The summer of 2001 was my first dive trip to Sodwana bay. For my first dive, we launched just after 7am and already the African sun was high in the sky. Our dive boat skipped over the calm ocean en route to our dive location – a reef called 7-Mile. After a 30-minute boat ride the skipper brought the boat to a stop and immediately organised chaos broke out as everybody grabbed for fins and masks. One by one, the skipper helped everyone kit-up before maneuvering the boat to the exact location above the reef using landmarks. At first I was not convinced that anybody could locate a reef using landmarks and triangulation but to this day I have never been dropped incorrectly. The skipper then counted down 3-2- 1 and we all rolled backwards off the boat in unison. We were greeted by a kaleidoscope of colour and large schools of goatfish and blue banded snapper which hung in mid-water above the reef.
Text and Images by Paul Hunter
There were so many fish I felt like I was in an aquarium. From that initial moment I knew Sodwana was a special place and have since never been disappointed. That dive went on to be one of those spectacular dives with large moray eels, turtle, nudibranches and much more. To this day, 7-Mile reef is still one of my favorites with its many swim throughs, over- hangs and mushroom rock.
Over the past 6 years I have spent diving holidays in Indonesia (Bali, Wakatobi, Bunaken, Lembeh), the Red Sea (North and South) and Malaysia (Sipadan), and after every trip I realise what Sodwana and South African diving has to offer. I believe diversity is the word I’m looking for. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy diving internationally and will continue to as long as it offers something different. However, for me, these international destinations seem to be lacking something. I call it the “wild factor” which I believe diving in South Africa offers. On any given dive in Sodwana you have a good chance of seeing manta, turtles, whale shark, numerous other shark species and dolphin plus an abundance of macro subjects. And that’s just underwater. The entire bay is surrounded by a massive sand dune covered in a dense coastal forest which offers plenty other animal life.
I believe diving in Sodwana can compare with any top dive destination in the world due to its variety of coral reefs, phenomenal sea life and all year round good visibility. The reefs of Sodwana are regarded as the southern most coral reefs in the world and the only tropical dive site in South Africa. Divers are exposed to more than 1200 species of fish on the many reefs. The point I’m trying to make is reinforced every year at the Sodwana Shootout. Each
year, while viewing the images of all the contestants I’m blown away at what is available right here on my doorstep. I ask myself the same question every year: “why do I do international trips when I have all this diversity right here in the country I live in”.
My favorite Sodwana dive spots
• 9 Mile Reef is the furthest and takes about 40 minutes, depending on the conditions. The great thing about this trip is that there is a good chance of seeing and possibly swimming with dolphin and whale shark, and in season humpback and southern right whales. The dive site comprises some small walls, caves, overhangs and pinnacles. This reef is best known for the “Green Tree”; a coral tree that stands tall, surrounded by goldies and other fish. The maximum depth is 22 meters on the sand
and average depth about 18 meters. Due to its distance from the launch site, the reef is not dived often so is in pristine condition. The marine life is diverse and includes most of the tropical fauna typical of the region as well as big schools of passing game fish.
• 7 Mile Reef, just 25 minutes from the beach, to me, the most scenic reef in Sodwana. The maximum depth is 24 metres and the average around 18 metres. This reef is in immaculate condition and is populated by every type of fish imaginable. There are large schools of snapper and goatfish that hang in mid-water. Their yellow bodies contrast against the blue water making for unbelievable visuals. The reef is well known for the amphitheatre and mushroom rock. Also have a look out for turtles, rays, kingfish and much, much more. This is definitely not a dive spot to be missed.
• About 20 minutes from the beach lies 5 Mile reef. This reef is well known for ‘pothole’ which is an amazing spot for macro photography opportunities and it never disappoints. Also have a look around the top of pothole and on the sand around it. I have come upon numerous surprises here. 5 Mile is a flattish reef with spectacular plate and stag horn corals. Just inshore from 5 Mile at a depth of approx 20 metres is Ribbon reef. This a also a great reef for macro sea life and is named after the ribbon eels that reside here.
• 2 Mile Reef is only about 5 minutes by boat from the beach. It is a very large reef with numerous places to dive. The reef ’s depth ranges from 8–10 metres to 16–18 metres with an average of 12 metres. Some of the spots you can dive are: Chain, Pinnacles, Caves and Overhangs, Coral gardens, Four Bouy and my favorite, Antons. This reef has many gullies, ledges, pinnacles and outcrops. I have seen everything from turtles, schooling jacks, reef shark and many more. The thing I like about 2 Mile is the diversity of the coral and fish life.
• Quarter Mile Reef is basically just behind the breakers and about 12 metres deep. In the summer months this reef is home to ragged tooth sharks that come here to gestate. This dive can only be done when the conditions are right. So if the conditions and season are right I would highly recommend it.
Two other reefs that I have to mention are Stringer and Bikini as they are both awesome dives. Stringer lies between quarter and 2-mile reef. It consists of 2 reefs – small stringer and big stringer. Small Stringer is a round piece of coral which attracts a lot of juvenile fish. Big Stringer is more of an elongated reef. It is normally dived on the shore side and when conditions are calm. The other reef I want to tell you about is Bikini. It runs parallel to 2 Mile and is mainly flat . My favorite location on this reef is the Ledge, which is a fair-sized cleaning station. The macro photography opportunities here are world-class. It’s a deep dive and therefore more suited to an advanced diver.
Let me tell you a little about Sodwana now. Sodwana Bay or, “little one on its own” in Zulu, lies in the heart of Maputaland. It is also situated within the Greater St Lucia Wetland park, South Africa’s first World Heritage Site. Both Maputoland and the St Lucia Marine Reserve are linked to form a continuous protected area stretching 150 kilometres on land and 3 nautical miles out to sea. Sodwana is easily accessible by a 4 hour dive from Durban and 7 hours from Johannesburg.
Conditions are generally good throughout the year with the best diving from April to September. Visibility can be up to 30 metres on a good day and the average is around 14 metres. The weather is typically subtropical with water temperature above 20°C reaching as high as 29°C in summer.
All the dive sites of Sodwana Bay are named according to the distance from the launch site. The majority of the dive sites are shallow, with an average of around 18 metres. There are however several deeper sites available for those qualified.
It is not only diving that makes Sodwana an exquisite destination. There is also snorkeling, bird watching, hiking, turtle viewing and much more. With its scenic beauty and close proximity to some world-renowned game reserves, Sodwana Bay is the perfect destination for divers who would like to experience the wilder side of life.
Sodwana is more than just diving, it can be an adventure. A must do is turtle viewing at Sodwana Bay. Five known species of turtle regularly visit Sodwana. Two of which, the Loggerhead and Leatherback, visit every year during the summer months (November to March) at night to lay their eggs. To experience these creatures coming ashore to nest is an incredible sight. Even more incredible is when you get to experience the hatchlings struggling to survive the furry of predators. This event only takes place in a few places in the world. Maputoland boasts the longest running protected program for turtles in the world. Night turtle tours are provided during December and January. Departure times vary with the tide.
Just a short 35 minute drive from Sodwana is Muzi Pans which is an little oasis away from the crowds and easily accessible via a tar road. The pans are situated on the Mkhuze river floodplain between Mkhuze Game Reserve and Lake St Lucia. The pan is home to Nile crocodile, hippos and an abundance of bird species. On a good day up to 100 different species can be seen here. The area does have Zululand Birding Route trained local bird guides who can assist you with birding in the area and a guided canoe trip can also be taken on the pan with trained canoe guides. It is well worth the effort to visit Muzi Pans.
Lake Sibaya – Mabibi
Another great location to visit is Lake Sibaya, with its 100 kilometres of untouched shoreline. It is South Africa’s largest freshwater lake measuring 70 square kilometres. The lake lies within the Isimangaliso Wetland Park and is now a World Heritage Site. It provides a habitat for birds, mammals and marine life. This lake has the second largest population of hippos and crocodile in KwaZulu-Natal and is also an important habitat for many bird species. In dry spells, Lake Sibaya is the only source of water for birds and mammals in the area. The entire wetland also supports many of the rural people who in many cases are totally dependent on the water resources. If you are into bird watching then Lake Sibaya is the place for you with 279 species recorded at the lake alone. This wetland is very important for breeding, roosting and feeding. Some of the species you can expect to see are red and white breasted cormorants; pied, giant and malachite kingfishers; fish eagles and a variety of herons, darters and egrets. Waders include white-fronted sand plover, black-winged stilt, avocent, greenshank and spoonbills. Also recorded at the lake are the much sought-after pel’s fishing owl, pygmy goose, palmnut vulture, flamingo, woodward’s batis and rufousbellied heron.
Game viewing or safaris for our international readers
Another reason I have always thought Sodwana to be an international destination is that it offers visitors the chance to do some world class diving and then also experience some of our country’s best game parks. Just think, you can dive in the morning and in the afternoon be on a game drive viewing the Big 5. It does not get better than that.
There are numerous game parks close to Sodwana.
Below are some of the better-known ones:
• Hluhluwe Game Reserve is one of the oldest reserves in Africa . It is also well known for its role in rhino conservation. The park stretches over 96 000 hectares and is home to the Big Five as well as more elusive animals, such wild dog, giraffe, cheetah and Nyala. The northern section of the park is known for the diverse range of both animal and bird life. Guided walks are also available and best to do early morning or late afternoon. Numerous types of accommodation are available. Hluhluwe is located in a low risk malaria area so visitors should consult their doctors before visiting.
• Thanda Game Reserve is a private reserve and lodge that offers ultimate luxury and world-class service. They offer 9 luxurious villas in the main lodge and 4 large luxurious tents in the tented camp. Thanda offers the Big Five and much more. The game restoration project has been successfully launched and the reserve is witnessing its 4th breeding season since the land was purchased in 2002.
• Phinda Private Game Reserve is located in the lush Maputaland region in northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Phinda comprises of 23 000 hectares (57 000 acres) of prime conservation land. They offer an abundance of wildlife including Africa’s Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, black and white rhino, buffalo) and over 380 bird species. Guests can look forward to exciting game-drives in open 4×4 safari vehicles led by experienced rangers and Zulu trackers Phinda has seven safari lodges which all offer sophistication and style in the African bush.