With big sharks, big currents and big surf, Aliwal Shoal has something of a reputation as an adrenaline-junkie’s paradise. However, there are dive sites on the Shoal that are less high octane (although no less interesting), giving divers the chance to concentrate fully on appreciating the splendour of the marine world around them. Chunnel is one such site, boasting a maximum depth of just 14 metres.
Shallow Dive Site
Being so shallow puts Chunnel well within reach of all divers, regardless of their certification. With that being said, experienced divers will find that there is as much to see here as at any of the Shoal’s deeper and more challenging dive sites. Chunnel has three main features – a pinnacle that spirals rapidly up towards the surface, an overhang that provides a sheltered hiding place for many of the Shoal’s shier residents, and the famous Chunnel Cave. The variety of the site’s topography is reason enough to visit, providing a beautiful canvas for any discerning underwater photographer.
Maximum Depth: 14 metres
Minimum Qualification: Open Water diver
Raggies Hangout in Winter
It is the marine life that calls Chunnel home that makes this site exceptional, however. In winter, the area’s blend of dim overhangs and bare sand patches make it an ideal hangout spot for ragged-tooth sharks. The sharks, which congregate on the Shoal in their hundreds to mate, are a bucket list sighting for any diver, with liver-spotted bronze skin and an impressive array of needle-like teeth. They can sometimes be seen rubbing themselves on Chunnel’s extensive sand patch, a behaviour that scientists believe helps the sharks rid themselves of irritating parasites.
Most usually, however, divers will find at least one shark at rest in the overhang. Ragged-tooth sharks hunt nocturnally, and therefore seek dark places to spend the daylight hours. In order to keep Aliwal Shoal as a sanctuary for these magnificent animals, certain areas of Chunnel are out-of-bounds to divers during shark season – including the sand patch and the overhang. This is to give the sharks their space and encourage them to return to the Shoal year after year. However, these restrictions do not prevent divers from seeing these docile sharks up close – an experience that proves to be a lifelong highlight for most of our visitors.
Plenty Fishlife at Chunnel
Even after the sharks leave the Shoal, there is still plenty to see at Chunnel. The overhang becomes vacant space, available for rent by the first tenant that comes along – usually a po-faced potato bass or a sleepy-looking turtle. The surrounding reef is a magnet for fish of all descriptions, with the pinnacle providing a focal point for the action. Shoals of snapper, gangs of patrolling batfish, and sleek silver gamefish are all commonly seen lending colour to the reef. Regardless of the season, Chunnel Cave is a highlight in its own right, offering divers the opportunity to experience the thrill of exploring a natural swim-through.
Open at both ends, the cave is approximately 10 metres long. Light and space are both limited within its embrace, and as such exploration is not for the faint-hearted.
For the brave, a unique experience awaits – of swimming into the heart of the reef, where slim fingers of sunlight penetrate only partially, and the roof of the world becomes a shimmering mass of silvery baitfish.
There is an open space to the left of the swim-through that is often occupied by a large round ribbontail ray, while those that come prepared with a torch may well catch sight of the cave’s elusive resident pineapple fish.
Due to its limited depth, Chunnel is best avoided on days with high surge, when visibility can be greatly reduced by increased sand movement. Conversely, it is a great option on days with a slight current, as it is an easy drift from other well-loved Aliwal dive sites – including Ledges & Overhangs and North Sands.
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