Umkomaas is the seaside gateway to Aliwal Shoal. The Zulu name for the river mouth is Umkomanzi, which King Shaka Zulu himself named in 1828 after seeing a number of whales relaxing near the river mouth. The name Umkomanzi means ‘the watering place of the whales’.
Geologically Aliwal Shoal has a very short history. A few thousand years ago it was a great sand dune. Weather fluctuations and heavy rain caused sand & shell to dissolve forming calcium carbonate, which is the core of the Shoal. When the sea levels rose, the dune was submerged, and with more deposits of sand, seashells and other reef-building materials, a huge sandstone structure was created. The surface is very rugged with pinnacles, gullies and caves. The shoal has developed into a fascinating dive site with an abundance of soft and hard corals, sponges, and hiding places. Aliwal Shoal is now home to over 1,200 species of fish, as well as turtles, rays, sharks, whales and dolphins.
In 1849, a 3-masted vessel called the ‘Aliwal’ almost collided with the Shoal, giving it its name. The ‘Aliwal’ was under the command of Captain James Anderson, who wrote this report of his experience;
”From the great interest you appear to take in this place and the coast in general, I think you would like to know that about 30 miles to the southwest from Kwa-Zulu Natal, and distant from the land about two miles, I observed a very large and dangerous rock, or shoal, with heavy breakers. I do not find this rock placed upon any chart or alluded to in any directory. I hope therefore, you will speak to the captains of coasting vessels, and inform them of it when opportunity offers.”
Captain James Anderson, In the ‘Natal Witness’, 14 Jan 1850
Popular Aliwal Shoal Dive Sites
As the name suggests, this cave is frequented by ragged-tooth sharks during the winter shark season. The cave itself is not very large, and is part of a long overhang that forms the outer rim of a site called The Amphitheatre. There is a large sandy patch nearby, which provides an ideal place for students to practice course skills. The maximum depth in this area is 18 meters, putting it within reach of Open Water divers.
Shark Alley is a gully that drops off from Raggie’s Cave. The bottom is mostly sandy with some rocky outcrops, and there are a number of caves in the rock wall. Potato bass have made their homes in these caves, and on the southern wall, a beautiful sea fern provides fantastic photo opportunities. The maximum depth is 24 metres.
With a maximum depth of approximately 26 metres, Cathedral is an advanced dive site. It boasts a spectacular circular cavern that spirals upwards to a pothole entrance 18 metres from the surface. For its incredible topography and its popularity with the raggies during shark season, it is one of the best-loved dive sites on the Shoal. Cathedral is also home to various species of ray, several cuttlefish and a resident frog fish.
With a depth of only 17 meters, South Sands is a popular site for training dives. There is plenty of life to be seen here, including rays, guitarfish and sand sharks, all of which like to bury themselves in the wide expanses of open sand. In strong current, South Sands is a great starting point for a rewarding drift dive.
A long ridge of sharp rock formations and jutting overhangs, the Pinnacles provide a haven for hundreds of colourful fish species – while deep potholes and hidden caves often reveal sleeping turtles and rays. On the one side, the Pinnacles slope down toward Raggie’s Cave and Manta Point; while the shore-side slopes down towards the North Sands area. There are a few metal shards still lying on the reef believed to have come from the Produce, the last ship to wreck on the Shoal.
Situated on the eastern side of the Pinnacles, this is a great place to spot the magnificent manta ray during the summer season. Throughout the year, Manta Point boasts a profusion of colourful soft corals and beautiful reef fish, making it one of Aliwal Shoal’s most photogenic dive sites. It has a maximum depth of around 20 metres.
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