Aliwal Shoal Marine Protected Area off the sleepy southern KwaZulu-Natal town of Umkomaas is one of the top dive sites in South Africa – in fact some say it’s among the world’s top 10. This is where ragged-tooth sharks congregate for months on end, along with dozens of other species.

Did you know?

Aliwal Shoal was named for a ship that was nearly wrecked on the reef in 1849.

Ask a local diver what his or her favourite marine protected area is, and the answer is very likely to be Aliwal Shoal.

The Aliwal Shoal Marine Protected Area conserves a strange ocean anomaly. There is a reef here, but not one made out of coral. Instead, this is a piece of ancient fossilised coastline or sand dune. Adding to the diversity of this tropical reef are the wrecks of two ships, the Nebo and the Produce, which lie in relatively shallow waters (less than 30 metres deep).

But the true wonder of Aliwal Shoal is that it is a congregation area for ragged-tooth sharks. Between July and December, it’s not unusual to see 50 or 60 at a time.

No-one has quite figured out why they gather here. They are no threat at all to divers, and despite their ferocious appearance, are very calm.

On the subject of sharks, you may also see hammerheads, Zambezi sharks and the occasional stately and enormous whale shark. This is one place divers regularly swim with sharks, and there has never been an incident of aggression.

Aliwal Shoal lies just off the quiet little coastal town of Umkomaas in southern KwaZulu-Natal, which is often buzzing with divers. It’s hard to overstate the appeal of Aliwal Shoal as a diving destination. Down in the deep you encounter (apart from sharks) various kinds of corals and sponges growing on the wrecks or ancient coastline, a world of tropical fish, moray eels, the occasional sea turtle, and almost certainly a gigantic potato or brindle bass.

The warm Agulhas current sweeps briskly over the reef, which is about 1.5km long and 5km away from the beach. The reef itself lies between 5 and 25 metres deep.

From the land, you’d never guess how special this undersea area is. Divers brought it to the attention of conservationists, and it was declared a Marine Protected Area in 2004.

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

Aliwal Dive Centre

Tel: +27 (0)39 973 2233

How to get here

Umkomaas is a short drive south of Durban. Take the N2, and you'll get there in under half an hour.

Around the area

You could visit the Empisini Nature Reserve near Umkomaas, or ramble along the rocky coastline. Angling from the beach is popular, and there is also a tidal pool.

How to get around

Divers are taken to the reef, about 5km from shore, by boat.

Length of stay

If you're a diver, stay for at least two days. There is so much to see on this reef you just can't do it all in one dive.

Where to stay

There are a number of guest houses in Umkomaas, including some geared specifically for divers.