Wednesday, 14 May 2014

The Wild Coast and the Sardine Run

The Wild Coast of the Eastern Cape earns its name between June and August each year, when the huge migrating sardine shoals arrive, bringing with them the predatory sharks and dolphins. This coincides with the migration of the humpback whales, which are moving north to their breeding grounds. The waters between Port Elizabeth and Durban are alive with activity, with the everyday drama of survival played out between the whales, sharks, sardines and sea birds providing visitors with great opportunities for sightseeing, scuba diving and photography.

The Reef

The Aliwal Shoal, around five kilometres out from Umkomaas, is renowned as one of the best diving locations in the world. It is also something of an anomaly. Unlike most reefs, it is not made out of coral but is formed from an ancient fossilised range of coastal dunes, which survives as a rocky reef rising from the sea bed up to around 11 metres below the surface of the ocean. The reef supports a variety of hard and soft corals, which provide shelter for a great many species of tropical and subtropical fish, not least the many species of sharks, including a huge population of ragged-toothed sharks, which are often seen in groups of up to fifty or sixty strong between July and December after the sardine run is over. This is one of the mysteries of the area—why they congregate at this time in particular—but it means that these waters provide a year round and ever changing spectacle for visitors.

Dive with the Sharks

Durban is one of the most popular city destinations for travellers to South Africa, and is a stop-over port on most Africa and Indian Ocean cruises. Umkomaas is only a half hour’s drive away, making it the ideal spot for a shore excursion to soak up the atmosphere of the beautiful Eastern Cape coastline, its beaches, open spaces and opportunities for witnessing the drama of the wildlife out in the ocean. When the wind is up and the huge waves are crashing upon the shore, the sight of surfing dolphins flying through the spray is one you’ll never forget. The months of the sardine run are comparatively busy along this coast, with many tourists coming for the organised diving vacations to explore the reef and its shipwrecks and to dive with the sharks. Day trips for inexperienced casual divers are also available, providing a memorable experience for anyone brave enough to face these fearsome fish in their natural habitat.

The Ragged Tooth Shark is not aggressive, although it looks pretty fearsome. This makes it a popular aquarium exhibit as well as one of the safest species of shark to meet on a dive. The greatest populations of Ragged Toothed Sharks are found either on the Aliwal Shoal, on the reefs further south—in the dive sites of Chunnel, Cathedral and Raggies caves—or just north of the shoal on the wreck of the Nebo, a 200 ton steamship that has laid on the shoal since 1884. All that remains is a steel skeleton that supports many colourful sponges and soft corals, home to large schools of fish that attract the sharks.

Different Species of Shark require different diving methods. These can be caged or free dives, baited or un-baited. Caged diving is for the brave, although it is perfectly safe. If you want to come face to face with the truly awesome Great White Shark, this is for you. However, some of the other species of sharks are much more docile and you can safely swim with them. Tiger Sharks are shy, inquisitive and intelligent, and are attracted to an area by baiting the water. This is done by working with the currents to create an odour corridor that attracts the sharks to the boat. Once they have arrived, the divers slip carefully and quietly into the water to swim among them. This is not risk-free and only a few countries around the world allow free diving with Tiger Sharks, but safety divers are always there to accompany the group and intervene if any shark comes too close.

Whale Watching

Whales have long been associated with the town of Unkomaas. The name of the river, Mkhomzi, can be translated as ‘the place of cow whales’, so called because of the whales that used to swim into the estuary to shelter and give birth. These days you may be lucky enough to see one in the area during the winter, but the large schools of cow whales have gone. You need to go out onto the ocean to see them.

For those who like to keep their feet dry and stay onboard the boat, just getting out among the whales, dolphins and sea birds during the sardine run is as exciting as any encounter with sharks. You can witness a feeding frenzy without the fear of becoming a part of it. Anyone who has witnessed the magnificent grace of a huge humpback whale at close quarters comes away somehow change by the experience, by this contact with the mysterious intelligence of these giants of the ocean.

"contributed by Susie Fellowes" 


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