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Diving South Africa — Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in the Caribbean anymore!

Author: John Nash
Date of Trip: March 2014

My wife and I spent 3 nights at the Aliwal Dive Center (ADC) in Umkomaas, South Africa (outside Durban) in late March 2014, diving 2 days. The rooms at the ADC are “cozy” (I estimate 170- 180m square feet main living area, plus the bathroom and a balcony), but very clean and comfortable. Very nice king bed in excellent condition, a small fridge (stocked with reasonably priced drinks and snacks), a small armoire with a safe and 4 drawers, a water heater with instant coffee and tea, and 2 bedside tables. They also included a couple of converter receptacles, where you can plug in European style round prong plugs. We have a lot of electronics, so I carry with me a 3-plug extension cord, which comes in handy. Breakfast is included, and is nothing fancy, but plentiful, cooked to order, and delicious. My personal faves were the “toasties” – sandwiches made with toasted whole wheat bread and your (limited) choice of fillings, served with nicely done chips (French fries) – yum! If you go on a very early dive, best strategy is probably to eat something very light before the dive(s), then chow down when you get back. When I saw the proximity of the hotel to the train track, I figured I wasn’t going to get much sleep, but that turned out not to be a problem. People getting up for early dives means you will get waked up early, but once they are gone, you can go back t sleep if you want. But one thing I would recommend to the hotel is to get better curtains. The ones we had hardly blocked the light at all.

About the diving — We are a bit spoiled by doing most of our diving in the Caribbean, where seas are usually pretty calm and the water clear. (Over the last 30 years, we have done quite a number of dives in many other places, but by far the majority have been in the Caribbean.) Before going to Aliwal Shoal, we had spent the week in Durban (mainly business trip), where we had done a couple of dives with Calypso Dive Center (loved them, BTW). After our first day diving off Durban I didn’t think we would be doing a second day. The ride to and from the dive site in an inflatable boat (RIB, like the Navy uses for amphibious assaults), launched through the surf, was so rough that at one point Sarah was retching. And the visibility was so poor (I would rate it the third worst I’ve ever seen, after one off Mombasa and one off Oman) that I lost sight of both the divemaster and my buddy (wife!), and ended up finishing the dive with a different group – not cool. So when Sarah started getting seasick on the way back from the dive, I pretty much wrote off the second day. But game diver that she is, she said that “she didn’t come 5,000 miles to not dive”. So we went out a second day, and boy, was that the right call! Viz was great – not as good as it often is in the Caribbean, but very good for this part of the world — and we got some really nice shots. Plus the ride was much calmer. Perseverance does pay off!

In Umkomaas, at the ADC, it’s all about the diving. As far as I can tell, everyone staying here is a diver. Dives start at 6:00 in the morning and run pretty much all day until mid- afternoon, or until weather conditions shut them down. All the folks running the place as well as the boat drivers and divemasters are first rate – very friendly, helpful and informative. Divemasters were safety conscious, but not ‘hovering”.

First dive on Aliwal Shoal did not disappoint. Ride out to the dive site was an adventure – I felt like a rodeo cowboy riding a bull, feet in the stirrups of the boat, holding on for dear life. (Not really dangerous, but some people did get a bit seasick.) On the dive, no sharks unfortunately (sharks are one thing for which Aliwal Shoal is famous), but something better (and less scary!) — dolphins. Saw a pod underwater — great thrill to have Flipper wave at me — then when we were back in the boat they put on a little show complete with a jump! And the show didn’t stop when we were heading to the surface; a remora (aka “sharksucker”) followed us up, seeing if he could attach himself and hitch a ride. Sadly, no pix, since Sarah and I were both deterred by the reports of low viz, which turned out to be true in shallow water, but not deep. And another first — saw an Emperor Angel! Second dive was sort of cancelled (captain said he “would prefer not to dive for safety reasons”, and we were definitely NOT going to argue!), so no pix from that first day.

Next day did 2 fabulous dives and saw some amazing stuff. We saw a really cool ray hovering at a cleaning station getting cleaned by these iridescent purple cleaner wrasses and a HUGE (I’d guess 300 lb) grouper, which they call Potato Bass here. Sorry to say that we didn’t get good pix of the big stuff, since there was just too much crud in the water, so when you got far enough away to get the fish in the viewfinder, the picture had a lot of backscatter and was too dark. But got some pretty good shots of small stuff. Here’s a sample – Emperor Angel, a group of Goldies, a Moorish Idol (with One-spot Butterfly in background), and a pair of Longnose Butterflies swimming inverted under a ledge.

All in all, a great trip, with many fantastic memories and pictures. But I’ll have to wait til the next trip to get Flipper!

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