In South Africa Aliwal Shoal is famous for its shark dives amongst tiger, bull, ragged-tooth or oceanic blacktip sharks, often described as the experience of a lifetime. Sadly, cage diving is a bad practice that is heavily advertised for in all but a very few dive centres…
The ocean is rough by Aliwal Shoal. Actually, its name comes from the first known ship that hit the reef back in 1849. Quite a few other ships sank on this fossilized reef about seven kilometres offshore that marks what used to be the coastline. Remarkably, every boat passing by had reported a very high concentration of fish of all sizes, catching the attention of fishermen: in the 1960’s intensive fishing started in the waters of Aliwal Shoal. Ragged-tooth sharks had already been used to the area as Aliwal Shoal has been their breeding ground. Quickly, sharks realized that it was easier to hunt a fish on a hook, and the area became a hot spot also for tiger and bull sharks in the summer. To protect their keep, fishermen tried to kill them and to chase them away. In only a few years’ time, the marine life had plummeted.
In the late 1980’s, the first SCUBA diving centres opened to allow divers to get up close and personal with the sharks. A marine park was established to protect these by now threatened predators.
This morning as our dive master Rae draws the set up for the dive in the sand, she goes over specific instructions during her dive briefing to keep us safe and to not confuse the sharks. If humans are not on their menu, they are wild animals and we are about to enter their territory.
After a 20-minute boat ride, we are ready to roll into the water where a couple of sharks are already swimming following the bait that is hanging from the boat. Descending in the ocean as a growing number of them approaches is impressive, and we feel a bit of apprehension. As we spend more time observing about two dozens of oceanic blacktip sharks that are attracted by the scent of two buckets filled with sardines and fish oil floating at 8 and 14 metres under water, we feel more and more comfortable diving amongst these prehistoric predators. Being this close, we clearly notice traces of bullets on their skin or scars left by fishing hooks on their lips. One of them swims around with a dislocated jaw. Having divers around is a way of keeping fishermen away from the protected area, and somewhat helping with conservation by monitoring the populations. As the sharks are casually roaming around the bait, we notice their lack of interest in us, and feel safe with no specific protections. Beyond potentially injuring them, cage diving conveys the wrong message that sharks are a threat to humans; and unfortunately often goes hand in hand with shark feeding. Rae has built up an extensive knowledge by diving with sharks every single day for many years to the extent that she named every one of them based on their temper and she recognizes them instantly. She strongly stands against cage diving: “Let me tell you about that time when Skyler Thomas [a famous South African diver and movie maker] came diving here for an experiment. As he was in the middle of several dozens of sharks obviously without being in a cage, he slit his forearm open underwater with a knife and spread his blood to see their reaction. The sharks were completely ignoring him as his warm blood was of no interest to them. But they do get crazy when they pick up the smell of a drop of fish blood!” She continues: “In most cage dives, the dive master ends up opening the cage anyway for people to get out and swim with sharks. The cage is really just for people who can’t swim, and then it’s just all about marketing. It’s just real sad…”
As we are back to the dive centre, the owner Gary explains some more: “We are trying to have the minimum impact, but still, bait diving influences the behaviour of sharks: the oceanic blacktip sharks are pelagic fish living further away from shore and yes, our baited dives attract them, influencing their natural behaviour. But honestly, it’s for the best: it protects them from the Chinese fishing boats further offshore catching everything in their wake and looking for shark fins. Actually, Aliwal Shoal is one of the only spots in the world where the population of oceanic blacktip sharks has increased over the past few years.”
The unsustainable finning to answer the Asian demand for shark fin soup leads to an estimated 12,000 sharks killed per hour in the world. The sharks are caught, the fin is gruesomely cut off and the animal is let to slowly sink and die in the water. If shark attacks do occur, statistics report an average of 8 people a year killed by sharks worldwide, most often in murky waters as with their poor sight they can mistake a surfer for a turtle or a seal. After the first bite (often fatal due to extreme blood loss), they spit out what they thought was a prey.
Diving with some of Earth’s most ancient creatures that are much older than humankind and are dated back to 455 million years ago is a memorable experience and a chance to observe these now threatened species that play a vital role in the ocean food chain.
Marcella & Claire
- Shark dives require an open water certification as the dive is shallow. Controlling one’s buoyancy properly is critical.
- To live this adventure, refer to Blue Ocean Dive Resort. Please, do not encourage cage diving nor shark feeding.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.
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Part of this article was published in the Beyond Boundaries e-magazine by Xtreme Adventure: