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Plunge into paradise

“There are few things as magical as a dive into Sodwana’s underwater wonderland.”

Having properly qualified as an advanced diver in Sodwana Bay more than 16 years ago, I have managed to log quite a few dives in the interim. I’ve dived in a number of locations and explored most of the reefs along both the South African and Mozambican coasts, and Sodwana still ranks near the top of my list in terms of breathtaking underwater scenery and marine life.

The small diver’s haven in northern KZN attracts scuba enthusiasts in their thousands every year and, once you have tumbled backwards off the dive boat into the vast underwater world and marvelled at the strange marine landscapes and unfamiliar life forms, it’s easy to see why.

On this occasion, a group of us travelled there from Cape Town – quite a trek, but worth it – and stayed at Coral Divers, an establishment boasting an array of housing options, including cabins, and tents on undercover decking with beds – all within walking distance of the beachfront.

The lodge is fitted with a large, well-appointed self-catering kitchen, restaurant, bar, big braai area, beautiful swimming pool and tanning deck. It also happens to be the biggest dive charter in Sodwana, offering reasonably priced courses, fun dives and any other scuba speciality you can think of.

I encouraged everyone in our group to complete their advanced courses so we could all dive together, which they duly did under the professional and patient direction of Coral instructors.

Once the members of the group had all completed the three-day programme and were suitably certified and confident, we decided on a seven-mile dive. ‘Seven-mile’ refers to the distance the boat travels from the beach to the reef. The depth at seven-mile is typically around 25m – a depth that requires divers to hold an advanced diving qualification.

We attended the dive planning at the lodge the evening before, met the dive master who would be leading the trip and agreed on a launch time.

The next morning, we stumbled from our tents before a sparrow had time to stir – the sky an assortment of pink, red and orange shades – and headed to the lodge for coffee. Once the caffeine had kicked in, we hopped on the shuttle that would cart us, and all our hired diving kit, down to the water.

Arriving at the beach, we speedily assembled our gear, listened to a quick safety and reef briefing delivered by the dive master, and off we went. The boat ride itself is usually a lot of fun, and this time even more so, as we were treated to a few spectacular and rare sights.

We were pleasantly cruising along, enjoying the sound of the engine’s roar and the stretches of deep blue water all around us, when our seasoned skipper, Jerry, suddenly whooped. As I turned my head in the direction he was pointing, a spinner dolphin nearly brushed against my hand, so close was it to the boat.

Spinners are famous for their acrobatics and get their name from the entertaining spinning action they make when leaping out of the water. To our utter delight, they cavorted alongside the speeding boat for a bit before disappearing.

A few moments later, as we neared the five-mile mark, I was staring at the horizon, still thinking about the dolphins, when, out of nowhere, a monstrous dark blue mass erupted from the water about 100m from us. I let out a cry and everyone turned in time to see the giant humpback whale fall back into the water with a crash of white spray. The dive master later explained to us how rare a sighting a full-body breach is, and we could hardly believe our luck. My day was already made; any notable underwater sighting would only be a bonus.

Without any sort of GPS or sonar instruments – simply by looking at land beacons – Jerry abruptly slowed to a stop and announced that we had reached our intended reef. We kitted up and, on his countdown – ‘3… 2… 1…’ –somersaulted backwards.

As I swam down to the reef 25m below the waves, I realised that this alien universe, where no human should be able to breathe, is where I’m most at peace. The silence is only disturbed by air bubbles exhaled through your regulator and, if you’re lucky, the occasional whale cry in the distance.

We’d barely reached the bottom when shoals of brightly coloured fish started darting around us, while the coral was astonishing in its various species and hues. Suddenly, I felt a tug on my fin. Our dive master made the hand signal for ‘turtle’. I looked at where he was pointing and noticed it: a leatherback turtle gently cruising by, not paying us a shred of attention. We followed it for a short while, and I wondered to myself whether this dive could get any better. After swimming the full length of the reef and nearing the end of the dive, I got my answer.

We were on our obligatory three-minute safety stop at five metres below the surface to decompress, when a shadow passed at the edge of our vision. I wrote it off as a trick of the light. A moment later, one member of our group, wide-eyed, urgently signalled ‘shark!’ I whipped around and there it was: the distinct, fearsome outline clearly visible. It closed in and circled around us inquisitively, giving us a look at its rough hide and intimidating dentistry.

It was an oceanic blacktip, comfortably 2.5m long, and the biggest shark I had seen on a dive. We instinctively huddled together before marvelling at this predator with a combination of terror and amazement. After a few turns, inspecting us with beady eyes, the shark left as suddenly as it had appeared, and we exhaled a few bubbles of relief.

As we surfaced, everyone let out whoops of delight at what could only be described as a spectacular sighting, but predictably, as our boat came around, the group of 10 divers was out of the water and on board in what must have been record time.

What an awe-inspiring experience. Sodwana never disappoints, which is why I’ll continue to make the lengthy journey from Cape Town at every possible opportunity.

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO:

Get qualified:

Open water diver: To enrol in a PADI Open Water Diver course you must be 10 or older. Good physical health and swimming skills are required. No scuba-diving experience is necessary.

The three main phases of the course:

– Knowledge development – to understand basic principles of scuba diving (online, through independent study or in a classroom)’

– Confined-water dives – to learn basic scuba skills

– Open-water dives – to use your skills in the ocean

Advanced open water diver: Open water divers who are at least 12 years old can enrol in an Advanced Open Water Diver course.

It consists of two compulsory parts:
Deep Adventure Dive and Underwater Navigation Adventure Dive.

You select three more Adventure dives (covering specialities such as underwater videography, wreck diving and night diving) for a total of five dives.

During the Deep Dive, you learn how to plan your dives to manage all the physiological effects and challenges of deeper scuba diving.

The Underwater Navigation Dive will help you refine your compass-navigation skills and allow you to better navigate using kick-cycles, visual landmarks and time.

Get in touch:

Coral Divers

Call 033 345 6531,

Email info@coraldivers.co.za or visit coraldivers.co.za

Richard Brown

Richard Frederick Brown, the Roving Rogue, is primarily a travel writer whose work has been published in various online and print publications. He also serves as the editor of Escapes Magazine and as managing editor of Tech Magazine. His love for travel is unrivalled, and when he's in the bush he is at his happiest. ... He travels light, and lives roguishly.