Dive Atlas Of The World: An Illustrated Reference To The Best Sites - Jack Jackson (2016)
by Judy and Bruce Mann
THIS WORLD HERITAGE SITE IS HOME TO a colony of coelacanths just a few hundred metres out to sea. Situated on the east coast of South Africa, about 300km (186 miles) north of Durban in the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park, Sodwana Bay is an eco-tourism destination offering interest both above and below the water. There are over 340 species of bird and large mammals including elephant, buffalo and rhino. A relatively safe launch from Jesser Point takes divers to a number of reef complexes that run parallel to the shoreline about one kilometre (half a mile) offshore. In the subtropical climate water temperatures vary from 21°(70°) to 28°C (82°F). Underwater visibility ranges from 10m (33ft) to 30m (100ft). Although diving is best from April to June, Sodwana Bay is usually good for diving at any time of the year.
The enormous biodiversity of the area is the result of being in the transition zone between the warm tropical north and the cooler subtropical south. The Agulhas current, usually a few kilometres offshore, brings warm tropical water southwards. This warming effect allows many tropical species to survive this far south. Hundreds of species of invertebrates have been identified and there are probably more awaiting discovery. Over 400 bony and 25 cartilaginous fish species are known to occur in the area. A group of coelacanths was recently discovered at a depth of about 100m (330ft) in Jesser Canyon off Jesser Point. These living fossils have remained relatively unchanged for over 300 million years and are related to the ancestors of the first terrestrial vertebrates.
1 TWO-MILE REEF
Two-Mile Reef, named for the distance from the launch site at Jesser Point, is particularly suitable for novice divers. Descending to the reef that varies in depth from 12m (40ft) to over 18m (60ft), a diver is likely to encounter huge shoals of zebrafish (Diplodus cervinus hottentotus), Humpback Snappers (Lutjanus gibbus), or Dusky Sweetlips (Plectorhinchus chubbi). They hang in columns in the water, parting and closing around divers. Once on the reef, divers can explore a range of caves and overhangs, as well as some low relief, flatter areas. The sand next to the reef should not be ignored, as this is the home of cuttlefish, rapidly changing their colour, tiny Fire Dartfish (Red Fire Gobies) (Nemateleotris magnifica) and Blue-streak Gobies (Valenciennea strigata). This is a popular night dive because it is close to shore and the launch is easy. The reef changes completely at night as the night shift emerges to take over from the diurnal species. Coral polyps extend their delicate tentacles in an astounding array of colours, and squirrelfish (Sargocentron spp.) emerge cautiously from the crevices in which they hide during the day.
2 FIVE-MILE REEF
For the more experienced diver, Five-Mile Reef is a little further from the launch site. Whale Sharks, turtles and dolphins and even the occasional Humpback Whale can be seen on the boat ride out to the reef. Humpback Whales migrate to breed off southern Mozambique during autumn and return to their Antarctic feeding grounds in spring, passing Sodwana Bay twice each year.
Ranging in depth from 15m (50ft) to 24m (79ft), the reef is a series of gullies, caves and overhangs. The tiny, brightly coloured nudibranchs (sea slugs), crabs, fan worms, snails, sea stars and tiny fish are usually well camouflaged. The more northerly sites, such as Seven-Mile 3 and Nine-Mile 4 reefs, offer a similar variety of fish and invertebrates, diversity of stony and soft corals and near-pristine reefs.
Situated on the KwaZulu-Natal south coast about 50km (30 miles) south of Durban, the small town of Umkomaas is home to a range of dive resorts and schools. A range of dive experiences are available, including shallow dives, shark dives and wreck dives. Aliwal Shoal is about 4km (2½ miles) long, about 300m (330yd) wide and lies parallel to the shore. The shoal is an ancient sand dune that has been consolidated into beach rock. The shoal is about 5km (3 miles) offshore, washed by the clean, warm waters of the Agulhas current and is seldom influenced by the turbidity associated with inshore waters during the summer months. Depths range from 5m (16ft) to 35m (115ft), depending on the area, and visibility varies from 5m (16ft) to 25m (80ft), while the water temperature ranges from 18°C (65°F) to 24°C (75°C).
The boat ride to the reef can be exciting as the launch at the mouth of the Mkomazi River is tricky, requiring a skipper with nerves of steel and divers who can hold on tight. Currents usually prevail on the reef, so that long drift dives are often the order of the day. The caves and overhangs of the reef are best explored on calm days with little surge.
The reef has a wide variety of filter-feeding invertebrates such as large sponges in varying shapes, colonial and solitary ascidians, tunicates, and feather stars, as well as red algae. Enormous, branched, black corals wave in the deeper areas. Bright orange Dendrophyllia corals are common in low light areas under overhangs and in caves. A limited number of other species of stony and soft corals also abound on the reef. The variety of bony fish is also good and over 300 different species have been identified, some of which are endemic and found nowhere else in the world. Enormous Potato Groupers (Epinephelus tukula) and Giant Groupers (E. lanceolatus) are found on the reef, as are endemic seabreams (Sparidae) such as the Slinger (Chrysoblephus puniceus) and the Englishman (C. anglicus). Silver gamefish such as Eastern Little Tuna (Euthynnus affinis), Pickhandle Barracuda (Sphyraena jello) and kingfish (Caranx spp.) are often seen circling above the reef. Dolphins and turtles may also be seen. The reef is also home to a range of colourful tropical and sub-tropical fish such as butterflyfish (Chaetodon spp.) and angelfish (Pomacanthus spp.).
Tiger rockcod or Striped-fin Grouper (Epinephelus posteli) waits in ambush for passing prey on a reef at Sodwana Bay.
A hermit crab (Aniculus maximus) peers out of its home - a disused whelk shell. These animals grow out of their ‘borrowed’ homes and need to move into larger shells periodically.
Aliwal shoal is famous for its shark dives. Each year between June and September hundreds of Raggedtooth Sharks (Carcharius taurus), also known as Grey Nurse or Sand Tiger Sharks, gather as part of an annual northward breeding migration from the Eastern Cape towards the warm waters off northern KwaZulu-Natal and southern Mozambique. The fierce appearance of these sharks belies their rather timid nature. Their pointed, sharp teeth are designed for grasping fish and squid, and they prefer prey that they can swallow whole. They seldom attack humans unless provoked. Divers should, however, treat all sharks with respect and observe the appropriate protocols. Tiger sharks (Galeocerdo cuvieri) are also seen occasionally on Aliwal Shoal.
WRECKS OF THE NEBO AND THE PRODUCE
Near Aliwal Shoal, the wreck of the Nebo 5, which sank in 1884, and the Produce 6, which sank in 1974, both lie at a maximum depth of 30m (100ft). The Produce is rather unstable and occasionally leaks oil, while the Nebo is largely intact. Both wrecks are home to some very large Giant Groupers (E. lanceolatus) and moray eels (Gymnothorax spp.), while large kob (Argyrosomus japonicus) are often seen on the sand near the wrecks.
7 LANDERS REEF
Slightly south of Aliwal Shoal, Landers Reef is reached via the launch site at Rocky Bay. Hundreds of bright orange and red anthias dart above the fields of red and pink Dendronephthya Soft Tree corals that cover much of the reef. The anthias live in small groups of females controlled by one large, dominant male. If the male dies, the most dominant female will, over a period of weeks, change sex and become the dominant male, complete with colour change, an increase in size and a more dominant attitude. The reef also has some fine specimens of the giant green tree corals (Tubastrea micranthus) and smooth-horned corals (Stylophora spp.).
The mystique of wreck diving on the Produce, home to a wide variety of marine life which can easily be seen on a short dive.
Lyretail Anthias or Goldies (Pseudanthias squamipinnis) hover over a colourful reef.
Because of its marine biodiversity, there are plans to establish Aliwal Shoal as a marine protected area and it may become a no-take zone. This should allow the recovery of a number of larger reef fish species.
8 PROTEA BANKS
The Protea Banks offer exciting dives for the more experienced diver. Situated between the KwaZulu-Natal south coast towns of Margate and Shelly Beach, about 100km (62 miles) south of Durban, these reefs are reached from the launch site at Shelly Beach. The reefs are well known to local skiboat fishermen, who make use of every opportunity to fish the area. Similar to Aliwal Shoal, this site also forms part of an extensive, consolidated dune cordon, that lies about 8km (5 miles) offshore. Much of the reef lies at depths greater than 35m (115ft). However, there are a number of high points on the reef that rise to between 25m (80ft) and 30m (100ft), which are more accessible to divers. Visibility on the reef is usually good and varies from 8m (25ft) to 30m (100ft). The Protea Banks usually have a strong north-to-south current flowing over the reef, which means that drift dives are often the only way to see it. Drifting past the kaleidoscopic reef, alive with brightly coloured fish, divers are swept through a marine world of unforgettable images. Only experienced divers should attempt this dive because of the depths and strong currents.
The Protea Banks are famous for their shark dives, where a wide variety of sharks, including Bull or Zambezi Sharks (Carcharhinus leucas), Tiger Sharks (Galeocerdo cuvieri), hammerhead sharks (Sphyrna spp.) and Raggedtooth Sharks (Carcharius taurus) occur at different times of the year. Great White Sharks (Carcharodon carcharius) and Shortfin Mako Sharks (Isurus oxyrinchus) are also occasionally seen, especially during the winter months when large shoals of sardines (Sardinops sagax) make their annual northward migration. Care should be taken when diving with these potentially dangerous animals and the appropriate diving protocols should be observed. This will help to ensure that the sharks are not disturbed and that later groups of divers will also have the opportunity to see the animals. Another feature of the area is the large number of gamefish such as yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares), Spanish Mackerel (Scomberomorus commerson), Bigeye Trevallies (Caranx sexfasciatus) and barracudas (Sphyraena spp.). These spectacular, fast-moving creatures are frequently seen during descents, ascents, or during decompression stops.
The reef has a variety of soft and stony corals - notably the smooth-horned stony coral (Stylophora spp.) and various gorgonian species. Leafy sponges also abound. The rare deepwater One-stripe Anthias (Pseudanthias fasciatus) occurs on the northern pinnacles. There are always shoals of reef fish such as Redtooth Triggerfish (Odonus niger), Natal Fingerfin (Chirodactylus jessicalenorum) and African Butterflyfish (Chaetodon dolosus) in the vicinity of the southern pinnacles, while on the southern, flatter areas of the reef, Giant or White-spotted Guitarfish (Rhynchobatus djiddensis) are common.
As with Aliwal Shoal, the exceptional biodiversity of the region requires protection. Experienced divers have the opportunity to view a pristine area that few others are privileged to see. They also have the responsibility to ensure that it remains untouched for generations of divers to come.
A tropical island surrounded by sandbars, showing the breathtaking shades of blue and turquoise typical of the Maldives.
Island and reef. The archipelago offers an exciting mixture of channel and thila diving. The best sites are exposed to strong currents, which deter the less experienced.