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Africa Geographic Travel

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.

Believe it or not, this is a winter morning...warm, clear, windless, with a chance of golden clouds.
Believe it or not, this is a winter morning… warm, clear, windless, with a chance of golden clouds.
Welcome to my world, human. A green turtle shows a clean pair of heals to the bubble-spewing ape.
Welcome to my world, human. A green turtle shows a clean pair of heals to the bubble-spewing ape.

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.

Yellow snapper fish in their thousands...I don't think I've ever been surrounded by so many wild animals at once...maybe high school came close, but this is far more enjoyable and fun.
Yellow snapper fish in their thousands… I don’t think I’ve ever been surrounded by so many wild animals at once, maybe high school came close, but this is far more enjoyable and fun.
If you don't make any sudden movements, and drift slowly with the current, the yellow snapper fish will surround you entirely.
If you don’t make any sudden movements, and drift slowly with the current, the yellow snapper fish will surround you entirely.

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.

There are some pretty radical corals out there! Here a cowrie shell sits on top of a soft coral.
There are some pretty radical corals out there! Here a cowrie shell sits on top of a soft coral. 
Isn't there a hand signal for "absolutely amazingly brilliant?!"
Isn’t there a hand signal for “absolutely amazingly brilliant?!” 
An immersive, wilderness experience...and they don't run away from you! (like so much African wildlife).
An immersive, wilderness experience and they don’t run away from you! (like so much African wildlife).
Sea anemone and two-bar anemone fish (also known as clown fish)
Sea anemone and two-bar anemone fish (also known as clown fish).
A large potato bass, doing his thing...these territorial fish are tolerant of scuba divers, and you can get really close to them! I have been told, however, that they can snap at shiny objects, so keep that nipple ring well hidden.
A large potato bass, doing his thing. These territorial fish are tolerant of scuba divers, and you can get really close to them! I have been told, however, that they can snap at shiny objects, so keep that nipple ring well hidden.
A wilderness experience that has few equals...to me at least. A school of blue-banded snappers.
A wilderness experience that has few equals… to me at least. A school of blue-banded snappers.
Up close and personal...a beautiful school of lemon fish.
Up close and personal – a beautiful school of lemon fish.
This honeycomb eel did not give me a warm welcome...I got too close, so he came out and lunged for me. Fortunately I backed away quickly enough, but Darryl from Mokarran did tell me afterwards that their bite is pretty nasty...and will go straight through your wetsuit and into your bones. Thanks for telling me AFTERWARDS, Darryl
This honeycomb eel did not give me a warm welcome. I got too close, so he came out and lunged for me. Fortunately I backed away quickly enough, but Darryl from Mokarran did tell me afterwards that their bite is pretty nasty and will go straight through your wetsuit and into your bones. Thanks for telling me AFTERWARDS, Darryl
Not everything is photogenic... This is a raggy scorpion fish, whose spines on its back are extremely venomous.
Not everything is photogenic. This is a raggy scorpion fish, whose spines on its back are extremely venomous.
The reefs off iSimangaliso are in excellent condition, and each one has its own character. I really loved diving here.
The reefs off iSimangaliso are in excellent condition, and each one has its own character. I really loved diving here.
Both Mokarran at Rocktail Bay and the dive centre at Thonga use beach launches to get their boats onto the water. At Rocktail, the rocky bay protects the launch site from heavy swell, so you can always get out onto the ocean, but at Thonga, if the ocean is rough, there's no way to get out. The coastline at Mabibi is not as well protected. This is important to understand, because if you're going specifically to dive these reefs, then it's better to stay at Rocktail Bay, because you're assured of getting onto the ocean.
Both Mokarran at Rocktail Bay and the dive centre at Thonga use beach launches to get their boats onto the water. At Rocktail, the rocky bay protects the launch site from heavy swell, so you can always get out onto the ocean, but at Thonga, if the ocean is rough, there’s no way to get out. The coastline at Mabibi is not as well protected. This is important to understand, because if you’re going specifically to dive these reefs, then it’s better to stay at Rocktail Bay, because you’re assured of getting onto the ocean.
Looking south from Thonga Beach Lodge...sunset. Look left - empty beach. Look right - empty beach.
Looking south from Thonga Beach Lodge… sunset. Look left – empty beach. Look right – empty beach.
The deck of my room at Rocktail... Yes, it's tough work, but someone's gotta do it.
The deck of my room at Rocktail. Yes, it’s tough work, but someone’s gotta do it.
Dusk, somewhere on the Indian Ocean coastline near Rocktail Bay and Mabibi. This is known as the skinnydipping hour.
Dusk, somewhere on the Indian Ocean coastline near Rocktail Bay and Mabibi. This is known as the skinny-dipping hour.
A bit of a reality check. The park is bordered by huge commercial plantations, and you have to drive through these to get to the natural coastal forest, where both Rocktail Bay Beach Camp and Thonga Beach Lodge are located. The contrast is staggering. One is sterile, quiet, bland, ordered, repellant and ugly. The latter is rich, aromatic, full of bird song, beautifully chaotic, peaceful and welcoming.
A bit of a reality check. The park is bordered by huge commercial plantations, and you have to drive through these to get to the natural coastal forest, where both Rocktail Bay Beach Camp and Thonga Beach Lodge are located. The contrast is staggering. One is sterile, quiet, bland, ordered, repellant and ugly. The latter is rich, aromatic, full of bird song, beautifully chaotic, peaceful and welcoming.
Ndumu River Lodge
Scott Ramsay

Photojournalist Scott Ramsay focuses on exploring the national parks, nature reserves and community conservancies in Southern Africa, taking photographs and interviewing the experts who work in these protected areas. Through his work, he hopes to inspire others to travel to the continent's wild places, which Scott believes are Africa's greatest long term assets. For more, go to www.LoveWildAfrica.com or www.facebook.com/LoveWildAfrica. Partners include Ford Ranger, Goodyear, Cape Union Mart, K-Way, EeziAwn, Frontrunner, Hetzner and Globecomm.