The iSimangaliso Wetland Park is home to a vast array of unspoiled coral reefs. The best way to explore them is to hop on a boat and SCUBA dive to discover this iSimangaliso (amazing in Zulu) underwater world.
“Three, two, one, GO!” are the last words I hear as I roll back into the Indian Ocean from the Zodiac boat with its two 100-horsepower engines. A quick “ok” sign at the surface, and our small group descends into the depth of Sodwana Bay to explore the southernmost coral reef of Africa populated by one of world’s highest recorded number of tropical-fish species.
Then, it is all silence and bubbles as we slowly SCUBA dive onto a splendid underwater scenery with its arches and columns onto which soft and hard corals cling onto. Marine life brightly colours these landscapes. Gently pushed by the current, we carefully explore every cavity large and small, sometimes surprised by a resident honeycomb moray eel, a hard-to-spot boxer shrimp, a crayfish or sea turtles. The green and hawksbill species come back along the beaches of Sodwana and Kosi Bay (about 60 kilometres north) to lay their eggs after having swum for thousands of kilometres. With a mix of clumsiness and grace, a hawksbill turtle escapes a cavity where it was searching for food and slowly vanishes into the blue of the ocean. Lost in our contemplation of this critically endangered prehistoric animal, a banging noise startles us. Looking for its origin, the silhouette of a ragged-tooth shark becomes visible. Apparently more startled than us, its quick change of direction with its tail caused the bang, and the shark is now slowly swimming away looking for food as we humans are definitely not on their menu.
If big game and pelagic fish are always exciting to spot, we focus our dive on the smaller scale and notice brightly coloured nudibranchs with weird shapes stuck on the rocks.
A bit further down, the anemone-fish which have unfortunately become the stars of the reef are swimming in and out of their protective anemone. Indeed, since the success of the great animation movie by Pixar ‘Finding Nemo’, they have become the best sellers of pet shops… sadly, the opposite message of the movie. Here, the couple is trying to scare us away, not frightened by our relatively massive size. We get a glimpse of their tiny offspring as the toxic anemone swings with the current and reveals them for a couple of seconds.
A funny bright blue boxfish leads us a bit further down where a massive endangered potato bass seems to effortlessly doze in the water protected under an impressive rock overhang. As we are drifting towards a sandy patch to look for rays, we probably hovered above the nest of a protective Picasso triggerfish that is bravely coming at us to scare us away.
Following the relief of the reef, we keep being amazed by the endless colour palette of the marine life. Schools of fish swing with the current. Checking our pressure gages, our air level is getting low. With most of our dives at an average depth of 15 to 18 metres, the dives in Sodwana Bay can last more than an hour, but when the air level gets close to 50 bars, it is time to start ascending for the safety stop. Regulating the amount of air in our Buoyancy Compensators (commonly called BC), we float at five metres deep in the water. These three minutes give time to our bodies to slowly release the nitrogen absorbed during the dive from the compressed air we have been breathing in order to avoid decompression sickness.
We slowly emerge at the surface where the boat fetches us. Our dive master Chester helps us get back on-board with a big smile. Freshly graduated, this youngster from the close by community benefited from the Coral Divers Diving Internship programme. By sponsoring underprivileged young adults, it gives them a chance to discover diving and make a career in the diving industry. One of his first dives as a dive master, Chester radiates, and so do we as we are riding back to the shore along the stunning coastal scenery that echoes the underwater magic.
Marcella & Claire
- Many dive spots can be explored at Sodwana Bay with various depth depending on the experience of the divers.
- If possible, avoid the Christmas holiday season as the beach gets very busy then!
- Coral Divers is the biggest dive operator and operates year-round. They offer accommodation in the heart of the iSimangaliso Park, as well as top of the line diving equipment.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.
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Part of this article was published in the Beyond Boundaries e-magazine by Xtreme Adventure: