Sodwana Bay as Divers Paradise with Unique Regional Features


This video explains the unique features of the diving paradise in Sodwana Bay on the east coast of Kwa Zulu Natal in South Africa.   The only tropical dive site off the South African coastline.

Sodwana Bay is located on the east coast of South Africa directly south of the Mozambique border on the warm water tropical Indian Ocean side of the continent.  It is part of the iSimangaliso Wetlands Park and is a marine protected area and UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It is part of the largest trans-frontier national park in Africa and linked to the Maputo Special Reserve in the north.  This means it has the unique location of Indian Ocean tropical beaches on the east and big game terrestrial game reserves conserving elephants, lions, rhinos and other big game species in the national parks directly to the west of it.

Sodwana Bay is located near Lake St Lucia, the largest estuarine lake in Southern Africa as well as Lake Sibaya only a few kilometres away which is the largest inland fresh water lake in the region.  The Sodwana Bay coast is also the furthest location south of the equator where you have pristine tropical coral reefs.  Its proximity close to the southern tip of Africa results in regular encounters with large pelagic fish species which are normally encountered in colder waters.  This is a result of the colder Benguela current from the African west coast flowing around the tip of the continent into the warm water Agulhas current, meeting off the east coast in Sodwana Bay.

There are three main coral reef complexes around Sodwana Bay with multiple dive sites on each reef complex.  The reef complex where recreational diving is allowed consists of 2 mile, 5 mile, 7 mile and 9 mile reefs each with a wide range of dive sites and varying depths between 9 m – 40 metres.  There are deep canyons on the eastern side of the coral reefs further off shore which result in a wide range of deep sea fish species also frequenting the shallower coral reefs.  

The coral reefs are some of the ‘youngest’ on the planet and are actually submerged coastal sand dunes which have been covered in a thin veneer of coral growth.  These same coastal sand dunes which is a unique terrestrial land phenomena of high conservation value extend all the way into the ocean and have over time become covered in coral growth thus forming the coral reefs of Sodwana Bay.

The coral reefs of Sodwana Bay are extremely diverse and have a very high level of endemism of species that are only found in these waters - approximately 1230 fish species and 130 different coral species on the reefs.  There are also mega fauna such as whale sharks, whales, manta rays and sea turtles which are encountered off the coast during breeding season.

The ancient Coelacanth fish species which was believed to be extinct has in recent years been found on the Sodwana Bay coast in the deep canyons east of the coral reefs.  A number of these ancient transitional fish species have been documented in this region.  The Coelacanth is of high evolutionary importance as it is considered a transitional species between ray finned marine fish and land based tetrapods.  The Coelacanth has a number of morphological features which are more closely related to mammals than fish species.  It has a number of lobed fleshy fins which are similar to the legs found on tetrapods, a hollow back bone and intracranial joint behind the skull which act as a hinge to open the large jaws.

Another unique feature of Sodwana Bay is the recent discovery of the Sodwana Bay Pygmy Seahorse which is the only one of its species found in the Indian Ocean.  It was first photographed in 2017 by a local diver and then scientifically described in 2020.  These tiny seahorses are only about 10mm in length and resident on the sandy bottom of the reef.  Other Pygmy Seahorse species have been encountered in the western Pacific region nearly 8000 kilometres away.  Marine scientists have described this new species of Pygmy Seahorse in Sodwana Bay as rare and significant as finding a kangaroo in Norway!

Sodwana Bay is not only a scuba divers paradise but also a fascinating region with many unique features of importance to conservation.  


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