So it's that time of the year again and we are ensconced in our little log cabin in Sodwana Bay, excited for the next few weeks diving and taking photographs. This is one of the best times in Sodwana. The schools have gone back and the beach is now quiet, the dive boats are not packed and there is a relaxed air, a collective release of breath after a hectic Christmas season. Add to that the warm water, which makes the use of a wetsuit optional, and the generally hot and sunny weather and it's a sure winner. We have been coming to Sodwana for many years at this time. Each time is different, one of the amazing facts about Sodwana I have still not fathomed. The range of critters we find, always changing, never boring. After 30 years it still surprises and intrigues me. Maybe if I concentrated I could work out some of the changes are seasonal or weather related but to be honest I prefer the anticipation of not really knowing what to expect.
This blog is an opportunity to introduce you to the range of underwater treasures to be found in Sodwana Bay and a showcase for some of the underwater photography we have accumulated in the last 10 years from this fabulous destination. If this does not have you gasping to come and dive here then I don't know what will.
The Sodwana reefs are generally described by the distance from the bay at Jesser point to the dive site although this runs parallel with the coast running north and so you are never far from shore. Depths range on average from 12 to 35 m.
The reefs at 2 mile remain as pristine today as I remember them when we started diving here back in 1984. 2 mile constantly amazes me, with the delicate plate corals and staghorns still beautifully silhouetted despite the huge through put of divers. It remains a beautiful and world class underwater landscape. I always feel macro is not the strength of 2 mile (apart from Bikini and Stringer of course) but in fact, on the occasions we have taken photographic prizes, it has been most often shot on 2 mile so there you go. The snappers at Anton's are always worth a visit as is Simons cave.
I think perhaps I am less enthusiastic about 2 mile because it is shallow and there is often a bit of surge especially on the second dive. Surge is not my friend in macro although Dudley is less affected with wide angle. It is additionally the scene of our biggest insurance claim when my housed DSLR camera and strobes were swept away in a current. It was never found and we were briefly classified as uninsurable after this claim which may give you an idea of the extent of the loss! Reef sharks and turtles are frequent visitors to 2 mile and I remember seeing a huge ragged toothed shark glide by while we were frantically searching for the lost rig. Bonus!
I cannot help but have a soft spot for this generous reef. It is deeper and so there is often less surge here than elsewhere and so it is a good bad weather destination. It is a flat reef with a long ledge full of cleaning stations and macro life. The fish queue up to be cleaned by dancing shrimps, boxer shrimps and cleaner shrimps. They will happily clean your fingers too if you wait your turn.
Paper fish, shrimps, crabs and pipe fish and a small field of garden eels are always waiting. It is on Bikini that we have found some of our more unusual and rare finds like the Mauritian scorpion fish and the leafy scorpion fish, fabulously colourful and challenging models. Many different nudibranches are found on this reef and, yet again, it is not uncommon for the mantas and eagle rays to visit.
Turn the other direction north across Bikini and the reef angles down to Hopscotch reef. This is deeper and is the regular haunt of blue ribbon eels and frog fish. Because it is deeper it is a popular cleaning station for mantas and turtles and sharks. Many cup sponges offer shelter and an excellent photographic background.
Anemones and porcelain crabs and ghost pipe fish can be found amongst the rocks and low corals. It is on Hopscotch that we are trying to perfect our macro snooting techniques. It's a long process!
Travel south down Bikini and the reef continues, slightly shallower and gradually more rocky and sandy until it ends in a little bay where the yellow snappers sit in the current.
This reef is often full of surprises with weedy scorpionfish, nudibranches and moth fish on the sand. Rays are common, even the occasional visit by a manta.
Stringer is also inshore of 2 mile, a small reef with 2 sections and surrounded by sand. For this reason it needs to be dived in calm conditions or else the sand covers everything. On a good day it is magic. Ghost pipe fish are often here. Turtles and large morays are always around. The electric ray is found in profusion and often there are ribbon tailed and sharp nosed rays lying in the sand.
Harlequins often make their home here and many juveniles are to be found in the nooks and crannies and cleaning stations. Sometimes the majestic manta swings by. I took my best nudi shot here when a free swimming nudibranch I had never seen before floated past my face on a particularly rough day with poor visibility. You see, you never know.
Another deep reef on the sea side of 2 mile. The ledge harbours a tree of black coral which is home to 3 or 4 long nosed hawk fish, always good photographic subjects. Many whip corals make good hunting grounds for the commensal shrimps and gobies. Sea horses are again quite common but you must be quick and sharp in your search as the bottom time is very short.
Sharks, rays and turtles often make an appearance on the way up or down. For me, because I love the long nosed hawk fish, this remains a favourite but the depth makes it a fairly rare treat . Most customers are peeved by a 20 minute bottom time!
This is on the sea side of 2 mile and a much deeper reef and so it also suffers from the short bottom time. This is a shame as it is a very colourful reef with beautiful sponges and soft corals and one of the best place to find thorny sea horses.
Nitrox comes in handy. On a stormy day it can be a peaceful and calm harbour. Because of the depth, game fish and sharks are often seen during the ascent or descent.
Well we cannot leave 2 mile without a mention of quarter mile. This is hardly a reef, really a collection of boulders in the sand just behind the back line, but from December to February it is the most sought after dive site in Sodwana as the gestating ragged tooth sharks come here to wait out their pregnancy. Up to 20 can be found lazily circling this small group of rocks, huge with child(ren), rows of serrated teeth on show. Ragged toothed sharks come up from the cold waters and mate off Aliwal shoal in November. The males then turn south back to the cape and the pregnant females come north where they settle on small shallow reefs along the coast of northern KZN and Mozambique. During this time they do not eat, at least that's what we are told. Certainly the teeth are discoloured with algae which would support the suggestion that they are not actively hunting.
Whether they stop on quarter mile or not in any given year, seems to depend on the water temperature and seas. If the water is too cold they move further north. If there is a lot of swell or bad seas they also move off, perhaps to deeper water, and so they are not always to be found here every year. Some years they come but diving is prohibited. Indeed we have not seen them for at least 5 years but this year we are in luck. The ragged toothed sharks are in residence and controlled diving is allowed. We have the opportunity to crouch in the sand and watch them patrol disdainfully. It is an awe inspiring sight, sometimes punctuated by the sharp crack of a tail flick and there is always the extra treat of finding a discarded tooth.
Ragged toothed sharks shed their teeth regularly. They have several rows of irregular sharp teeth that move forward like a conveyor belt. A single shark will loose and replace thousands of teeth in its life time. Ragged toothed sharks are threatened around the world because they are slow to reach sexual maturity, give birth to few young and because their inshore habitats make them vulnerable to over fishing. For conservation purposes they are considered near threatened but the size of the population is essentially unknown. They were the first shark species to become protected in Australia in 1984.
Many small dark pores can be seen on the snout of the shark. These are the sensory organs called ampullae of Lorenzini. These sensory organs help fish to sense electric fields in the water. Each ampulla consists of a jelly-filled canal opening to the surface by a pore. The ampullae pores are plainly visible as dark spots in the skin. They provide the shark with the ability to detect electrical and magnetic fields as well as temperature gradients.
Sharks are more sensitive to electrical fields than any other animal with a threshold of sensitivity as low as 5nV/cm. This is 5/1,000,000,000 of a volt. All living creatures produce an electrical field by muscle contractions and a shark may pick up this signal to guide it to prey. The earths magnetic field also induces an electrical field which sharks use for general orientation and navigation across their migratory routes. Without these little pores the ragged toothed sharks may miss Sodwana Bay altogether!
Five mile consists of a series of loosely connected reefs from shoreside Ribbon to the deeper Lettuce. They are a popular group of reefs as they are a bit further out but still reachable even if the weather is a bit choppy.
Extra time on the backline means you have good opportunity to find the dolphins and whale sharks or even some game fish on the way down or up.
Ribbon reef is the home of the sand diver and lion fish. Rays, crabs and small shrimps are common. One week we saw orangutang crabs in almost every disc anemone.
We have had beautiful harlequins on this reef as well as a leafy scorpion fish. Ribbon eels used to be found here but we have not seen them here for a year or two. Turtles often rest in the overhangs and several friendly potato bass hang around.
In pothole there are a wealth of critters hiding in the ledges and caves of this tiny hole. We have photographed juvenile crocodile fish and marble shrimp as well as a dragon eel here
Periodically the feathery hydroids are swarmed by gas light nudebranches and the cave is always full of glassies perfect for wide angled shots.
Lettuce reef is my favourite reef in Sodwana. It is a small hard coral reef which is so perfectly patterned it is a work of art in itself. I am still looking for the perfect shot of something emerging from the coral but the critters remain skittish. Species of fish found no where else in Sodwana are found in this reef including the tiger angel fish. It is an amazing and puzzling thing that in the big ocean, without fences or barriers, that species restriction can be so localised.
Is it temperature or food or light or sea conditions that dictates this remarkable segregation? It is certainly a fabulous place to hide among the coral leaves. There is so much left to learn. It is also a deep reef and so time spent there is agonisingly limited. Because of the fragile coral construction the number of boats here is less and big groups discouraged and so you are more likely to get an opportunity to visit here off season and with an experienced group.
Ma's House is an extension of Pothole running out to sea. There are gullies and overhangs in the shape of fingers and many anemones and cleaning stations.
So far we have dived this reef only once but it definitely deserves more attention.
Zombie reef is a new reef for us and we dived it for the first time this visit. It is a zigzag of long ledges full of shrimps and anemones.
Even after 30 years we can be shown a new reef, how cool is that! We will be back to explore this for sure
6 mile reef is a long narrow ledge which ends in snappers college. Snappers and other fish school here consistently with generous abandon.
The nooks and crannies of the ledge are full of glassies and squirrel fish and there is a resident crocodile fish. Sharks are spotted not infrequently. Last season a beautiful pair of harlequins made 6 mile their home for a few glorious months.
7 mile is an old favourite. It is a scenic site with beautiful walls and caves and covered in red and pink soft corals and anemones. The windows, swim throughs and crevices are beloved of any wide angled photographer who has ever dived Sodwana. Last season two pineapple fish stayed in the cave by amphitheater.
There are a lot of eels and scorpion fish here and whips with shrimps and gobies. Turtles love to shelter in the overhangs and reef sharks are frequent visitors. There is so much to see and do you rarely make it to the end of the reef at mushroom rocks. Well that is our excuse anyway as we are consistently left behind by every dive group.
This is a new favourite of ours. A zig zag along a wall with crevices and overhangs. Lots of macro lives here. There is a tube worm with a beautiful zebra crab inside, something we have only seen in Mozambique before.
I photographed some of the biggest reddest emperor shrimps here that I have ever seen. The ledges have a resident population of pipe fish. Glorious
The far extent of the regular diving out of Sodwana is 9mile. Because of the distance the sea must be calm for the long journey to be attempted and so it is not dived particularly often. Your chances are better off season when time is less critical to turn the boats around.
The large green tree is an iconic landmark and the rocky gullies and crevasses are reminiscent of 7 mile with scenic vistas providing many wide angle opportunities. Game fish visit 9 mile and sharks are spotted not infrequently. The extra time patrolling the big blue ocean on the way home is a bonus.
So the reef tour is impressive but not exhaustive. There are still reefs we have not yet dived or dive infrequently like deep sponge, graveyard, shallow sponge, gotham and breaking waters, Some like the canyon are too deep. With all the old favourites calling it is difficult to find time to explore new sites.
Even without the reefs Sodwana is a world class destination for the general sea life in the big blue. The breaching whales in winter, the whale shark, the dolphins. Turtles and sharks on the surface. We have seen tiger shark take a gull from the surface asnd on another occasion a tiger was trying to saw a turtle in half.
Pods of dolphin patrol the shore, playing in the back line and surfing the swells. Sometimes they play with us and sometimes they motor along and ignore us. Dudley says they know when he is about to press the shutter on his camera as they always poo in the water right in front of the lens. Quite a statement! Most of the dolphins in Sodwana are bottle nosed but spinners and other dolphins are seen as well.
Occasional but exciting sightings of game fish occur, sail fish and marlin. The prospects are limitless and keep us coming back for more and always game for a blue safari.
Perhaps the biggest sadness of the trip this year is the lack of whale shark which has become a pointed absence. Usually in this season we will see them on most days, indeed in the past we would see 3 or 4 just returning from one of the further dive sites. This season only 2 had been seen before we arrived. They were spotted by microlight further out to sea but they avoided the back line. It is impossible not to make the connection between the lack of our seasonal sightings and the shark finning and long lining in Mozambique.
5 years ago in Millibangalala, in the Maputo elephant park, we met a researcher who was involved in a 20 year review of whale shark numbers.
He told us then that they were down to 10 % of the numbers seen in the first survey. What are they now I wonder? 1%?, 2%? We have a sinking feeling that it is another case of "last chance to see". I really hope not as these gentle giants are one of the most heart stopping and inspiring experiences of free diving on our coast. As as addendum we did see whale shark twice towards the end of our stay, they were motoring and did not stay to pose but they came when the vis dropped so maybe it is all about variable conditions. Lets hope so, until we meet again.
I hope you enjoyed a whistle stop tour of our Sodwana. None of these pictures would not have been possible without the energy, assistance, friendship and support of Greg de Valle (ocean guru and all round man of the sea!) and his amazing team at Sodwana Bay Lodge Scuba Centre. Special thanks to Ben, Maelle, Bronwyn, Ben Z, Elphas, Prince, Thulani, Sean, Nico, Dennis and all the fantastic fellow divers whose paths we have crossed under and above water.