My turtle moment occurred at the end of a shark dive at Aliwal Shoal, seven kilometres off the KwaZulu south coast and about an hour by road to the south of Durban in South Africa in the Indian Ocean east of Umkomaas, which is hot spot for cow whales.
Divers do not venture to Aliwal Shoal for warm, high-visibility diving and calm seas. Fossilised sand dunes are a soft base for a reef that has a mix of tropical and temperate water.
It’s not unusual to find more than 30 grey nurse sharks in the caves that form in the soft rock.
These sharks are better known as raggies or ragged tooth sharks in South Africa or sand tigers if you are from the Americas.
Being a volunteer for Grey Nurse Shark Watch in Australia, I can tell you it’s almost impossible to find 30 or more sharks chilling in a cave.
Aliwal Shoal and Protea Banks further to the south are top locations to see these labradors of the sea. The season is from June to November.
There are seasonal visits by Zambezi or bull sharks, tigers, duskies, hammerhead and occasional visits by great white sharks.
Today’s viewing was all about oceanic blacktips (which should not be confused with blacktip reef sharks).
Oceanic blacktips are a fast, streamlined, open-water species that work with super pods of common dolphin and Cape gannets to feast on the largest shoal on earth – the sardine run.
My turtle moment gave me time to reflect on why we had back tracked from the Protea Banks.
We had seen hundreds of raggies, a handful of blacktips, a dusky and a couple of Zambezi sharks with our hosts for the sardine run, Roland and Beulah Mauz of African Dive Adventures. My unlikely group of international friends had all dived with me and with sharks.
As a group, we had never been in circumstances where we were surrounded by 30 or more sharks coming at scraps of food from above, behind and all around.
That’s why we came back to Aliwal Dive Centre to experience close passes, the occasional bump and three dimensional action that was to prepare us for the sardine run.
At Protea banks, one of our divers chewed through a full tank of air in 15 minutes. It was a deep dive to 30m with a cave full of raggies.
There was the wow factor: cool 20oC water, eight to 10m visibility and a current to have most divers heavier on their air than usual. But today we had arrived at Aliwal Shoal Marine Protected Area, where another charter had two divers at a baited shark buoy with a dozen snorkelers looking on and free diving to enjoy the oceanic blacktips.
I believe that the slow and purposeful way of the loggerhead turtle had it positioned for fish scraps that the sharks had missed.
It made sense to place our buoy and baited drums with the one that was already attracting attention.
We secured our baited top and bottom drums 20 to 30m up current from the snorkel group.
One of my favourite sequences shows a group of blacktips leaving our divers to check out what was happening at the snorkel buoy.
Finding their baited drums less than interesting, the whole group swam back to us and directly towards my camera.
There are no places in Australia where divers and snorkelers can enjoy the activity of oceanic shark species in a controlled environment knowing that small fish-focussed sharks could be joined by other sea life at any time.
Australians should consider South Africa as a diving destination with a difference. If open water encounters with apex predators is not your scene, there are charters available to have you inside a cage.
For divers visiting South Africa for the first time, Nomad Tours and Lutwala Dive operate the Southern African Dive Safari between October and March in the South African Summer.
These tours are ideal for Dive Club trips as well as individual travellers to Africa. They are great diving and awesome safari experiences.
Tony Isaacson travelled to South Africa at his own expense