By Dr Camilla Floros, Marine Scientist…
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park is situated along the Maputaland coast of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. iSimangaliso is a Zulu word meaning “miracle” or “something wondrous”, which is an apt description of this beautiful area. Proclaimed a World Heritage site in 1999, this 332 000 hectare park has some of South Africa’s most unique terrestrial and marine ecosystems. At the top of the list are the multi-coloured coral reefs that extend for approximately 150 km southwards from the southern Mozambique border in the north to Leven Point in the south, making this South Africa’s premier dive destination.
The iSimangaliso Wetland Park on the east coast of South Africa
The iSimangaliso reefs are the second most southerly reefs in the world, yet despite their high-latitudinal position, they have an amazing diversity and abundance of marine creatures. Approximately 1200 species of fish and 190 species of coral have been recorded on the iSimangaliso reefs. In addition, leatherback Dermochelys coriacea and loggerhead Caretta caretta turtles nest on the long sandy beaches.
The importance of this stretch of coast was recognised several decades ago and two marine protected areas (MPAs) were established to protect the marine life. These are the St Lucia and Maputaland MPAs, but these are now mostly incorporated into the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.
Remember, South African regulations require that you purchase a “Scuba Diving in MPAs” permit from an Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife office or a participating post office before diving in the MPA.
The reefs are grouped into three reef complexes (Northern, Central and Southern), and there are different MPAs zones within each of these to allow for regulated recreational activities (SCUBA diving and fishing) and no-take areas. Most of the Northern and all of the Southern Reef Complexes are sanctuary zones where no human activities are allowed. The Central Reef Complex consists of multiple-use zones and is the hotspot for recreational activities, particularly SCUBA diving.
Jesser Point at Sodwana Bay is 322 km (3h37 min) north of King Shaka International Airport and is the main boat launch site for SCUBA diving in the central complex. The most popular reefs are named according to their approximate distance from the point. These include Two-mile, Five-mile, Seven-mile and Nine-mile reefs. Each reef has unique features and offers great experiences for all levels of diving. There are many experienced and well-equipped dive charters operating within the Park.
Dive sites of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park
This is the most popular reef for SCUBA diving for a number of reasons. It is the closest reef to shore, it is the shallowest reef, making it accessible to all levels of diving, and it has wonderful fish and coral life. The average depth of the reef is 12 m, with some sections reaching 10 m. The topography is highly variable with lots of gullies, pinnacles and overhangs. On Two-mile you can expect to see all your typical reef fish such as clownfish, surgeon fish, snappers, angelfish and, at some sites, white-tip reef sharks Triaenodon obesus.
Just south of Two-mile are two small reefs called Big Stringer and Little Stringer. Both are shallow (9-12 m) and are best experienced when there is no surge. These two small reefs can produce some of the most memorable sightings because they are surrounded by sand and often get pelagic visitors such as mantas Manta birostris, tiger sharks Galeocerda cuvier, stingrays, sand sharks and turtles. The coral cover is not high on theses two reefs, but the fish life is very diverse. This is also a place to look out for macro subjects like nudibranchs, harlequin shrimps Hymenocera picta and paper fish.
This is a more advanced reef for SCUBA diving because the depth starts at 18 m. The topography is not as varied as Two-mile Reef, but there are some interesting features on Five-mile such as a giant Pothole and Amphitheatre, which host a variety of interesting marine critters. The fish and coral are not as diverse as on Two-mile Reef but the greater depth of this reef provides a better chance of seeing game fish such as king mackerel Scomberomorus commerson, giant kingfish Caranx ignobilis, sailfish Istiophorus platypterus and sharks. For the more adventurous, the deeper dive sites around Five-mile, such as Gotham (40-45 m), will provide an adrenaline rush with sightings of Zambezi Carcharhinus leucas and hammerhead sharks.
On a good day, this reef is unbeatable; however, its long distance from the boat launch site and variable current, as well as visibility make it a more challenging dive. Like Five-mile, it is a deeper reef; starting at 18 m and descending to 25 m. Depending on the prevailing current, there are two main dive sites; the Northern Wall/Amphitheatre in the north or Mushroom Rocks in the south. The topography is highly variable with lots of arches, gullies and pinnacles. Soft corals are more dominant than hard corals on Seven-mile, but the fish life is still abundant and diverse. Large fish like potato bass Epinephelus tukula can be seen, but it is also worth looking out for cryptic critters like the blue-striped pipefish Doryrhamphus excisus in the many crevices.
Nine-mile Reef is the most northerly and, consequently, the least dived reef in the Central Reef Complex. The topography is highly variable with the shallowest parts almost reaching the surface at a site called Breaking Waters. This is a great dive with lot of pinnacles and interesting coral but requires very calm conditions. The most common and famous site on Nine-mile is the green coral tree. This is a very large Tubastrea coral which is well known for its halo of sea goldies Pseudanthias squamipinnis and damselfish. Potato bass, mantas and turtles are also frequently seen on the reef.