One of our most famous dive sites is Cathedral, a favourite part of our vast reef for mostly underwater photographers wanting to get that perfect wide-angle or find unusual nudibranchs. Cathedral is found approximately seven kilometres out to sea, on the outside edge of the reef system that makes up Aliwal Shoal.
Cathedral is special for its striking topography, and for the astounding variety of marine life that calls this section of the reef home. With a maximum depth of around 27 metres, bottom time at Cathedral is restricted by no-decompression limits – making this site an excellent choice for the first dive of the day.
15 Minutes to Cathedral
The ride out to Cathedral takes approximately 15 minutes, after which divers must await the signal of the skipper before entering the water. On clear days, the top of the reef is visible from the surface, becoming clearer and clearer as the group makes its descent. The dive site itself is unmistakable – a natural amphitheatre formed by an open-roofed hole in the reef that measures almost 20 metres in diameter. This cavernous space is enclosed on three sides by walls of coral-encrusted rock, at the top of which lies the plateau of the Shoal itself. On the fourth side, the amphitheatre opens onto the blue of the ocean beyond, the view framed by an imposing sandstone arch.
Within the amphitheatre, divers are sheltered from the strong currents that often wash the Shoal’s outside edge – leaving them free to explore the cavern’s treasures in peace. Cathedral’s interior walls are usually a riot of colour, thronged with shoals of yellow and black striped coachmen, and shimmering curtains of pink and orange anthias. Those with a sharp eye will often be able to pick out other denizens in between these fish – ranging from vividly striped nudibranchs to translucent snowflake eels and the exquisite Durban dancing shrimp. Leopard-patterned honeycomb morays are another common sight, whilst the sandy seafloor frequently provides a refuge for large torpedo and ribbon-tail rays.
Dive torches come in particularly handy at Cathedral, allowing divers to explore the site’s dim overhangs and ink-black crevices. On the left-hand side of the amphitheatre opening, cuttlefish are often found sheltering near the base of the wall, while exciting macro species including paper fish and pineapple fish have also been spotted at this location. Cathedral truly comes into its own between the months of June and November, however, when ragged-tooth sharks use the dive site as their seasonal breeding ground. During the height of the season, ragged-tooth sightings are almost guaranteed – whilst some outings may offer the opportunity to see more than 50 of these sharks at a time.
For photographers, ragged-tooth sharks are the ideal subject, with their gleaming golden eyes and ferocious looking teeth. On days when the sunlight filters through the top of the amphitheatre, Cathedral offers a particularly spectacular backdrop for these shark portraits – although divers may not enter the cavern itself during ragged-tooth shark season. Instead, we remain on the seafloor at the entrance, watching as the sharks swim in and out of their temporary home. When the raggies depart from the Shoal at the end of winter, they leave behind the teeth that they shed naturally whilst mating. Consequently, Cathedral is also a favourite dive site for those in search of shark tooth souvenirs.
Although there’s plenty to see inside the amphitheatre itself, it’s well worth keeping an occasional eye on the deep blue beyond the archway. Pelagic sightings are common on the outside edge, with divers spotting everything from hammerheads to thresher sharks swimming past the drop-off. In winter, Cathedral also offers one of the best opportunities for seeing humpback whales underwater, as the giant leviathans pass through on their annual migration north. Even those that don’t see the whales will often enjoy a dive on Cathedral to the accompaniment of their haunting song.
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