Full of rugged pinnacles and prone to rough seas, many ships have to come to grief on Aliwal Shoal. The most recent disaster was the sinking of the Produce, a Norwegian cargo carrier that weighed in at 20,000 tons and ran aground on the reef on 11th August 1974. Today, the Produce lies approximately 15 minutes by boat from the Umkomaas launch site, and is one of the most spectacular wreck-diving sites on the South Coast. At her deepest point, the ship lies in 31 metres of water. Her midsection is largely destroyed, flattened by the initial collision and the ravages of life at the bottom of the ocean. Her bow and stern remain remarkably intact, however – giving divers a fascinating insight into the magnificent ship she must once have been.
Maximum Depth: 31 metres
Minimum Qualification: Adventure Diver
The Day Produce Sank
On the day of her sinking, the Produce left Durban harbour at around 11:30am. Loaded with molasses, she was bound for the United Kingdom – but fell foul of the pinnacles just a few hours later. Upon realising that the hull had been punctured and his ship was fast filling with water, the captain of the Produce sent out an urgent SOS call, which was received by Durban Radio and transmitted to all ships within a nearby radius. Whilst awaiting help, the captain tried to steer his ship for shore, but it soon became clear she would not make it. By the time the first rescue team arrived, the crew of the Produce were left clinging to a sinking ship. The Oranjeland, a Safmarine cargo vessel, was soon joined by a helicopter from the SA Air Force, and together they managed to rescue 17 of the 34 crew members onboard.
Fortunately for remaining survivors, local fishermen Tony Janssen and Clive Home also responded to the SOS call, launching their boats in increasingly bad weather from the mouth of the Umkomaas River. Between them, the two men succeeded in rescuing the final 17 crew members – so that in the end, the Produce sank to the seafloor with no lives lost. Today, the wreck stands as a testament to the heroic rescue efforts of all those involved – and what a beautiful memorial she is. Upon descent, the wreck’s silhouette appears out of the gloom like a ghost – a dark shape against the pale shimmer of the sand that surrounds her. As she becomes clearer, divers are often struck by the sheer wealth of marine life that now calls the Produce home. Her hull is a patchwork of riotously colourful coral, her decks shrouded with clouds of pink and orange anthias.
Wreck Teaming with Fishlife
Fish of all shapes and colours move in gangs across the length of the ship, taking shelter beneath dark overhangs or spiralling in lazy circles above her bow. The rare harlequin anthias is a common sight here, whilst the dim nooks and crannies of the ship’s hold provide a hiding place for juvenile lionfish and inquisitive morays. Great schools of gamefish are often spotted on the Produce, appearing out of the blue to check out this sudden, unexpected bounty of food. The collapsed midsection is strewn with sand, making this a favourite hangout spot for rays of all shapes and sizes – including diamond-shaped sand-sharks and the striking honeycomb-patterned leopard ray. The wreck’s location in the deeper water off the Shoal itself makes it a great dive site for pelagic encounters, with previous once-in-a-lifetime sightings including a humpback, a great white and a curious minke whale.
The real highlight of the Produce, however, is undoubtedly its resident brindle bass. Known elsewhere in the world as giant or Queensland grouper, these magnificent fish weigh in at up to 400kg, and as such are a truly unforgettable sight. They can be spotted anywhere on the wreck, their huge size making everything else seem slightly out of proportion. Their favourite hangout, though, is in the cavernous, open-ended hold – where they hang suspended in the gloom between shafts of bright, illuminating sunlight. To see these fish is not only a photographer’s dream come true, but also a real privilege. The world’s largest reef-dwelling bony fish, their numbers have dwindled around the world to the point where they are now classified as vulnerable to extinction. To dive the Produce is therefore not only to gain an insight into the past, but also to understand what must be conserved for the future.
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