Words and pics by Georgina Jones
iSimangaliso Wetland Park is South Africa’s first declared World Heritage Site. It’s a place where the world’s largest terrestrial and marine mammals share an ecosystem. A place where fossils are not stone but enigmatic living fish or grumpy horned mammals. A place where a profusion of birds is matched only by an astonishing variety of fish species. A place of lush vegetation and prolific coral cities. iSimangaliso means ‘place of miracle and wonder’ and even the winding road to the gate suggests the entrance to a dreamland.
It’s a park made up of lakes, swamp forests, coastal dunes, a massive estuary, open savannah, sand forests, beaches and magical reefs. Sodwana Bay is the ocean part of the park. It’s billed as one of the world’s top dive destinations, and much was made of the region’s mega-diversity in the application for World Heritage Site status. Having dived there, it’s easy to see exactly why.
It’s a megalopolis of diving. The reefs are like a collection of underwater cities with a staggering cast of characters. Once adrift in the life and colour of Sodwana, human visitors are simply dazzled visiting bumpkins from the provinces.
Hordes of slinger and bluebanded snapper mill in the midwater like mad rush-hour commuters. Dolphins gambol past, clicking and chatting, like feckless housewives on a shopping trip, while earnest schools of humphead red snapper wait politely for a teacher. Hit and run kingfish rush into the crowds, scattering them like speed-freak teenagers in stolen cars. Redfang triggerfish, usually only visible by their vivid crescent tails, emerge from time to time, red fangs to the fore, to police the reef. Unlike police in movies though, they show no signs of beer bellies.
Busy coral heads are the high-density living blocks, with sea goldies, blennies and crabs all sharing the same crowded space. The gorgeously coloured male sea goldy lords it over his busy harem, wide-eyed blennies peer out of crevices, wistful children watching someone else’s party, and crabs stalk about, deeply involved in the business of finding food. All these characters disappear in the flicker of an instant at the first sign of a threat. They are conspicuous by their absence as soon as the titan triggerfish slouch through, sulky-lipped and garishly bedecked in colourful bling, the gangsters of the reefs. It’s worth giving them a wide berth when they’re protecting eggs. They have an impressive bite and worrying about their future makes them edgy and inclined to snap. No less impressive, perhaps partly for being so unexpected, is the bite of a clownfish. The fish known these days mostly as Nemo is in no way the neurotic over-anxious parent shown on the big screen. In real life, Nemo’s dad would actually be his mom. Clownfish start off life as males and when they get big enough, change sex to female, all the better for laying energy-expensive eggs. The dominant female gives off hormones, which keep the other adult clownfish sharing her space smaller and male. She spends her time guarding her eggs and her anemone, and attacks anything approaching that she takes exception to. Maybe they suffer from small fish syndrome. Certainly, there are divers who swear they wouldn’t get in the water if clownfish were any bigger.
When the female dies (they don’t usually head off into the ocean to find their missing offspring), the biggest of the small males will grow, change sex and take up the dominant female’s role. If the clownfish anemones are suburban households with a bossy mom in charge, the near-invisible transparent shrimps which live in them are something like the unregarded pets. They potter around in between the anemone’s tentacles, on the hunt for any dropped morsels of food, mostly ignored by the chatelaine, but entirely delightful to the observer. Also delightful are the hunched over Durban dancing shrimps, bobbing like trance-struck adolescents at the edges of the anemones.
Protecting the kids, or the kids to be, is characteristic of many species. Sergeant majors first lay their eggs on rock patches and then defend them against all comers as best they can. Their efforts are tragic to watch as their eggs are raided by groups of marauding wrasses intent on feeding themselves up for producing their own fertilised eggs. The sergeant majors rush between the sides of their egg patches, wringing their fins in hysteria as egg after egg is gobbled up. Perhaps they need to take a leaf from the clownfish’s book and lay their eggs somewhere more protected.
Meanwhile, Chinese laundries operate at cleaning stations all over the reef. Striped cleaner shrimps extend their red and white pincers like barber poles. Cleaner wrasse wriggle in an inviting advertising dance and fish line up for cleaning. It’s no common sight to view a menacing moray, mouth open to expose ferocious backward-pointing teeth, having its wicked teeth cleaned by a busy little shrimp while cleaner wrasse disappear into its gill siphons and emerge smugly fed. Bigger fish also approach the stations and, despite the fact that many of them would easily swallow the cleaners almost without noticing, indicate by their swimming behaviour that the cleaner is safe to approach them. Cleaners, seeing these big fish hanging vertically in the water, mouths and gills open, pectoral fins splayed, know it’s safe to approach and clean the fishes’ teeth, skin and gills of parasites and decaying food.
There’s also a little fish, the mimic blenny, which looks remarkably like the honest cleaner wrasse, and which hangs around the cleaning stations. Its true nature is revealed by its other, rather more menacing common names, the piano fangblenny or the sabretooth blenny. This creature pretends to be a cleaner wrasse and once close to fish wanting cleaning, takes a bite out of their flesh, very similar to con acts which take place all over human cities. So far no reports have been made of fish pretending to want cleaning in the hope of a tasty meal of cleaner shrimp or wrasse. Lionfish and trumpetfish, however, are not averse to pretending an utter lack of interest in reef life until a prey fish ventures too close – a tactic well known to urban sexual predators.
Then there are the reef eccentrics: the odd couple of the blind shrimp and the shrimp goby – the nervy goby ever on the lookout for danger and the patient shrimp constantly tidying sand out of their shared hole; the pufferfish which swell into balloons at any sign of trouble like portly elderly gentlemen outraged by the antics of the young. There are the garden eels in the sand flats, waving gracefully and anorexically in the subsea currents, vanishing in a flash at the approach of anything even remotely alarming. Razor wrasses dive repeatedly into the sand like disappearing stage jumpers, and juvenile rockmover wrasses mimic algae to avoid predators. As adults they work in pairs to find tasty treats under even the least promising looking stones. Ghost pipefish also use the seaweed mimic trick, and very effective they are too, so that divers learn that a buddy staring fixedly at some waving kelp has not necessarily been struck dumb with sensory overload but may well have a fish in their sights. Seamoths excel in moving slowly enough to escapepredatory notice, rather like canny old ladies, while soles blend right into the sand like camo-suited crack combat troops on an urban mission. Ribbon eels start out life reasonably unobtrusively as black juveniles albeit with yellow dorsal fins. The adults, however, are gorgeously embellished with blue and yellow, if their arum-leaf nostrils weren’t enough to set them apart as members of the theatrical crew.
There’s an unsavoury element to this undersea city as well. Surgeonfish flaunt their gaudy tail-mounted switchblades, though unlike human thugs, these weapons are intended strictly for defence. Mantis shrimps hide out in crevices, senses on full alert for victims. These beasts have among the most advanced vision of all animals, all the better for pursuing their smash-and-grab lifestyles. They have a club-shaped weapon which they use to punch victims, and which can strike at speeds in excess of 80 kilometres an hour, so fast in fact, that a cavitation bubble is created behind the limb’s movement and does the main damage of the blow. Unlike most human muggers, mantis shrimps are uninterested in their prey’s money and only want their lives. We can simply be grateful that they confine their attentions to invertebrates.
The fishes of Sodwana include almost all of the reef fish endemic to the west Indian Ocean, along with several commercially fished species such as slinger. Potato bass are resident here under overhangs, like the bogeymen of nightmares, and leopard grouper swish along the reef like spoilt rap stars. Locals know them by their individual blotch markings, each unique to the fish in question, and there’s talk of building up a library of the individuals.
Pregnant ragged tooth sharks are summer visitors, though they are then rather a grisly sight. While pregnant the females don’t feed and their teeth become encrusted with green algae, rendering an already worrying set of teeth even more off-putting. Unfortunately they don’t ever frequent the cleaning stations. Presumably that’s just not a ragged tooth shark kind of thing to do.
Whales visit in winter, whale sharks in the summer months, and manta rays all year round. These huge migrants bring the glamour and wildness of the open ocean with them. For divers at Sodwana they’re an unexpected but much relished addition to an already character-filled reef system.
But perhaps Sodwana is more like Hollywood with occasional movie sets cropping up in various sections of the reefs. It is visited by five of the seven species of turtle, and both loggerhead and leatherback turtles emerge laboriously from the sea like alien visitors from another planet to lay their eggs on the warm beaches. They seem just as otherworldly on the reefs, their vast sleeping bulk like the spaceship hanging inexplicably in the air in the movie District Nine.
The park includes 220 kilometres of coast and extends five kilometres offshore over 155 kilometres of associated reefs. These are the southernmost coral reefs in Africa and they run from about eight metres down to about 35, covered with an abundance of every sort of marine life. The coast on this part of the continent is slowly submerging into the sea and there are the undersea remains of several ancient river mouths very close offshore. These have left submarine canyons where the rivers once cut through rock to reach the sea and the remains of ancient beaches in the deeps below 50 metres. Mysterious animals gather on the deep reefs. Some species of coral grow even this deep and undescribed butterflyfish flit through overhangs. Blood snappers, their faces scored as if by some fearsome monster’s claws, float unconcerned over prehistoric beach remains.
One of the most exciting of all the fishes down this deep is the coelacanth, which was first discovered here in 2000 on a trimix training dive. This fish, which has remained more or less unchanged for 65 million years, managed to survive the catastrophe that wiped out the dinosaurs. It was however only known from fossils until a living specimen was trawled offshore of East London in 1938. They are today known to inhabit various locations off East Africa and Indonesia, in water ranging from 150 to 700 metres, though they’ve been seen as shallow as 50 metres off Sodwana. It seems that they may follow cold water towards the surface on occasion. Because they’re usually found in Sodwana in 95 to 160 metres, however, this is the only place in the world where it’s possible for the lucky and properly qualified few to dive with coelacanths.
But even if it’s not about thrilling deep dives with living fossils, ‘this place’, rather like The Doors’ song, ‘has everything’. Between the coral megacities with their bewildering cast of inhabitants, the visiting megafauna, and the sheer diversity of fish and invertebrate life in both number and behaviour, Sodwana can’t fail to enchant. And that’s before exploring the land side of things.
Source: The Dive Site