Taking underwater safaris by going scuba diving in Sodwana.

Taking your safari underwater in Maputaland

Why not add an aquatic dimension to your luxury safari in South Africa or Mozambique? The scuba diving off the coast of Maputaland offers some of the world’s best underwater safaris. There are a number of beautiful, pristine reefs here, teeming with life and suitable for both novice and advanced divers.

I’d read in a scuba-diving magazine that the Maputaland coast of South Africa and Mozambique had some of the best dive sites in the world. The two spots most raved about were Sodwana Bay, on the East Coast of South Africa, and Ponta Mamoli, roughly 130km further north, across the border in southern Mozambique.

As my partner and I were already planning a luxury South African safari, we decided to add on an underwater safari at Sodwana. We rounded off our journey at a beautiful lodge set above a beach in northern KwaZulu-Natal.

On the designated morning, we were driven in an open 4×4 to Sodwana Bay. As we headed down the coast, our guide told us a bit about the area: ‘Sodwana is one of Africa’s top dive sites. It’s home to the southernmost tropical coral reefs on the planet – even further south than the Great Barrier Reef. They have incredibly dense coral cover and a huge diversity of fish and crustaceans. In fact, more than 1,400 different species have been identified so far.’

‘The sites vary from shallow – around 10m – to depths only suited to technical, deep divers. Most of Sodwana’s reefs are named after their distance from the launch site: Quarter Mile, Two Mile, Five Mile, Seven Mile and Nine Mile. Each of these reefs has a wide range of dive sites. Diverse corals, craggy overhangs, drop-offs and mushroom rocks – you guys are in for a treat.’

When we reached Sodwana, our lodge guide handed us over to an expert dive outfit. After getting rigged out with wetsuits, tanks and BCDs we were good to go.

Life jackets on, we helped to drag the semi-rigid inflatable dinghy into the surf. The two 90hp Suzuki 4-stroke engines roared into life. My partner and I slithered aboard, jamming our feet into the foot straps. ‘Hang on tight, folks!’ cried the skipper.

The boat powered through lines of white water, leaping off the larger crests, propellers noisily chewing the air. We passed a pair of surfers in the back line and waved … then we were into open, blue water.

I went and stood beside the skipper. ‘Amazing coastline!’ I shouted above the growl of the engines.

‘Ja, it’s verged by a continental shelf stretching 3–5km out to sea,’ said the skipper. ‘Then it sinks to massive depths. The shallow shelf is cut through by several canyon-like reefs, relics of riverine erosion from a time when the ocean level was lower than it is today. As you’ll soon see.’

It was a 20-minute journey to the dive site, cruising just behind the breakers along a forested shore. There was a light mist, the sea was aquamarine, my heart pounded with the thrill of the ride. Everyone had wide grins plastered on their faces.

We came to a pair of white beacons on the coast. When lined up, they indicated our reef, which was in fact an ancient sand dune from a time of lower sea levels. ‘Okay folks, welcome to Seven Mile Reef. This spot regularly features in top-10 lists in the diving magazines. It’s a microcosm of Sodwana: stunning topography, amazing schooling fish, superb macro life. Now go and enjoy!’

Masks, belts, tanks and fins in place, our dive master gave the okay signal and we tipped backwards in a series of splashes.

Suddenly silence, bubbles and a deepening blue. My breathing slowed, a new realm took shape. Down to 20m we sank, through herds of goat- and zebra fish, into a spectacular coral garden. We entered a fairy-tale world surrounded by Moorish idols, choc dips and potato bass; parades of parrot, angel and clownfish cruised by. Their colours appeared psychedelic.

I finned closer to the coral to look for smaller fry. The ‘jewellery’ on the reef included paper fish, pipefish, seahorses, nudibranchs and frog fish. Tomato scorpion fish and coral crabs sat side by side, the crayfish were only discernible by the antennae sticking out of crevasses. 

We finned through unperturbed schools, fish faces filling our masks, staring with inquisitive, filmy eyes. A blue-spotted rock cod lay doggo against a boulder beside a fat-fingered starfish. I resisted the temptation to reach out a hand and touch. One set of minnows gathered beneath a plate of coral-like ladies in the shade of a large parasol. We drifted through gullies, over pinnacles and across expanses of pristine mushroom coral. Heaven! Just then I caught a glimpse of the stealthy, sinuous shape of a white-tipped reef shark. It sent a frisson of delighted fear through my body.

In no time, the 60 minutes were up and our crew began to surface. Everyone was elated by the dive, the sightings and quality of the visibility; everyone, that is, except one of our seasick boatman who’d spent the last hour feeling none too peachy.

We sped back to Sodwana, where our guide from the lodge was waiting on the beach to whisk us home. Back in camp, we stared out at the Indian Ocean, savouring a mug of hot chocolate and reminiscing about one of the best dives either of us had ever experienced. We’d certainly be visiting Mozambique’s Ponta Mamoli next!

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