With December already underway and the Christmas holidays fast approaching, we’re beginning to feel the full force of the festive spirit here at Aliwal Shoal Scuba. Forget the artery-clogging food and tinsel-adorned trees associated with a traditional Christmas, however. Instead, we’re dreaming of long sunny days packed with dives in warm, clear water. We’re fantasising over the once-in-a-lifetime encounters made possible by summer marine life, and of spending balmy evenings discussing our adventures around the braai.

scalloped hammerhead shark

Already, the warm summer water has brought some exciting visitors to the reefs that lie just off our doorstep. We’ve seen scalloped hammerheads basking at the surface, and a few days ago one of our dive groups was treated to the spectacular sight of a giant manta. These tropical species are synonymous with summer, and we expect to see more and more of them as the season continues. Mantas often go hand in hand with whale sharks, and that’s certainly the case at the Shoal, where the Christmas period offers the best opportunity for an encounter with the world’s largest fish.

whale shark

Of course, when it comes to seasonal visitors, there’s one species that we anticipate above all others – and that’s the magnificent tiger shark. From mid-December onwards, our baited shark dives are frequented by these amazing apex predators, with larger individuals sometimes exceeding 4.5 metres in length. Tiger sharks hold a special place in our hearts at Aliwal Shoal Scuba, thanks to our ongoing tiger shark identification programme. Since 2013, we’ve been using stripe patterns to identify, monitor and name specific individuals.

December is an important time for the project, because as the sharks return to the Shoal we are given the first opportunity to recognise sharks identified in previous years – and to know that they have survived another dangerous season outside the MPA. Underwater photographers that join us on our baited dives this season will be able to participate in the project by contributing photos to our ongoing database. To share the water with a tiger shark is both humbling and exhilarating – a thrill that we hope all of our divers get to experience at least once.

bull shark

Bull sharks (known locally as Zambezis) are also more prevalent at this time of year, and on the reefs, schools of scalloped hammerhead are not uncommon. Conditions are generally excellent, with warm water temperatures eliminating the need for thick neoprene, and good visibility making it easier to frame that perfect shot. For photographers, the reefs of Aliwal Shoal offer a smorgasbord of different subjects, from friendly pods of bottlenose dolphin and belligerent-looking potato bass to macro critters including nudibranchs, shrimp and pipefish.

Banded Pipefish

There’s more to summer than the spectacular diving, though. The KwaZulu-Natal weather is at its best, with the sun rising early enough to take the sting out of those crack of dawn dive briefings. Sunshine brings out the spectacular colours of the South Coast, and surface intervals offer an unbeatable opportunity to work on your tan. After the day’s diving, spend the afternoon sipping cold beers on the deck at our beachfront restaurant Waves, or take a stroll along the beautiful Umkomaas beach. In the evening, watch the stars come out from the dive centre jacuzzi.

There’s nothing quite like Christmas on the Shoal – but if you don’t believe us, come spend your December vacation at Aliwal Shoal Scuba and find out for yourself why we’re so excited.

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