as my mask cleared, it became more and more clear what difference a few degrees in water temperature could make to the fish that make their home on a reef, as well as just hoe different the bottom was to what we were used to. Sandy patches and rounded granite boulders were replaced by jagged volcanic rocks, and long, swaying kelp forests replaced by short tufts of leafy kelp covering the tops of every hard surface, with schools of small fish moving within the holes and cracks in an effort to avoid the swell that was slowly rocking everything a good 2-3m from side to side, making photography a little tricky. We encountered several Raggies either scouting the reef or slowly circling depressions in the rocky plain, and having only dived with them in the aquarium in the past, it was amazing to be able to encounter them in their natural habitat. After just under an hour on the reef, we slowly started making our way back to the surface and had another super fun ride back to the shore, parking the boat right on the beach.

Despite having only done one dive, I think the early rises and busy schedule started getting to us and upon returning to our hotel room, we passed out on the bed for a very welcome afternoon nap. At 17h00 we met at the Crystal-Divers classroom for our PADI AWARE Shark Conservation info session, during which Keith talked us through the importance of sharks in the eco-system and the challenges they were facing in the wild due to misinformation and greed of the human race. Diving with sharks is the most awesome, humbling experience in the world and I have developed a deep love for them since I started diving. Although I was aware of the challenges they faced, seeing the pictures, and hearing the stories of how they were being blatantly exploited by a power and money hungry society broke my heart. I realized just how dire the situation is, with even the Raggie, a shark that we encountered on every dive, was listed as threatened on the IUCN Red List. By the end of the course I felt both sombre and determined to make a difference, no matter how small or insignificant.

DSC00049

Having missed breakfast due to our early dive, we were fairly hungry by the time we awoke and at this point the smell of the hotel’s 3-course buffet was making it’s way through the hotel and into the classroom, so we decided to try it out and let me tell you, they spared no expense with mountains of perfectly prepared fillet and roast potatoes having me drool a line on my many return trips between the table and the buffet. Only when my stomach could extend no further did we decide to call it a day and retreat back to our hotel room, where it only took a few seconds for me to resume my little afternoon nap…

Dive 2: Thursday, 9 July – The Baited Dive, Aliwal Shoal

On this day, I awoke long before my alarm, to the darkness of winter and sound of waves crashing in the distance. The time had finally come. I was going to see sharks in action, up close in personal. I had been thinking about and planning this dive since the day we won that prize, even built myself a brand new tray and arms for my GoPro and fitted it with dual Knog Qudos action lights so that I would be able to squeeze every last drop out of the potential of this unique and thrilling experience. My wife was equally excited, but also experienced some anxiety and increasingly so as the dive time drew closer, to the point where she eventually opted not to do the dive as she was not comfortable that she would be able to do so safely. Although I would have loved nothing more than for her to join me on this adventure, I think in the end her absence gave me more peace of mind during the dive, as I only had to focus on my own safety.

By 07h00 we were already kitted up and ready to head out and meet up with the folks from Aliwal Shoal Scuba who, by the time we got there, had their boat all kitted out and ready to head down to the river from where we were launching. On this day we launched into the river mouth and then proceeded into the surf from there as with our first dive, we hung around in the shallows awaiting our gap, and before long we pushed through and headed back to the reef, this time dragging “mince bags” (mesh bags filled with fishy bits) behind the boat as we went to get the sharks excited. As soon as we saw the first Remora, we knew sharks would not be far away and the Aliwal Scuca crew started assembling the bait line which consisted of 3x perforated 25L drums, 5m apart hanging from a buoy at 5m, 10m and 15m respectively. Using this method the deeper of the three at 15m, known as the “Tiger bait”, served to attract deeper dwelling sharks from the reef. By the time the bait drums were in there were already several fins poking through the warm glassy surface of the water and I remembered giggling at the thought of rolling backwards into which was essentially shark infested waters.

An oceanic Blacktip shot from below during a baited dive at Aliwal Shoal
An oceanic Blacktip shot from below during a baited dive at Aliwal Shoal
Using dive lights we get to see the Blacktip's real colours
Using dive lights we get to see the Blacktip’s real colours

When the bubbles cleared, I gasped in amazement at the sight of at least 10 Blacktip sharks circling the baited drums, along with hundreds of excited Remora and Kingfish. These were obviously not reef sharks. They were fast, and agile, and elegant, and beautiful, no less so than dolphins. They would often shake their heads in frustration with multiple Remoras hounding each shark as it made it’s way in an out of the suspended bait, some swimming slowly towards the outside of the madness taking a breather, with others chasing through the bait from side to side. We spent roughly an hour just hanging around at 10m, and cross my heart and hope to die, if I head to rate my fear/anxiety over the course of the exercise it was at it’s highest when I watched a YouTube video of baited dives a month before. On the day, I did not experience anything but amazement, excitement, and a great deal of sadness that these amazing creatures are so blatantly exploited for absolutely no reason at all. There are so many fish in the sea in sustainable numbers that offer both easier and more profitable fishing opportunities, yet we prize the fins of these sharks, something so insignificant in the greater scheme of things, and label it as delicacy? What a silly notion. That’s like killing cows and only eating their feet. It’s wasteful, and selfish, and greedy, and therein unfortunately lies the summarized description of our race; the face of planet earth.

I was quiet on the boat ride back, thinking about everything I had seen and how that close proximity had forever changed something in me. I had enjoyed diving with sharks in the past, and it was always a great encounter, but seeing these pelagic sharks in their natural environment, and how we shared the water with them not as prey, but as visitors, allowed me to shed the last bit of doubt and fear that was stuck in the back of my primitive mind. My aspirations to become a technical diver suddenly took a back seat to my new conviction: The protection, education about and diving with the sharks of our oceans. I spent the evening downloading my pictures and video and showing my wife all the amazing things I had witnessed on this most excellent encounter.

Another oceanic Blacktip passes me while I'm filming
Another oceanic Blacktip passes me while I’m filming

Dive 3: Friday, 10 July – South Sands, Aliwal Shoal

After some bad weather earlier the week, we noticed that Friday’s forecast was looking great and we decided to head out one last time before heading back to the cold waters of Cape Town. We did not care which site we ended up at, as long as we got to experience the warm waters and complex reefs of the shoal again. We met up with Aliwal Shoal Scuba again and launched from the river again. Some more championship skippering and we were back at the reef, this time with significantly less swell and better viz than our first dive which allowed us a much more efficient dive and allowed me to really get into the little cracks and crevasses to see what lurks in their shadows. We saw a good amount of raggies and more colourful fish, and on this day we were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a large Loggerhead Turtle, although since he was fast asleep under an overhang we were not able to get and spectacular pictures. Still, it was a great encounter. We continued making our way up the reef and ended the dive after around an hour of amazement of the beauty of the underwater world, saddened by the thought of not being able to dive it again during our stay…

Feesh

Bluefish

We spent our evening downloading the remainder of our photos and videos and looking through them, reminiscing over the amazing encounters and finding peace in knowing that although we would not be diving Aliwal again anytime soon, we get to go home to Cape Town where the water, albeit cold, is swarming with it’s own wonderful array of sub aquatic life.

A big thanks goes out to Manex Marine for organizing the Aqua-Lung fun day which afforded us this opportunity, Crystal Divers SA for their prize, time and hospitality during our stay, Scuba Xcursion and Aliwal Shoal Scuba for taking us to the reef and back, and the Blue Marlin Hotel for their incredible service and food 😀

I leave you with the result of my baited shark dive, and hope that it will open your eyes to the world below the surface and the threats our oceans face due to mankind’s inability to put the lives of animals and the well-being of our planet before their own selfish agendas.

Go with peace 🙂

– M