Home / Articles / Aliwal Shoal – Dive deep into adventure in warm coastal waters
Aliwal Shoal, Umkomaas, near Durban
Aliwal Shoal close to Durban has many vibrant fish specias resident

Aliwal Shoal – Dive deep into adventure in warm coastal waters

22 days of the EXCEPTIONAL Zulu Kingdom – Day 1

Nestled on the South Coast and overlooking the warm Indian Ocean, Umkomaas, on the KZN South Coast  is the home of the world famous Aliwal Shoal. As one of the premier dive spots in South Africa and rated as part of the top 10 in the world, it has a lot to offer.  Each season on the Shoal offers something special for divers and snorkellers alike.

The Aliwal Shoal was first dived in the 1950’s and was extensively explored in the 1980’s by operators to ascertain the viability of transporting divers to the launch. Umkomaas is the coastal town which has the launch site for the shoal under the Umkomaas bridge on the river (Mkomanzi) mouth. Lying 3 – 5 kms off shore, the Aliwal Shoal is on the inner edge of the Mozambique current and the warm waters often provide for excellent visibility.

The Aliwal Shoal is home to many different fish species as well as eels, rays, turtles and sharks. Dolphins, whales and Whale sharks are also frequent visitors to the shoal and can be spotted during the year. The shoal is approximately 1.2km in length, and runs in a north to south direction. Today, many thousands of divers flock to the shoal in search of excellent diving, true adventure and ragged-toothed sharks.

Moorish Idol

Aliwal Shoal, Close to Durban in KZN
Aliwal Shoal, Close to Durban in KZN


In 1849 a 3 mast vessel called the ‘Aliwal’ almost collided with the shoal, giving the shoal its now famous name. The ‘Aliwal’ was under the command of Captain James Anderson and he wrote a report of his experience…

“From the great interest you appear to take in this place and the coast in general, I think you would like to know that about 30 miles to the southwest from Natal, and distant from the land about two miles, I observed a very large and dangerous rock, or shoal, with heavy breakers. 
”I do not find this rock placed upon any chart or alluded to in any directory. I hope therefore, you will speak to the captains of coasting vessels, and inform them of it when opportunity offers.” Captain James Anderson, In the ‘Natal Witness’, 14 Jan 1850.


In chronological terms the Aliwal Shoal has a relatively short history. Around eighty thousand years ago, the area around the shoal consisted of a bed of sand dunes. Heavy rainfalls caused sand & shell to dissolve forming a compound of calcium carbonate which was to form the core of the shoal in what became dune rock. The continental plates shifted, which caused a rise in the sea level of the Indian Ocean flooding the dune. When the sea levels rose, the dune was submerged and with more deposits of sand, seashells and other reef-building materials, a massive and elaborate sandstone structure was created.

The topography would have been very rugged with pinnacles, gullies and caves. Coral polyps formed large colonies on the sandstone, and the Aliwal Shoal was born. Over time the shoal has developed into a fascinating dive site with an abundance of soft corals, sponges, and hiding places.

Diving spots on Aliwal Shoal:

Tiger Cove:

Average depth: 12m

Maximum depth: 18m

Suitable for Open water & Advanced Open Water divers

Tiger Cove is part of the inside edge of the reef and is basically a big overhang that forms a cave at the bottom of the wall. It is named after the great amount of Tiger cowries found in the area. Along the wall you will find big green Fern coral, Black coral, Whip coral and various other soft coral. Goldies and other juveniles usually form a big cloud around the Black coral. Be on the lookout for Raggie scorpionfish and False stonefish as they are camouflaged so well that you really have to look carefully to spot them. Other regular visitors on the sand patch include Guitarfish and various rays. Guinea fowl moray eels and beautiful Nudibranch also occupy space on this reef.



Average depth: 12m

Maximum depth: 17m

Expect to find a cave full of sharks and tropical fish on this dive, but be aware that not a lot of light penetrates the cave, making it quite a frightening dive. Chunnel, which is near Raggies’ Cave, was named as such because it is a waterway where sharks constantly move. The marine life in this area consists mainly of Ragged-tooth sharks which patrol the area. Turtles have been spotted as well as Sand sharks and ribbontail rays in the sand patch nearby. Raggie Scorpionfish are also common in the area. The fish life includes Wrasse and some tropical reef fish. Coral is not that plentiful on this reef.


Raggie’s Cave:

Average depth: 12m

Maximum depth: 19m

This area has rock formations with a great amount of caves, overhangs, gullies and swim through’s. Big caves, where you can easily fit in a couple of scuba divers, are often also inhabited by Ragged-tooth sharks. The coral life consists mainly of hard coral with fewer reef fish to be found. In the gullies and crevices the juvenile fish hide during the day with False stonefish and Scorpionfish also commonly found in this area. Shark’s teeth can be found inside the cave and also in the surrounding sand patches. This dive site is known worldwide for the Ragged-tooth sharks that populate the reef.


Northern Pinnacles:

Average depth: 11m

Maximum depth: 17m

Divers need to thank the pinnacles for all the wrecks that are available to dive on the Aliwal Shoal. Here, with pinnacles standing out from the bottom to as much as six metres from the surface are gullies, caves, overhangs, swim-through’s and big holes in the reef. This is a relaxed, enjoyable dive because it is rather shallow, with more time to explore the beauty of the reef and inspect the coral and marine life.


North Sands:

Average depth: 15m

Maximum depth: 17m

This is a huge sand patch on the northern part of the Aliwal Shoal which is surrounded by various other dive spots. This are is known for the great amount of Round ribbontail rays found buried underneath the golden sand and under the edges of the surrounding reef. Guitar sharks are also a common sight in the summer months. Be on the lookout for Sole hiding underneath the sand with just their eyes sticking out. For the inquisitive diver, the sand patch has lots of old shells as well as old shark’s teeth. Game fish are normally found in the vicinity.


Outside Edge:

Average depth: 16m

Maximum depth: 26m

The Outside Edge runs from the north to the southern part of the shoal with the wall on the seaside of the shoal. There are different dive spots on this edge, such as Raggie’s Cave, Cathedral and Shark Alley. Some other caves and overhangs can also be found on this edge. Tropical fish are found here as well as turtles, and the coral includes hard and soft coral which creates amazing landscape scenes. Always keep an eye out for game fish swimming by in the midwater.


Manta Point:

Average depth: 12m

Maximum depth: 22m

At Manta Point huge rock formations are found with caves big enough for Ragged-tooth sharks to fit in, and overhangs and ledges with clouds of fish hiding underneath. Swim-through’s and gullies are also on the list of interesting landscaping in this area. Ragged-tooth sharks are regularly found seen in November, usually found patrolling the gullies and caves in this area. Schools of tropical fish are also found, along with an array of hard and soft coral on the edges of the reef that look as if has been draped with Leather coral with bits of sea grass in between and a sea urchin here and there. This is a great multi-level dive.


Shark Alley:

Average depth: 16m

Maximum depth: 20m

This part of the reef has rock face walls with a sandy bottom and it is a favourite place for Ragged-tooth sharks swimming to the outside ledge. Between the scattered rocks n the sand you can find shark’s teeth, and in all the caverns in the walls, reef fish hide from the sharks. Scorpion fish are commonly found here.


Inside Edge:

Average depth: 15m

Maximum depth: 23m

Inside Edge is a wall stretching three to six metres high, with ledges, caves and overhangs. Most of the activity is found along the side of the wall – the one side features a big sand patch with scattered rock formations. Along the wall there are various soft corals with Goldies and other juveniles usually forming large clouds around the Black coral. Be on the lookout for Raggie scorpionfish and False stonefish as they are camouflaged so well that really have to look carefully to spt them. Other regular visitors on the sand patch include Guitarfish and various rays. The regular tropical fish are found amongst the coral an crevices. Guineafowl moray eels also occupy space on this reef.



Average depth: 12m

Maximum depth: 27m

Here you can explore a cave surrounded by a crater-like rock formation with Ragged-tooth sharks swimming in and out patrolling their territory. The rest of the reef onwards is a plateau with the edges dropping five to ten metres at some places. The main attraction at Cathedral is obviously the Ragged-tooth sharks with all sizes coming in and out like planes on a busy landing strip in the summer holidays. Some of them are tagged and under constant surveillance with tracking systems that are placed near the caves to monitor the migration of these incredible sharks.


Eel Skins:

Average depth: 13m

Maximum depth: 19m

At this reef you will find shattered rock formations with a wall on the side full of caverns and overhangs. The scenery on this dive is one of the best on the shoal, you will also see a wide variety of starfish in all colours, shapes and sizes. Cleaning stations are to be seen in small caverns and False stonefish, Peacock mantis shrimp, Pufferfish and Boxfish are just some of the species seen on this dive. Coral consists mainly of soft coral and Green soft coral with clouds of Goldies. Nudibranchs on the rock formations are a must see. Don’t forget to be on the lookout for game fish lurking just off the reef. If you can, bring a camera along on this dive as there are many opportunities to take amazing photographs.


Howard’s Castle:

Average depth: 17m

Maximum depth: 21m

This dive has channels with walls of reef on either side and within these walls of reef on either side and within these walls are overhangs and swim-through’s . The channels have a few sand patches where you can find interesting ocean life. Coral life is few, but hard coral, such as Leather coral, Porous coral and sponges are found. Soft coral such as Thistle coral and the bright yellow Dead-man’s finger coral are found in the crevices. Fish species include Flute mouth fish, Trumpetfish and Devil firefish. Also be on the lookout for shy Mantis shrimp hiding in crevices Game fish are always in the vicinity and Tiger sharks are regular visitors on the shoal.


Dive site information taken from “The Dive Spots Of Southern Africa”.

Also view this article on TKZN’s FaceBook Page: https://www.facebook.com/KZNTourism 

About Meredith Haywood

Meredith Haywood
I'm the Editor and Creative Director of 5 Star Durban, I Instagram a bit, I cook sometimes, but mostly I write, and edit... a lot... I'm a philanthropist at heart, and I can't resist fluffy bunnies, kittens and puppies... recently I have started to ponder what owning a goat in a flat could be like...

Leave a Reply