This week, the star of TV's Great Escapes Monty Halls takes a break from the eco-tours business he runs on the Devon coast to go diving with sharks in South Africa



22:00 GMT, 23 November 2012

Monty has left Dartmouth for South Africa, a place that keeps drawing him back

Monty has left Dartmouth for South Africa, a place that keeps drawing him back

Despite having done a great deal of travelling, there is one place that draws me back again and again.

We all have this, of course – a single location where somehow our personal ley lines intersect, somewhere that holds a real magic you can’t quite put your finger on. Whatever it is, it means that you return there year after year, drawn back like a moth to a flame.

My personal Eden lies under the warm and violent waters off the south eastern coast of South Africa – a place called Aliwal Shoal.

It has often been said that Africa
has been tamed, that the heart of the Dark Continent beats at a slower
pace now. Wildlife is observed within fenced parks, passing sedately in
front of the manicured lawns of game lodges.

you can still find real wilderness relatively easily by slipping off
the side of a boat into the sea, or more precisely into the warm
conveyor belt that is the Agulhas Current as it sweeps down the coast of
Natal. Think of this current as a great undersea river, moving
inexorably south, passing over obstacles and barriers on the sea bed
beneath it.

One of these is a mountain of sandstone called Aliwal Shoal, and if ever there was a shark heaven then this is it.

Sharks have taken a terrible pounding round the world, caught in their millions for their fins. The fishing has been on an industrial scale, with a truly precipitous decline in numbers over the past 30 years.

The knock-on effect of removing an apex predator from an environment such as the sea remains to be seen – what is certain is that the changes will affect all of us in one form or another.

There are last bastions though, pockets around the world where sharks are revered and protected, and Aliwal Shoal is a haven enshrined in South African law as a protected area for most (but not all) of the resident species.

And so, yet again, I find myself on a fast boat pounding through the swell out to the reef, to bob and pitch above the dark shoulders of undersea ridges and caverns where sharks flick and twist in the gloom.

Monty loves watching them pass within inches of his face to observe their power and grace up close

Monty loves watching them pass within inches of his face to observe their power and grace up close

A baited container is lowered over the side, allowing fish oil to drift on the current, calling lithe shadows from deeper water.

When there are enough sharks around the boat, you roll over the side and enter a primeval scene. Or rather ‘we’ roll over the side, as my girlfriend Tam has come along to film and frolic with me. She’s a shark fanatic, so this was her equivalent of diving into something approaching heaven.

Ever present on these dives are black tips and duskies. The black tips are the most boisterous, all fast, twitchy energy; indeed, there’s strong evidence emerging that they hunt in packs and show a genuine ability to adapt their behaviour to their surroundings.

Among them are dusky sharks, more calculating and cautious, but commanding all the more respect precisely for that reason.

It says much for our misconceptions about these animals that the next hour is spent with up to a hundred of them in very close proximity to our twitching fins, and yet the only sensation you feel is a slightly dumbfounded sense of admiration.

To watch them pass within inches of your face is to observe their power and grace up close. This environment is all about boundaries and respect, and this twisting explosion of energy and predatory intent involving many, many sharks is actually a carefully choreographed ballet.

It’s an unwritten pact – if everyone takes their turn, gives everyone a bit of elbow room, then we can all rub along fine.

This is particularly apt as it’s us in their world – we’re there simply because they tolerate our presence. It’s a sensation and a scene to sear itself on your retina, never to be forgotten while there is breath in your body.

Tomorrow I fly back to Dartmouth, home and hearth. But even as I drive down the steep hill into town, delighted to be back, there’ll be a part of me that lingers in Africa, lost forever to the shadowy sentinels of Aliwal Shoal.