I REMEMBER THE FIRST dive-briefing. “Always be aware of where you are,” said the guide, adding casually “and if they bite, don’t move, just wait for them to let go…”
That’s the spirit! I thought, unsure whether to feel anxious or simply enjoy the feeling of anticipation of a new experience.
It was my first visit not just to South Africa but to the continent – real Africa, with lions, elephants, hippos and, of course, sharks. My expectations were high, based on what I had read and seen online before departure, yet I didn’t really know quite what to expect from
a baited dive with oceanic blacktips (Carcharhinus limbatus). Despite my thorough research, I still had big butterflies in my stomach that first morning.
The location was famous for its sharks. Aliwal Shoal, on South Africa’s north-east coast, is a rocky reef that’s home to several species, from the resident community of blacktips to the seasonal raggedtooth (sand tiger), tiger, hammerhead, bull, dusky, silky and, rarely seen although present, great white sharks.
When it comes to big animals the Shoal keeps on giving and, depending on the season, can offer regular sightings of dolphins, whales and giant potato bass, along with the occasional mobula, guitar shark, turtle and shoals of snapper.
An hour’s drive south from Durban in KwaZulu-Natal and three miles off the coast, the Shoal is named after a vessel that almost sank there in 1849. It nests within a Marine Protected Area, established in 2004 and extending for 11 miles along the coast.
The exposed Shoal is often swept by currents and subjected to fierce swells. Its highest peak reaches 6m below the surface, and its rocky slopes plunge to more than 30m with a maximum width of about 400m, and are rich in corals and other marine life.
Having said that, the combined effects of industrial fishing and the wide use of nets and drumlines to protect beaches have had a severe impact on the number of sharks in the area, according to “shark whisperer” Walter Bernardis of African Water Sports in Umkomaas.
Populations, whether of whale sharks, great whites or tigers, have dropped dramatically in this part of South Africa over the past 10 years.
Aliwal Shoal was the first location where it became possible, in 2000, to engage in tiger-sharks diving without cages, with the introduction of baited dives by African Water Sports.
Over the following decade it was possible to see these sharks on every baited dive, typically several individuals at once. Umkomaas had claimed the title of “Tiger Shark Capital of the World” before Tiger Beach in the Bahamas became well-known.
In recent years, however, sightings have become increasingly rare. Drumlines, introduced in Kwazulu-Natal in 2007, and shark gill-nets are designed to capture and kill.
Drumlines are large, anchored floats from which a single baited hook is suspended, while gillnets hang at depths of 10-14m to entangle the sharks. Both are laid about 400m offshore.
Four drumlines to each net are allocated to each of the 37 beaches across some 200 miles of coastline. They work both directly to catch the targeted sharks or, in the majority of cases, smaller sharks get hooked or entangled, thrash about to try to get free and in the process attract the larger predators – in the case of tigers, mostly females.
Some 1100 sharks are caught every year, including some 65 tiger, 20 great white and a number of Zambesi sharks, the three main targeted species. Bycatch includes various cetaceans.
Some measures have been taken to lower bycatch and use of the nets is avoided during the Sardine Run, but the fact remains that there are less damaging ways to protect water-users – such as informing them how not to put themselves needlessly at risk.