THE GREAT TIGER SHARK
It’s one of those trips that you have dreamed of all your life, and then finally you find the time and the right company to go with.
Everything is ready, the Scuba Diving gear (diving suit, stabilizer, nozzle, flippers, scuba mask, etc.), photography gear suitable for a trip of this kind (camera, protection, flash, accessories, etc.), a couple of T-shirts and shorts; it’s a real challenge to stay in the weight limits allowed by the airline, but after many years of traveling around the world, everything seems like a fun puzzle… flip-flops, yes; coat, no; toothpaste and sunscreen, I’ll buy them there, and so on, even weighing the socks to be put in the suitcase with a precision scale.
The journey is a bit long, Venice-Dubai and then Dubai-Durban (with Emirates), and once we arrive at King Shaja international airport in Durban we hire a car and take the highway towards Umkomaas for about an hour. In total, it took a day to get there and a day to go back.
When we arrive at African Water Sports, a very simple but well looked after complex, where the apartments, with a common eating area, and the diving center, with all kinds of equipment, are merged together. Welcoming us, we find the owner, Walter, born in South Africa with parents of Italian origin.
In the morning we wake up at 6:00, we have a light breakfast (you will see why later…) and at 6:30 we gather in the diving area to plan the day. Once we have loaded the gear on the raft and put on half of the diving suit, we get on the jeep, which tows the raft, headed toward Aliwal Shoal, the starting point for every sea excursion.
We get to the place and launch the raft in the estuary of the Keurbooms river. We are at the entrance of the marine protected area of Aliwal Shoal, where 3 or 4 meter tall waves are crashing on the shore. Going out to sea is very difficult, and it requires quite a lot of skill to find the right moment to open the throttle to make it to the open sea.
Once we arrive about 5 miles from the coast, we start attracting the fish, throwing sardines and tuna scraps in the water. In a few minutes we get the attention of several sharks which start gathering around the boat. After about an hour we enter the water with a backwards roll under negative buoyancy, since we’re diving in the current, and we all place ourselves around a rope connected to buoys on the surface. It has two big perforated spheres on it, one at -7 meters and one at -14 meters, which contain many kilos of food for the fish.
Before we know it we find ourselves surrounded by dozens of two meter-long Blacktip sharks (Carcharhinus limbatus), bolting like torpedoes above and below us, not at all intimidated by our presence, to the point that we get slapped and pushed many times, with even the sporadic bite to our flippers or to the camera’s flash…
After a long wait, we finally make out from afar in the dim light the majestic silhouette of the great “Tiger Shark”, and finally the dream of every scuba diver comes true! The unmistakable stripes on the sides distinguish it from any other shark, it’s him and us with no barriers or protection cages, in free waters, in his home, his hunting and living territory… We stay still, in neutral buoyancy, it will be him to come to us, attracted and intrigued by the trail left by the food. With sinuous and regal movements he comes to just over a meter from me… My heart is racing and time seems to stop, and the reckless desire to touch him gets the better of common sense and against all logic I stretch out my hand and manage to caress him on his side for an instant.
It was an incredible experience, and every time I was lucky enough to be able to get close to this amazing creature, I was overcome with emotion!
I will go back for sure, because South Africa has left me with beautiful and unforgettable memories. It’s still far from mass tourism, but it never leaves you wanting for anything that Mother Nature can offer, both underwater and on the ground.
We thank Matteo Roccato for sharing his experience with us!