Unlike most of the world’s dive destinations, Aliwal Shoal doesn’t have an off-season. Regardless of the time of year, there’s always something to see, with every season boasting its own unique highlights. Winter is no exception, bringing with it great visibility, amazing predator action and a host of special visitors that can only be seen at this time of year.
Hello, Ragged-Tooth Sharks!
The stars of the winter show are, without a doubt, the ragged-tooth sharks that start to aggregate on the dive sites of the Shoal from late May onwards. Every year, these amazing sharks complete incredible migrations up and down the Southern African coast, sometimes travelling more than 3,000 kilometres to find the best conditions for breeding and giving birth. When we see them, they’re in the mating stage of their migration, using the gullies and overhangs of the Shoal as their courting ground. They stay for several months before moving northwards to spend their gestation period in the warmer waters of Mozambique. Raggies may look ferocious, with their needle-sharp teeth and unfathomable golden eyes – but in reality, they are a relatively docile species as long as they are given the respect they deserve. They gather by the dozen on several of our dive sites, including Raggies Cave, North Sands and Cathedral. To dive amongst them is an incredible privilege, and a sight few divers will ever forget.
Whales Breaching, Fluking and Slapping
Raggies are not the only visitors to arrive with the cooler weather. Every year around the second week of June, Aliwal Shoal becomes a playground for humpback whales. These giant whales are also en route to the warmer waters of Mozambique, where they will spend the winter breeding before heading back to the nutrient rich waters of the Southern Ocean. Humpbacks are often called the acrobats of the sea, and for good reason – at this time of year, the ocean is alive with whales breaching, fluking and slapping their pectorals on the sea’s surface. There are many theories as to why humpbacks are so playful, with some scientists hypothesising that they breach to communicate with other whales or to rid themselves of parasites. See this phenomenon for yourself, however, and you’ll feel the same way that we do – that perhaps, the humpbacks are just revelling in the sheer thrill of being alive. We see most of our humpback action from the surface on our way to and from the dive sites, but if you’re lucky, you might just catch a glimpse of one underwater. Humpback song can travel for many miles, and the winter ocean often echoes with their haunting melodies.
Sardines Plentiful This Year
Of course, winter on South Africa’s east coast means just one thing to many divers – the Sardine Run. Every year, billions of sardines migrate northwards along the coastline, hemmed in by the warm waters of the offshore Agulhas Current. They present an easy target for South Africa’s marine predators, and divers travel from all over the world to watch the chaos of a Sardine Run bait ball unfold. Traditionally, the action has centred around more southerly areas like Port St Johns and East London, but this year, Umkomaas has already seen its fair share of Sardine Run fever. The ocean is alive with flocks of diving gannets and isolated pods of bottlenose dolphin and last week we saw a super pod of common dolphin that numbered literally thousands of individuals. The heightened activity also attracts pelagic species inshore and, as a result, several dusky sharks have been seen on our baited dives.
Winter is typically defined by drier weather in KwaZulu-Natal, resulting in fantastic visibility that makes it well worth having to add an extra layer or two of neoprene to keep warm. Many marine species thrive in cold water, and consequently we’ve recently enjoyed a wealth of unusual sightings – including butterfly rays and magnificent giant guitar sharks. Oddly, species like the whale shark and the manta ray that are more typically associated with tropical climates are also infrequent visitors to the Shoal during winter. Ultimately, there’s no telling what you might find when you head out for a winter dive on Aliwal Shoal – which is precisely what makes this time of year so exciting.