Aliwal Shoal is famous for many things, the most obvious of which being its reputation as one of the planet’s premier shark diving destinations. It is also famous for the unpredictability of its diving conditions- those who have dived with us will know that the Shoal can be the epitome of glassy calmness one moment, and in the throes of a major temper tantrum the next. They say that if you learn to dive on the Shoal, you can dive anywhere, thanks to the challenges that diving Aliwal sometimes presents. Fluctuating temperatures and strong currents are symptoms of the dynamic marine environment that is key to the diversity of the Shoal and to the incredible variety of life for which this area is renowned. However, these conditions also mean that Aliwal diving is sometimes not for the faint-hearted, and in acknowledgment of that, we have decided to share a few of our favourite safety tips. This list is by no means exhaustive, and the general diving safety rules that apply elsewhere in the world also apply here, for example, performing safety stops, respecting no-fly times, and checking and familiarising yourself with your gear. The following tips however are written specifically with Aliwal’s famously temperamental conditions in mind.
Listen To Your Briefing
Listening to your briefing is always important, but particularly so when diving on Aliwal Shoal. Our dive masters and instructors have extensive experience of the various conditions encountered on the reef, and will tailor their briefing to include specific considerations that might be particularly relevant to that day’s diving. Therefore, if you are a returning customer, remember that just because you’ve heard the briefing a thousand times before doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen again, as the briefings change constantly with the conditions. We check the readings of the Shoal’s data buoy each morning before heading out to dive- if the current is particularly strong, for example, we may advise divers on how to minimise its impact. Usually, we conduct positive entries- if the current is especially strong, we may need to perform a negative entry in order to avoid separation on the surface.
Similarly, large swells may require different diving techniques, or the state of the tide may dictate whether we launch from the river or from the beach (each scenario requires different actions from our divers). Listening to the skipper’s launch briefing is equally important- Aliwal launches are notorious, and your safety depends on knowing how to conduct yourself through them. Your dive briefing will also include important information regarding the location of safety equipment on board, the correct way to react to a lost diver situation, and the signals for ending the dive in an emergency. International visitors will find that the general signs and signals used in Africa may differ from those used elsewhere– for example, the sign we use on the Shoal to call the end of a dive is used in Asia and the States to signal 100 bar. Being aware of signs, signals and emergency procedures could make all the difference in the unlikely event of an accident at sea, and it is in your interest to acquaint yourself fully with them.
Know How To Deal With Strong Current
Strong current is the one condition that presents the most challenges to divers on the Shoal. Although current is rarely strong enough to cause difficulties, it is almost always present in some form or another and all our dives are conducted as drift dives. Because we choose our dive sites to allow us to go with the flow of the current, overexertion is rarely a problem. By far the most common issue when a strong current is present on the Shoal is with divers becoming separated from the group. This is easily avoided if instructions are followed, however- if instructed to do so, divers should descend negatively and then immediately seek and descend on the buoy line. If conducting a positive entry, all divers should meet immediately at the buoy line, and descend on the line. Frequently, divers fail to maintain contact with the line and are swept away from the group before even reaching the bottom- make sure to stay on the line by forming an ‘OK’ sign around it with your fingers.
Because current is often less strong on the seafloor, divers should make every effort to descend rapidly to minimise exposure to the strong current in mid-water. To do this, make sure that all the air is expelled from your BCD at the surface, and breathe out. If you are properly weighted, you should sink without a problem; however, many divers find that they need to use the propulsion of their legs to get below the first few metres. In that case, angle the upper half of your body downwards, breathe out, and kick. If you still fail to go down, do not keep trying- you will simply drift further and further from the buoy line. Instead signal for the skipper, collect more weight and allow him to tow you back to the line before attempting to descend.
Once on the seafloor, be aware that the likelihood of separation throughout the dive is greatly increased in strong current. Keep a constant eye both on your buddy and on the dive master, and make sure to stay with the group. This is especially important for those with underwater cameras or video equipment- it is all too easy to get distracted by a good shot, only to find that the group have disappeared by the time you next look for them. If you do become separated, look for no longer than one minute before ascending slowly and safely. Skip your safety stop- once you are lost in strong current the main priority is to get to the surface whilst you are still in the vicinity of the dive master’s buoy line. It is a sensible idea for all divers to carry their own personal delayed SMB for use in an emergency- rough seas can make it very difficult for skippers to spot divers that surface away from the group.
Be Prepared For All Weathers
Aliwal Shoal is a place of extremes, with exceptionally hot weather in the summer and bitterly cold winds in the winter. Being prepared for all weathers both above and below the water is essential to diver comfort and safety- failing to be adequately equipped to deal with extreme temperatures can result in sunstroke, hypothermia and dehydration. In summer, consider putting your wetsuit half way on for the ride out to the dive site, to avoid over-heating whilst getting ready. Protect your exposed upper half by wearing a shirt, or copious amounts of sunblock. Don’t underestimate the strength of the sun reflecting off the water- always apply sunblock before a dive, on the surface interval and again on the way home. Hats and sunglasses are also a good idea– overheating can lead to profuse sweating, dizziness and headaches. Make sure to rehydrate frequently- diving is a sport deceptively prone to dehydration, a condition that can increase a diver’s susceptibility to decompression sickness.
In winter, be sure to use sufficient exposure protection both during the dive, and on the way to and from the dive site. Aliwal sea temperatures can drop below 20 degrees Celsius in the winter, and divers will find that gloves, booties, hoods and even additional neoprene make all the difference between an enjoyable dive and a miserable one. Oilskins are a good idea for surface intervals and traveling time between the shore and the Shoal, as they prevent heat loss due to wind exposure. Winter seas can be rough, and divers without oilskins will often find themselves soaked through and chilled even before entering the water. Maintaining body temperature is key to avoiding hypothermia, and may also have ramifications regarding decompression sickness. Those that are susceptible to seasickness should take medication before diving in rough weather- nausea and vomiting are not only a sure-fire way to ruin your day’s diving, but also cause a severe loss of body fluid and sugars that can result in dehydration. If sickness does occur, a good way to replenish lost sugars is with electrolyte drinks like Powerade.
Be Shark Savvy
Aliwal Shoal Scuba has been conducting shark dives for over two decades without the occurrence of any shark related accidents. However, although diving with the sharks of Aliwal Shoal is as safe as any encounter with a wild animal can possibly be, the fact remains that sharks are apex predators and should be respected at all times. Before you get in the water with them, it is important that you know how to conduct yourself properly in order that the experience continues to be an enriching one for divers and sharks alike. We care deeply about shark conservation here at the Lodge, and an incident is not only a matter of human concern, but could set conservation efforts back significantly as well. It is vital that those wishing to dive with the sharks of Aliwal understand their role as ocean ambassadors, and as promoters of our ability to interact safely with sharks.
Although our dive masters are constantly on hand to look after your safety during shark dives, there are several things that you too can do to minimise the already remote chance of an incident occurring. Humans are not part of a shark’s diet, and the only way that we put ourselves at risk is by allowing the sharks to confuse any part of us with the fish that they do actively hunt. Wear gloves, so that the paleness of your hands underwater does not resemble a fish in distress; similarly, keep your hands tucked into your body. If you have a camera, keep both hands on it, and hold it tight to your face and chest- do not reach out with your camera towards the sharks. Strobes, in particular, emit electronic pulses that attract the sharks while the glint of sunlight off a camera housing is similar to that of shimmering scales.
Be aware that the ocean is a 360-degree environment, and watch the animals above, below and behind you as well as those in front of you at the bait drum. If a shark does come too close, maintain eye contact with it- in most cases, this is enough to keep the shark at a distance. If not, simply place one hand on top of the shark’s head, pushing it beneath you. The shark is not heading for you- you are simply in the way of her access to the bait drum. Finally, follow the dive master’s instructions at all times, and remain on the safety pole unless signalled to do otherwise. The pole keeps divers together in a group that sharks find intimidating and keeps scuba divers at a safe depth above tiger shark hunting territory. Always descend and ascend on the pole’s guide ropes, and above all, maintain your respect for the sharks. Divers often find that they are so overwhelmed by their beauty that they want to touch them- remember that these are wild animals and refrain from doing so.
These safety tips deal with the main areas of Aliwal Shoals sometimes challenging conditions- follow them in conjunction with the other basic safety rules of diving and your experiences on the Shoal will only ever be good ones. Aliwal’s unpredictable conditions are part of her charm and ensure that there is never a boring day on the reef.