The first time I dived with the sharks of Aliwal Shoal, South Africa, was as an intern on a shark research project. I was a newly qualified diver and had only ever encountered plankton-feeding whale sharks before. Naturally, I was a little nervous about having “proper” sharks as my new work colleagues; but five minutes into my first dive I knew that I had made one of the best and most important decisions of my life. I fell under the sharks’ spell, and a few years later returned to the Shoal as a scuba instructor and shark diving guide.
The Sharks of Aliwal Shoal
Located roughly an hour’s drive south of the international airport in Durban, Aliwal Shoal is famous among the diving community as one of the few places in the world where you can intentionally dive with large, predatory shark species without the protection of a cage. It is the ultimate destination for underwater thrill-seekers. On a typical baited shark dive, visitors will encounter between 20 and 40 oceanic blacktip sharks. These magnificent creatures look like the archetypal shark, with their powerful build, pointed snout, and prominent dorsal fin. They’re also naturally inquisitive and almost playful. Fear is quickly replaced with wonder after a few minutes spent observing them in their natural environment.
Oceanic blacktips are the most common species seen at Aliwal Shoal, but many other sharks may make an appearance during your dive. If you travel to the Shoal during the warmer months (November to April) you’re also likely to see tiger sharks. Much larger than the blacktips, these graceful queens of the ocean are almost all female, with distinctive stripes, wide mouths, and coal dark eyes. Other sightings depend on your luck and the season, and include bull sharks, dusky sharks, hammerheads, and even great whites. And although you won’t spot them on a baited dive, the reef itself offers almost guaranteed encounters with ragged-tooth sharks (sand tigers) during the winter months.
While one might hesitate to dive without a cage, local operators have been using the same methods to dive with the sharks of Aliwal Shoal for nearly 30 years. The sharks have grown accustomed to their human visitors and the divemasters have learned how to interact with them safely. The golden rules that I was taught on my first day were these: Stay with your fellow divers at all times. A bubble-blowing group is an intimidating prospect for a shark, whereas a lone diver may present a target for larger predators. Descend and ascend quickly, as sharks hunt from below and you’re most vulnerable on the surface. Remove flashy jewelry that may glitter in the light and be mistaken for fish scales, and favor dark wetsuit and fin colors for the same reason. Above all, be aware at all times and keep your hands to yourself.
A Day Out on the Water
As a dive guide, your day starts at dawn. There are Buoyancy Compensator Devices (BCDs) and regulators to be fitted to the scuba cylinders, which then have to be loaded onto the boat. Then the clients start to arrive, some of them bleary-eyed with lack of sleep, others already wide awake with nerves. We make coffee, hand out wetsuits, and soon we’re all loaded onto the back of the bakkie and on the road to the beach. The launch is the first challenge for most of our customers. It involves flying at high speed out of the river mouth, then circling in the surf zone until the skipper spots a gap in the waves and is able to guide the boat safely out to backline. Then, it’s a 20-minute ride to the dive site, the picture perfect beaches and sugarcane plantations of KwaZulu-Natal on our right, the vast, glittering expanse of the Indian Ocean spread out towards the horizon on our left.
When we reach our destination, the skipper idles the engine and myself and the other crew members haul the bait drum over the side. It’s packed with decaying fish pieces, which release their scent into the water through a series of perforated holes and act as a siren call for the sharks. The drum is connected via a cable to a buoy, which keeps it floating approximately 20 feet beneath the surface. A long metal bar is also deployed. This will hang horizontally in the water and serve as a gathering point to make sure the divers stay safely grouped together. With all of the equipment in the water, we settle down to wait. In a matter of minutes, the first shark is spotted—a sleek, dark shape swimming lazily beneath the boat in a flash of liquid bronze. It comes so quickly that many on the boat will miss it the first time; then, more sharks appear. Soon the boat is surrounded.
The divers are drawn to the edges, looking over into the water with a mixture of fascination and apprehension. These are predators that we as humans have been conditioned to fear with an almost primal intensity, and yet here we are, preparing to roll over the side of the boat and into their midst. The sharks meanwhile are indifferent to the people above. Occasionally one will break the surface, the sun glinting, diamond-like, off its gleaming skin. Once enough sharks have gathered, I give my safety briefing; then on the count of three we all tip backwards and descend swiftly to the bar. On days when the water is clear, you can see shafts of sunlight filtering through the blue to reflect off the undulating sand some 100 feet below. The sharks, all of them oceanic blacktips, swim around us, sometimes coming within arm's reach on their way to investigate the bait drum.
At first their movements will look like chaos. After our customers' initial shock—when they have controlled their breathing and their heart rate has returned to normal—they will be able to see that there is a kind of synchronized ballet going on as one shark, then another, takes its turn at the bait drum. I remember my first dive and the feeling of absolute calm that descended when I realized I wasn’t in danger. It is a rare privilege to share the water with these perfect predators. Each one has its own personality. Some are shy, some are boisterous, others like to tease by coming closer and closer, then veering off at the last minute. Only once did I ever feel threatened, and that was with a shark that had been badly wounded by a boat propeller. Her mock charges felt like warnings, not games, and I ended the dive immediately.
We spend well over an hour with the sharks and when it’s finally time to resurface, I can see that many of our customers are reluctant to do so. Like me, they have had a revelation. Sharks are not the killers of Jaws infamy to be feared and despised. They are beautiful, powerful, and ultimately peaceful apex predators to be respected and protected. When we are all safely back on the boat, the clients’ exhilaration is infectious. This is one of the best parts of my job, and I capitalize on it by talking to those that are interested about the threats facing global shark populations. These include overfishing and the demand for shark fin soup, shark nets and culling programs, and reef systems devastated by climate change and pollution. By the time we reach land we have a boatful of marine conservationists—which is after all, the whole point of what we are doing here.
The Day I Met Penelope
The one experience that stands out above all the rest is the day that I met Penelope. In the summer, tiger sharks return to Aliwal Shoal and often make solo appearances at the bait drum. One day, we were half way through a dive when I spotted the telltale shape of a tiger on the edge of my peripheral vision. A thrill ran through me as she approached the drum. Compared to the oceanic blacktips, tiger sharks are elusive, full of latent power, and distinctly regal. It’s like watching a lioness appear among a family of gamboling house cats. She was easily distinguishable from other tigers that we’d seen that season by a crescent-shaped cut in her dorsal fin. As she swam slowly and purposefully around the drum, I found myself desperate to get closer.
I signaled to my boss, who was busy manipulating the drum to release more scent, asking if I could approach with my camera. He nodded, and I swam away from the safety of the bar towards him. The tiger shark was still circling, and as I swam into the blue water between the bar and the drum, her circuit brought her on a direct collision course with me. I hung there, transfixed, my camera before my face as she drew closer and closer. Barely breathing, I suddenly knew how rabbits must feel when caught in a car’s headlights. I had forgotten to be scared, though—I was too busy taking photos to consider the potential threat. Eventually the tiger shark diverted her course with an infinitesimal flick of her tail, cruising past within inches of my face before disappearing again back into the blue.
She came and went several more times throughout the course of the dive, and I fell in love with her. We named her Penelope, and she became the first tiger shark in the database we started to keep track of. The others were identifiable, with practice, by their unique stripe patterns and scars, but only Penelope was immediately recognizable by her permanently deformed fin. For me, she became the embodiment of the tiger shark’s power and beauty, and the proof that as a species, they deserve to be revered instead of feared. Against all the odds (and there are many of them for a tiger shark in South Africa), she has returned to the Shoal every year since.