There are those that believe in love at first sight, and those who don’t. Until New Year’s Eve 2012, I definitely belonged to the latter camp. However, that changed in the space of one shaky regulator breath when I slipped beneath the surface of the sapphire Indian Ocean on the last day of the year and made the acquaintance of my very first tiger shark.
I had arrived in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa the day before, ready to embark on a new adventure as a volunteer shark researcher on Aliwal Shoal, one of the world’s best and most iconic shark-diving destinations. It wasn’t my first time on the Shoal – I had been there several years previously, when I spent a week observing and researching the area’s resident oceanic blacktips. That visit had taken place during the southern hemisphere winter, when the water is too cold for South Africa’s seasonally resident tiger sharks.
On December 31st 2012, I was feverish with anticipation as the boat sped out towards the spot designated for Aliwal’s baited shark dives. As we rolled backwards into the waiting ocean, it felt like coming home – a feeling that only increased as I oriented myself and gazed down at the spectacle spread out beneath our fin-tips. Below us, I could see the silver ripples of the seafloor through twenty metres of shimmering sea. With visibility pushing the thirty metre mark, it felt as though we had descended through the roof of an aquarium.
The bait drum hung suspended approximately six metres from the surface, and around it schools of trevally circled like gilded sentinels. Their scales shone gold in the filtered sunlight, and in between them darted the larger, bronzer shapes of the Shoal’s oceanic blacktips. The sharks seemed oblivious of us as we descended into their midst, far more focused on the tantalising scent of the sardines trapped within the drum than on investigating their human visitors. There were sharks all around us, and above us, silhouetted against the sun.
We were a good forty minutes into the dive before the tiger made her appearance. One moment, the ocean was chaotic with darting, seeking, writhing blacktips; and the next, the melee cleared as if to make way for the arrival of royalty. She was unmistakeable, so different from the blacktip pack. It wasn’t just her enormous size that set her apart, or her distinctive tiger stripes and wide, square head. Above all, it was the way she moved, carving a sedate, deliberate path through the water that spoke of both grace and power.
I had never encountered such a large shark, nor one with such a fearsome reputation. And yet, as she moved within a few metres of us, it wasn’t fear that filled my chest, making it hard for me to breathe. It was sheer awe, and a sudden, overwhelming sense of privilege to have found myself in her presence. Her eyes, large and dark, were not those of a killer. They spoke of intelligence and restraint, and the sun painted her striped back with patterns of spun gold. She was, and still is, the best example of Mother Nature’s artistry that I have ever seen.
We made the most of the dive’s shallow depth to spend as much time as we could with her. She stayed with us for the best part of an hour, seeming sometimes like a ghost on the periphery of our vision, and at other times like the centre of the watery world in which we found ourselves. By the time we surfaced, my heart was fuller than it had ever been before, and I found that I could not stop smiling. I had spent a snapshot of time in the company of one of the world’s greatest predators, and found it to be a life-changing experience.
After that day, I spent another nine months in South Africa, first as a volunteer researcher, and then as a shark-diving guide and scuba instructor with one of the Shoal’s many dive centres. I helped to launch a tiger shark identification project, and got to know some of the reef’s recurring visitors individually. We identified them by their stripe patterns and their scars, and by their behaviour, which is as unique as that of any human. My personal favourite was a large female named Penelope, who loved to pose within a few feet of my camera lens.
Getting to know Aliwal’s tiger sharks also meant understanding more about their life history, and about the issues threatening their continued presence in South Africa. Aliwal Shoal is a Marine Protected Area, and tiger sharks (along with four other key shark species) are protected within its boundaries. However, outside those boundaries, fishermen are allowed to catch one tiger shark per day. Chinese trawlers are attracted to South Africa’s coastline by the nation’s lax marine law enforcement, and as such overfishing and by-catch are also a threat.
Above all though, sharks, rays and marine mammals on the country’s KwaZulu-Natal coast are suffering due to the existence of shark nets at all of the province’s major beaches. These nets are designed to promote bather safety, and they work by catching and killing as many sharks as possible. They are indiscriminate, killing harmless species like turtles, dolphins and even whales; but they specifically target South Africa’s three ‘dangerous’ shark species – the great white, the bull shark and the tiger shark.
They are incredibly effective, having caught an average of 58.8 tiger sharks every year between 2010 and 2014, of which an average of 30 were killed. Female tiger sharks mate once every three years, and are slow to reach sexual maturity. As a result, Aliwal’s population simply cannot reproduce at the rate necessary to balance the damage done by the shark nets. The results of the identification project that we started in 2013 show that more and more individuals are failing to return at the beginning of the summer season. While it’s impossible to say for sure that the nets are responsible, it seems likely.
The nets exist to provide those that have been conditioned by media hype to fear big sharks with the reassurance they need to continue to patronise South Africa’s coastal tourism spots. However, they are shark-catching devices rather than shark-excluding barriers, and as such cannot guarantee human safety. There are other ways for humans and sharks to co-exist harmoniously, including shark-spotting systems, anti-shark pods like those favoured by Cape Town surfers, and non-lethal exclusion devices like this one.
For methods like these to be pursued in KwaZulu-Natal, human attitudes towards sharks like the tiger and the great white need to change. Perhaps the only way for this to happen is for more people to experience the tiger sharks as I did – in their natural environment, where they are magnificent rather than malignant. Operators on Aliwal Shoal offer snorkelling and cage-diving experiences, making it possible for non-divers and even non-swimmers to encounter the area’s sharks.
In the thirty years that the Aliwal Shoal tiger-diving industry has existed, there hasn’t been a single incident, accident or fatality involving these so-called dangerous sharks. Instead, visitors to the Shoal have entered the water with a certain amount of trepidation, and surfaced ninety minutes later believing, as I did, in love at first sight.
To find out more about encountering the tiger sharks of Aliwal Shoal, click here.
What You Need to Know
Where is KwaZulu-Natal
How to Get There
OR Tambo International Airport (formerly Johannesburg International) is the major gateway, offering both domestic, African regional and international connections. There are also an increasing number of international flights direct to and from Cape Town, and a few direct to and from Durban.
When to Go
South Africa is a year-round destination due to its varying regional climates and wildlife opportunities. There is beautiful hot, dry weather in its summer months between November and February. In the summer months, it is possible to see as many as five tiger sharks, some exceeding four metres in length. Other seasonal visitors include dusky sharks, bull sharks and even great whites; while our oceanic blacktips are present all year round.
The currency in South Africa is the South African Rand.