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Dive Sites of Aliwal Shoal, Umkomaas


Aliwal Shoal is made up of one large reef with many different dive sites.  Described below are the more popular of the many sites

Northern Pinnacles
Located on the north-eastern side of the reef, the area forms a spine of mountain-like rock formations with caves, gullies and ledges. The sea facing walls are quite steep but those on the landward side slope more gently down towards North Sands. As they reach within 5m of the sea surface, the pinnacles are responsible for many of the shipping disasters that have occurred over the years. In rough seas waves can break over the pinnacles, becoming a hazard for divers and boats.

Maximum depth is approximately 18m.

Manta Point
Seaward of the pinnacles lies Manta point, known for its popularity amongst manta rays.

Maximum depth is approximately 20m.

North Sands
This large ripple sand patch looks deceptively barren on first impression but in the warmer months you can find magnificent rays of all descriptions. This is also a favourite meeting place for sand sharks or guitarfish, which can be seen congregating here in large numbers through the summer and autumn months.

Most enchanting of all is to lie quietly on the sand and enjoy the sight of completely wild bottlenose dolphins, which sometimes use this large sand patch for rubbing.

North Sands is a good area to do skills for diver training. Take a careful look in the sand for raggie teeth. Also be on the lookout for wary juvenile razor wrasse (which quickly dive into the sand when approached) and juvenile rock mover wrasse, which mimic drifting seaweed. From here it is a short route inshore to the Inside Edge, seaward to the Pinnacles, or down the reef to Ledges and Overhangs.

Maximum depth is approximately 15m.

Ledges & Overhangs
Just down the reef from North Sands is the site known as Ledges & Overhangs. In season, raggies may often be found tucked away under these dark ledges and overhangs. There is a swim-thru that is often occupied by a large potato bass, raggie or round ribbon tail ray resting amongst a large group of slender sweepers. Large tiger cowries can be found sitting on the sponges.

This area is shallow so is best dived in flat seas without surge.

Maximum depth is approximately 12m.

A short distance down the reef from North Sands lies Chunnel, an enchanting dive site that is full of action.

Chunnel Cave has a large front and back opening and forms a protected resting area for raggies. The sharks may be viewed swimming in slow circles within the cave amongst schools of goldies and other tropical fish. The nearby swim-thru should be avoided if there are raggies around. Be aware that round ribbon tail rays may be resting on the sand. Also check the waters above you for mantas, turtles going up for air and game fish.

Maximum depth is approximately 14m.

Raggie Cave
The most famous visitors to Aliwal are without doubt the spotted ragged-tooth sharks, better known by locals as the “raggies”. For many who dive the Shoal the place quite simply means sharks!

Raggie Cave is a large overhang with a swim-thru and is renowned for the ragged-tooth sharks that enjoy residing in this area during winter and spring. A large potato bass is often tucked away under the overhang. In front of the cave lies a large sand patch known as Raggie Sands. This sand patch is a favoured resting place for the raggies and they can at times be seen leisurely circling this area or rubbing themselves in the sand in an intriguing cleaning ritual.

The flat rocks between Raggie Sands and Raggie Cave are covered in an encrusting brown sponge and make for an ideal vantage point, with an excellent view of sharks in the cave.

Out of shark season you can take time to look in the sand for raggie teeth.

Maximum depth is approximately 17m.

Shark Alley
Steep rock-faces form the walls of this gulley leading from the Outside Edge towards Raggie Cave.

This large alcove is another favourite amongst the raggies. Resident potato bass are often hiding under the ledges on the southern wall.

Maximum depth is approximately 20m.

Outside Edge
The Outside Edge is on the seaward or eastern side of the reef and runs from the northern to the southern part of the Shoal.

It includes dive sites such as Cathedral and Shark Alley as well as some unnamed caves, overhangs and blow holes.

It is a good area for viewing ragged-tooth sharks, which generally seem to prefer this section of the reef to the Inside Edge and may be en route to their rest areas at Cathedral or Raggie Cave.

Tiger Angelfish generally prefer depths of 20-35m so this is a good area to look out for them. These striking fish are endemic to Southern Africa. Also to be found in the deeper depths are magnificent branched black corals, often inhabited by hawkfish and whip corals. Look up for game fish, splendid shoals of schooling hammerhead sharks and the occasional tiger shark.

Maximum depth is approximately 27m.

Situated on the Outside Edge of the reef divers can enter through a large archway at the entrance (which rises from 27m up to 18m) into a large craterlike formation, which forms a sizeable “room” approximately 12m wide. One may also enter through the roof of the Cathedral or through the swim-thru slightly to the northern side of the archway.

During season raggies can be seen congregating in numbers upwards of thirty, often mingling quite peacefully with a few stingrays that also enjoy the area. Do not enter into or swim above the crater during raggie season. An excellent vantage point is looking down into the hole from the top edges of the crater.

Interesting smaller species such as paper fish, pineapple fish and bizarre looking frogfish may also be found in or around Cathedral.

Just to the north, along the Outside Edge is False Cathedral – which forms an alcove on the edge of the reef. It is a good area in which to slow down and enjoy the black branched and green tree corals. From here the more popular routes are to head inshore towards South Sands or north along the Outside Edge towards Raggie Cave.

Maximum depth is approximately 27m.

South Sands
This is a large sand patch with scattered patches of reef. Like North Sands this is an excellent place for spotting large groups of sand sharks. The small ledges on the outskirts are a favourite hiding spot for crayfish (East Coast rock lobster) and Natal Seacatfish. The crayfish may be found living side by side with moray eels. Large schools of fearless red fang triggerfish rule this roost and may be seen nipping at many an unsuspecting diver’s fin while defending their nests. It is also a good spot for large schools of game fish and sailfish and marlin have both been encountered here. A great white shark (perhaps in pursuit of the game fish) may, on occasion, come in for a visit and tiger sharks, raggies and white tip reef sharks are also known to visit here.

Be sure to keep an eye out at mid water for eagle, manta and devil rays that can at times be seen flying quietly overhead.

Maximum depth is approximately 17m.

Inside Edge
This dive is on the western wall of the reef and consists of a number of ledges at approximately 16, 18 & 22m. There are also a number of caves, coves and overhangs.

This is a fantastic dive for viewing the small things. What else you see is really just a matter of how hard you look, octopus, cuttlefish, cowfish, moray and snake eels can all be found. This is not to say that you will not be graced by some of the larger creatures, manta rays and round ribbon tail rays are commonly seen on the top of the ridge, a lone raggie sometimes makes a spectacular appearance and tiger sharks may be lurking.

Maximum depth is approximately 22m.

Eel Skins
This area is unspoilt and seldom dived as it is at the southernmost tip of Aliwal and requires a longer boat ride. The top section of this reef is found at about 14m and has numerous deep pot holes that open up into caverns or caves that are best explored with a torch. For those wanting shark action, blacktips, tigers and hammerheads may occasionally materialise from the blue. (Tiger cave along the outside ridge was in the past traditionally used as a baiting station for tiger sharks).

Maximum depth is approximately 17m.

Howard's Castle
This reef is infrequently dived and lies south of Aliwal, just off the main reef. Although a fantastic dive, the boat ride (from Umkomaas) can be long so a calm day is best.

The reef reaches a depth of approximately 24m and rises up to around 12m, with lots of interesting overhangs, gullies and rock formations. One of the main features is a swim-thru that runs for about 5m. The area is sometimes used as a station for the specialist tiger shark operators. Although not frequently spotted during a non-baited dive, tiger sharks may be lurking and have been known to make a spectacular appearance.

Blacktip sharks (not to be confused with blacktip reef sharks) may join you. This can be an intimidating but awesome experience as the sharks are inquisitive and may follow you for the duration of the dive. They are very active, fast and curious and may even take turns at “buzzing” you on your safety stop.

In season a small number of raggies usually take up residence and may be seen slowly patrolling the reef.

Frogfish, pineapple fish and a number of other cryptic creatures share the area.

Maximum depth is approximately 24m.

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SS Nebo - 20 May 1884

The British steamer SS Nebo was the first of many to fall victim to the shallow pinnacles of Aliwal. She sank quickly and lay quietly at rest for almost a century before she was first dived. She lies at a maximum depth of 27m and rises up to around 17m. The wreck is closer inshore than the reef and subject to poor visibility from river runoff, especially in the summer months. As it is relatively small, this dive is best avoided in strong current.

MV Produce 1974
The Captain of this ship was said to have been “taking a nap” when his ship ill-fatedly rammed into the Shoal. The crew had less than 15 minutes to abandon ship before she capsized and began to sink. Today she is the most popular and regularly dived wreck on the KZN coast. A day with little current and good visibility on this wreck is magnificent. She lies less than 1km to the northwest of Aliwal, on her starboard (right) side, facing north, in about 32m of water. She rises up to within 14m of the surface and covers a length of over 100m. Her back is broken, leaving her midship flat and scattered. Her bow and stern have, however, remained remarkably intact. Although a fairly large wreck, it is possible to navigate between the bow and stern on one dive.


With its short, pointed snout, small beady eyes and a mouth crammed full of needle-like teeth, the ragged-tooth shark oozes malevolence. Looks are misleading, however, and we have learnt that, unmolested, raggies are gentle and quietly accommodating despite their menacing appearance.

There are 2 groups of raggies that visit Aliwal Shoal. The first is a sexually immature collection that moves into KZN waters during the winter months. In fact most raggies that visit the Shoal are sub-adult and sexually immature. The drop in water temperatures during this time effectively extends their range and once the waters warm they return to the cooler Cape waters.

The second collection consists of mature sharks that pass through during their breeding migration. The females arrive from the Eastern Cape and can be spotted from early winter in June or July, through to the end of spring in November or December. It is here that they meet their male counterparts for mating. (Although small numbers of males are found year round in Eastern Cape waters, the males’ whereabouts before and after mating remains mostly a mystery).

Some of the teeth found on the sand patch at Raggie Cave may have been lost during mating bites inflicted by the males.

After mating the females move up to Maputaland and southern Mozambique to spend the early part of their gestation in warmer waters. Here the pregnant females hover, almost motionlessly near the shallow reefs, saving energy while the pups grow in their uteri.

A protruding set of teeth gives the raggie its name. Raggie teeth are designed for gripping (rather than cutting) prey, which is usually swallowed whole. This definitely removes us from the menu!!

Sadly this magnificent creature has been put on the IUCN Red List of Threatened species and is classed as Vulnerable or at high risk of extinction in the wild in the medium-term future. Although they are currently classified as Near Threatened in South Africa, experts believe that research may yet prove them to be Vulnerable.

Raggies are a protected species within the Aliwal Shoal Marine Protected Area (MPA) and may not be harvested in any form.

Bottlenose Dolphins

An encounter with wild bottlenose dolphins is a regular and favourite feature whilst travelling by boat to or from the various dive sites. They may make a stunning appearance during a dive and to see these creatures in their natural environment is a true privilege. North Sands is one of their favoured areas.

Humpback Whales

Our coastline provides a winter haven for the singing humpback whales. During the months of June & July, these whales migrate up along our coastline en route to their breeding grounds off Mozambique and Angola. It is in these warmer waters that they will mate and calve and in so doing, escape the harsh Antarctic winter. During September & October they are again encountered, often with newborn calves, as they journey back south, returning to their chilly but nutrient-rich feeding grounds in the Antarctic. Here they will feed on Antarctic krill and refuel for the season ahead. Their journey is an incredible one with some populations travelling over 16 000 km’s. This is said to be the longest migration of any mammal on earth!!


Of the five species of turtles in our area, the loggerhead, hawksbill, green and very rarely seen leatherback may be found at Aliwal. Turtles can be seen almost anywhere on Aliwal and are generally unperturbed by divers. 


The dive conditions at Aliwal can be both unpredictable and mysterious. There are some guidelines but many factors interacting in a complex manner make it impossible to give any absolute predictions for dive conditions. Not knowing what to expect in this dynamic, forever-changing environment adds an element of excitement, adventure and surprise to a dive and this is the secret to Aliwal Shoal and her many mysteries.


Currents are a major factor in determining dive conditions as they may affect water temperature, speed and direction of drift and visibility. Aliwal is dived as a drift dive, with the exception of the wrecks.

The currents on Aliwal are dynamic and unpredictable. They generally flow along the reef in a northeast / southwest axis, parallel to the shore and vary in strength from non-existent to very strong. Directional changes are influenced by many factors including wind direction, onshore-offshore meanders of the Agulhas current and inshore circular currents.

The Agulhas Current

The east coast of South Africa is under the constant influence of the mighty Agulhas current. The Agulhas has a main stream about 60km wide and can move at speeds of up to 5 knots (9.25km per hour). This current is responsible for bringing in warm, clear tropical waters as it flows just like a river down the African East coast. Although these waters are low in nutrients, they carry a great diversity of species from the tropics. The shelf of KZN is one of the narrowest found off Southern Africa and narrows to about 15km off the Aliwal area. Aliwal Shoal lies some 5km offshore and is thus strongly influenced by the Agulhas, which flows along the continental margin.


Currents inshore of the Agulhas are thought to be predominantly driven by wind and during wind free periods the current may be slack for days. North-easterly winds drive south-westward currents and south-westerly winds drive north-eastward currents (winds are described from the direction from which they come, whereas currents are described from the direction to which they flow). These wind driven currents tend to be stronger near the surface.


Visibilitycan change quickly and ranges from almost nothing to a crystal clear 30m plus.

Visibility may be reduced by heavy rains (mostly in summer) leading to run-off from the Umkomaas River and disturbed bottom sediment due to large swells causing surge. If there is no current and unclear water, it tends to “sit” on the Shoal. A south-westerly wind usually clears up the water as it pushes warm, clean surface Agulhas water inshore, whereas the north easterlies push inshore surface waters offshore, resulting in upwellings of cold, greenish, unclear waters.

Surface Conditions

Since the reef lies 5km out to sea, in relatively shallow water and parallel to the coast, it is exposed to the impact of stormy seas.

At times when exceptionally large swells are encountered (usually after a winter “cold front”, they may, on occasion, be seen breaking spectacularly on Aliwal. These large swells affect dive conditions by causing surge, which is worse at shallower depths. It is best then to stay on the deeper sections of the reef and well away from the shallow pinnacles.

Surf can sometimes get too rough to launch. This is largely influenced by wind. An offshore breeze has a smoothing effect on the ocean while onshore or easterly winds result in messy, choppy conditions with waves that are difficult to time. A launch through large swells that are smooth and consistent is often easier than that through small but messy waves.

Sea Temperaturs

Temperatures may reach 27ºC in summer and winter temperatures are usually quite mild at around 21ºC.

Surface inshore water is warmed by the strong sunshine in summer, this warming effect is reduced in winter and the water temperature drops. Winds also affect water temperatures. South-westerly winds lead to warmer waters and north-easterly winds blow surface water offshore and result in colder, deeper offshore waters moving in to replace these waters.

Equipment Suggestions

For winter diving, a minimum of a 5mm full wetsuit is suggested. For those that suffer the cold, a hood is also recommended. For summer diving, a 3mm suit or even a shortie may be adequate but if you feel the cold rather stick with a 5mm.


Rain, wind and sunshine obviously affect dive conditions and different seasons have a marked influence on weather conditions. KZN has a subtropical climate. Summer is hot and humid with plenty of sunshine but frequent thunder storms and 70% of the annual rainfall. Winter is generally dry and mild. Cold fronts lasting typically three to five days are more frequent in the winter months and bring an invasion of cold air up from the south and southwest. Spring tends to be unsettled with unpleasant winds. Autumn is preferable with little wind and warm temperatures.


Dive Guide to Aliwal Shoal

Written by Dr Jenifer Goldberg who has worked extensively as a dive master at Aliwal, it is the most comprehensive, well-researched guide to date. Offering invaluable input from leading marine experts, it also includes the long-awaited new map of the reef, put together by a team of seasoned divers. Only one other map of Aliwal has ever been produced.

For enquiries, quotes or bookings, contact Lynne on:
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Cell: (+27) 83 463 2163