Original Source: yearinthewild.com
Rocktail Bay and Mabibi are located in the Coastal Forest Reserve section of iSimangaliso Wetland Park, just to the south of the Kosi section. Just when you think life can’t get much better, you pitch up at Rocktail Bay.
This is the narrowest part of the park, where the forested dunes lie steep against the long beaches and Indian Ocean. Offshore is the best diving in South Africa. The tropical waters of East Africa are drawn southwards by the Agulhas current, one of the fastest in the world, creating a tropical climate on northern Natal’s coast.
The coral reefs of iSimangaliso stretch from south of Sodwana Bay all the way north to Kosi on the Mozambican border. The reefs of Sodwana are some of the most pristine and popular in Africa, and form part of one of only two marine world heritage sites within the Indian Ocean region. Needless to say, these protected coastal waters – about 1 000 square kilometres – draw thousands of scuba divers (and fishermen) through the year.
But while Sodwana is very busy with divers from more than 20 dive operators, the reefs offshore of Rocktail Bay and Mabibi Beach are concessioned exclusively to Rocktail Beach Camp and Thonga Beach lodge respectively. Each lodge has it’s own dive operation, and exclusive use of the reefs in this area. Basically, this means that if you dive here, you’ll be assured of having the whole ocean to yourself.
At Rocktail Bay, Darryl, Clive and Michelle Smith of Mokarran Dive Charters have been here for many years, and probably knows these reefs better than anyone else. Darryl has been here the longest, but all three have dived here thousands of times. At Thonga, Clint Morkel also has extensive experience, having worked for several years in southern Mozambique’s waters, specialising in dolphins.
So, can anything prepare you for the beauty that lies beneath? I dived several times with Darryl at Rocktail, and once with Clint and divemaster, Dustin Chilton, off Mabibi, always on different reefs. Each reef has it’s own character and feel, with it’s own resident fish and eels.
I’ve been fortunate to see many of Southern Africa’s wildlife wonders, but I reckon the diving here is probably in my top three wildlife experiences of all time. Suspended in warm, clear water, surrounded by thousands of multi-coloured fish, and hovering over intricate hard and soft corals, I found myself totally mesmerized. You are immersed in this water wilderness, and the effect is epic.
Wherever you look – here, there and everywhere – you are constantly amazed by the diverse array of fish, eels, turtles, rays and the odd shark. These waters are home to more than 1 300 species of fish, as well as the impressive leatherback, loggerhead, green and hawksbill turtles (although you’re most likely to see the latter two). Look out too for whale sharks, humpback whales and huge schools of dolphins.
On the so-called Elusive Reef off Rocktail Bay, there is a resident population of thousands of yellow snappers, which all swim in unison, forming a massive luminous yellow cloud in the turquoise water. If you drift slowly into the school, and don’t make any sudden movements, you can swim with them, and stare into their little black eyes, which are probably staring right back at you. It’s intoxicating.
What’s special is that the reefs are pristine. Diving here is strictly controlled, and there is a real belief in their conservation. While many of the reefs around the world are damaged by environmental factors or hordes of tourists, the reefs of Rocktail and Mabibi (as well as Sodwana) are considered among the most-well protected.
The divemaster at Thonga, Dustin Chilton, has several thousand logged hours of diving, and has submerged himself all over many of the world’s top dive spots, including south-west Thailand, Red Sea and Indonesia. But for him, the reefs of iSimangaliso are among the most special he’s seen.
Dustin reckons that while each individual reef may not be as large as those elsewhere, the abundance and diversity of life is as good as any. And the reefs here are in great condition.
While the reefs are protected, fishing is still allowed further out to sea. Even though this whole coastline is a marine protected area, and some of the ocean is totally off limits to fishing, large parts of the shoreline and ocean are open to controlled fishing.
In fact Sodwana was put on the map by fishermen who flocked here in their droves for decades. Today, conservation is doing its best to control the number and size of fish killed. It’s certainly an incongruous sight to see fishing boats trolling the waters while scuba divers descend to see the wonders below.
While fishing does bring a lot of revenue to the park, I don’t see how the park can continue to marry fishing with conservation of the reefs and marine life offshore. I also can’t understand how fishing can be allowed at all in a marine protected area that forms part of a World Heritage Site.
To me, it’s akin to allowing tourists in Kruger National Park to hunt and shoot an impala, giraffe or even lion. It just doesn’t make sense, and it seems bizarre. More than 90% of the country’s coastline and ocean is already overfished and exploited. Surely we can consider these waters of iSimangaliso sacrosanct? After all, their denizens are among the most diverse and beautiful in the world.