With its convoluted topography and incredible marine life, Aliwal Shoal is renowned as one of Southern Africa’s best reef diving sites. It seems ironic, therefore, that one of the most popular sites on the Shoal isn’t a reef at all, but a vast expanse of uninterrupted sand. Located to the west of the reef system, North Sands is one of only two such dive sites on the Aliwal Shoal and therefore offers an experience as unique as it is memorable. With a maximum depth of just 15 metres, North Sands is accessible for beginner divers – and yet offers enough excitement to enthral veterans that have seen it all before.
Maximum Depth: 15 metres
Minimum Qualification: Open Water Diver
Wave-Carved Sandy Floor
On a clear day, descending on North Sands is an experience in itself. Sunlight filters through crystalline waters, casting shining patterns across the wave-carved sand below. Fish move in silent shoals against the sand’s luminous backdrop, suspended halfway between the surface and the seafloor. From the bottom, a stream of regulator bubbles drifts slowly towards the boat above like globes of silvered mercury. North Sands’ shallow depth and sandy bottom are perfect for student divers needing to practice newly learned skills – making this dive site one of the world’s most beautiful classrooms.
Prolific Marine Life
There is more to North Sands than the scenery, however. Somewhat surprisingly, it is also one of the Shoal’s most prolific dive sites in terms of marine life. It is the best place to spot the area’s resident pod of bottlenose dolphin, who regularly congregate here towards the latter part of the morning. It is thought that the dolphins use the abrasive sand to clean themselves; certainly, that seems to be the case for the ragged-tooth sharks that take over the dive site every winter. During the colder months, it is possible to see aggregations of more than twenty sharks drifting placidly over North Sands.
The sharks’ winter patronage means that this is also a great spot to sift for shark teeth. Divers should be careful where they place their hands and knees, however, because North Sands is also a favourite refuge for bottom-dwelling species including rays and sole.
Bottom Dwelling Rays and Shark
Often, the only indication of these creatures presence is a pair of eyes protruding comically from the sand. In summer, North Sands is a well-known aggregation site for round ribbontail rays, giant guitarfish and the magnificently patterned leopard and reticulate whiprays.
The warmer water also attracts visiting pelagics, including schools of scalloped hammerhead. Mantas, eagle rays and tropical game fish have also been known to frequent North Sands during the summer months. Those in search of smaller critters will find them at this site, particularly in the crevices and overhangs of the boundary reef. On days with a slight north-to-south current, divers can get the best of both worlds by starting with a sand dive on North Sands, before progressing to a wall dive along Inside Edge’s sheer drop-off.
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