a blurry image of a fish


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When you begin diving the coast of KwaZulu-Natal, you quickly realise that the heart-stopping moments don’t always just happen underwater. 

Getting to the dive spot can be an adventure in its own right. Sitting holding on for dear life while 160 horsepower of outboard motors has propellers churning up the sand a bare 10cm below the spinning blades, is guaranteed to get the adrenaline pumping.

You know at the same time that those people on the beach are watching just in case a dive boat shooting into space above an incoming wave doesn’t make it all the way.

You never know what you will find underwater

As the boat settles into the calmer waters behind the breakers, however, the routine kicks in and you prep for the dive.




a bicycle next to a body of water: Image: Adobe Stock


© Provided by The South African
Image: Adobe Stock

You sit on the pontoons of the dive boat checking fin straps and masks and gripping regulator mouthpieces between teeth and gulping in air as rough waters, usually the case at sites like Sodwana Bay and Aliwal Shoal, make the boat bob around like a directionless cork.

No matter how experienced a diver you may be, there is always a twinge of nerves just before a dive as you never know what you will find underwater or more to the point, what could find you. Mercifully, surprises are very rare, but they can happen.

Shark tales: Aliwal Shoal and Sodwana Bay

Take these two dives as examples.

We were at the Aliwal Shoal after a launch at Umkomaas, about 30 minutes of semi-rigid boat travel from the shore. Umkomaas, or “shark city”, couldn’t be seen and land the coastline was a thin strip of green that bobbed into sight about seven kilometres behind us.

We were about to topple back first into the sea and descend to one of the world’s largest breeding grounds for ragged-tooth sharks, the fearsome-looking predators that make Aliwal Shoal one of the Top-10 dive sites in the world. 

Sitting next to me ready to go was my dive buddy, a recently qualified but brave diver (not necessarily a recommendation in an extreme sport).

He had spent a good portion of the morning telling me how much he was looking forward to his first dive in shark-infested waters.

And what now, where are the sharks?

The skipper’s countdown finished, and over the side we went, sinking slowly as the water changed around us from windblown green to deep, copper sulphate blue. 

At about 12m down, my buddy shook his head, opened his hands and shrugged his shoulders. 

“And what now, where are the sharks?” he was miming. I looked at him and noticed a torpedo-shaped shadow.

I held my right hand vertically in front of my mask ( the sign for shark) and then pointed to his side. He swung around and met his first “raggie” cruising languidly towards him. 

Sharks don’t blink…they grin

He froze — reality had conquered bravado.  It was going to be a staring contest. The trouble is that shark’s don’t blink. As I was slightly below him, I grabbed a nearby ankle and pulled him down; it’s not advisable to crash head-on into a cruising shark that doesn’t care about who has the right of way.

The shark’s head moved a little…its flat, emotionless eyes took in the two intruders and, with its rows of razor-sharp teeth, seemingly grinning at the encounter, the shark swam away.




a fish swimming under water: A ragged-tooth shark in motion. Image: Adobe Stock


© Provided by The South African
A ragged-tooth shark in motion. Image: Adobe Stock

Venturing into Shark Alley and Raggie Cave

We dropped further down, rendezvoused with other divers on the bottom and headed for Shark Alley. Rocks rose on both sides, and along the passage in between, and, true to its name, there were sharks everywhere.

Some were poised motionless under rocky crags; others emerged from caves in the rocks and passed within centimetres of us. Some were small, others approaching the 3m length that experts agree is about their optimum size. 

The truth is that despite their fearsome appearance, the raggies are docile, and the possibility of being attacked by one is remote.

Divers are not on the menu, but…

Their rows of teeth are made for grabbing and tearing small prey, and they tend to be relatively sluggish and not aggressive during the daylight hours. Divers are not on the menu, but it doesn’t pay to try and test the theory by blocking their escape routes or getting too close.

Further along, at the legendary Raggie Cave, where the sharks gather during the breeding season, we lay on the lip of the cave, peering in at the 20 or more sharks exploring the interior.

New arrivals glided silently above us and down into the cave, the only warning of their approach the shadows that they cast leaving us in temporary darkness as they passed above us.




Tiger and blacktip sharks at Aliwal Shoal. Image: Adobe Stock


© Provided by The South African
Tiger and blacktip sharks at Aliwal Shoal. Image: Adobe Stock

Back on the boat, my dive buddy is silent. He gazes shoreward as Umkomaas slowly becomes visible and more defined. He doesn’t talk until the boat turns into the mouth of the Umkomaas River and we step out on to the beach. “Yoh !” he said, then walked away.

Switch to Sodwana Bay




a fish swimming under water: Image: Adobe Stock


© Provided by The South African
Image: Adobe Stock

Switch to Sodwana Bay, sweeping beaches and high dunes crowned with hardy vegetation — the same ocean, but a different diving experience.

The site the renowned two-mile reef which is about 2km long and about 400m wide. Outside the main bay, it features hard and soft corals and shallow caves that are home to huge Moray eels and reef sharks – the villain in this piece. 




a large body of water: Sodwana Bay in KwaZulu-Natal. Image: Adobe Stock


© Provided by The South African
Sodwana Bay in KwaZulu-Natal. Image: Adobe Stock

This time we were drifting above the reef when my dive buddy, aka my daughter, pointed into the murky distance.

There was a blacktip reef shark. Not the biggest (at around 2m) they are generally more curious than aggressive. This one had not got the memo on behaviour, because he (or she, I never bothered to investigate which) was circling and accelerating as the circles diminished.

Clever girls and secret weapons

I turned to one side to give instructions to my daughter. She was gone. The clever girl had evidently taken the opportunity to head for the surface while shark and father were otherwise engaged.




a fish swimming under water: Image: Adobe Stock


© Provided by The South African
Image: Adobe Stock

The shark straightened about 10m from me and charged. When it was about a metre away, I released my secret weapon.

Pulling my spare regulator (octo) with my right hand, I pushed in the valve. I began releasing air, doing the same with my dump valve attached to my dive vest with my left resulted in a sheet of bubbles (accompanied by a satisfying whooshing sound) emerging between the shark and I.

The shark veered off course and disappeared back into the murk. 

I headed for the top.  As I popped above the surface, my daughter appeared alongside me.

“Where did you come from?” I asked.

“Dad, when I saw the shark start its run, I ducked behind you and held on to your cylinder. I didn’t think you would mind. After all, You have had a much longer life than I have.”

Since then, sharks have become more elusive and have been absent from my dives. Or are my eyes just getting dimmer because of my advanced life-span and I just don’t see them anymore? 

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