While it’s true that there are moments when we miss the sweltering heat of the KZN summer, there’s no denying that winter is a truly special time on Aliwal Shoal. The cold weather brings with it the promise of unparalleled marine wildlife sightings, including the chance to come face-to- face with two very exciting seasonal visitors.
Elsewhere in the country, winter is synonymous with fewer daylight hours and frigid temperatures. For the Umkomaas dive industry, the season means something else. It means the return of two of our favourite species – the ragged-tooth shark, and the humpback whale. Both animals visit the Shoal as part of their annual migration in search of the perfect mating and breeding grounds.
Humpback Whales Visit Briefly
For the humpbacks, Aliwal Shoal is en-route to the warm waters of Mozambique, where they give birth to their calves before making the long journey back south to the cooler, more productive waters of the Cape. During their migration, we are privileged enough to see hundreds of these magnificent leviathans, often within a few hundred metres of the dive boat.
Humpbacks are the most acrobatic of all whale species, and at this time of year the ocean is alive with their playful antics. We often see them on our way to and from the dive sites, slapping their white pectoral fins on the sea’s surface, or raising their enormous flukes into the sky. Sometimes, we even see the whales breach clear of the water in an incredible show of strength and beauty.
Out of respect for conservation law and the whales themselves, we try to stay at least 300 metres from the humpbacks at all times. However, their curiosity often gets the better of them, and sometimes they come much closer. We have even been approached by the whales underwater, giving divers the opportunity for a true once-in- a-lifetime encounter.
Ragged-Tooth Sharks Mating Ground
Unlike the whales, Aliwal Shoal is the final destination for many of South Africa’s migrating ragged-tooth sharks. Drawn by the Shoal’s combination of gullies, overhangs and sand patches, they use the reef as their seasonal mating ground. They spend the daylight hours resting at popular dive sites like Cathedral and Raggie’s Cave, saving hunting and courtship for nightfall.
Their placid daytime behaviour allows us to observe them in their natural habitat in perfect safety. With a mouthful of sharp, needle-like teeth and an immensely strong body sometimes exceeding three metres in length, raggies cut an imposing figure – and yet, they are amazingly tolerant of visiting divers. In particular, the ability to get up close makes this species a photographer’s dream.
Although the raggies and the humpbacks are undoubtedly the stars of the winter show on Aliwal Shoal, there are several other species well worth keeping an eye out for. At this time of year, rays are everywhere on the reef, especially the enormous round ribbontail ray, which can be seen slumbering in caverns or aggregating in large numbers on dive sites like North Sands and South Sands.
Of course, winter is also famous for the Sardine Run, and although the majority of the action takes place further south, the increased activity is directly responsible for unusual predator sightings on our own doorstep. In particular, dusky sharks become a frequent sight on baited shark dives, drawn inshore by the food bonanza taking place down south.