Take a Dive
By Fiona McIntosh
My very first dive was during a school trip to Loch Long on Scotland’s West Coast. The wind whipped around me while I changed behind the bus in the car park, then, as we waded into the dark and uninviting water, it started to drizzle. Sporting an oversized wetsuit, I finned downwards to about eight metres, where the weak light just managed to penetrate. I recall noticing three rather nondescript fish before my lips went blue and I groped my way back to shore.
I was still shivering when we pulled back into Edinburgh in the black of night. I can’t say that I was hooked.
Then, two decades ago, I moved to Johannesburg. I started again, getting my open-water qualification in South Africa’s number-one dive destination, Sodwana Bay. The water was warm and clear, the marine life was mind-boggling and the corals colourful and pristine. Sordies, as it is affectionately known to South Africans, became my regular haunt. Most months, I’d drive seven hours each way just for the weekend. Then I landed the dream job as editor of a scuba-diving magazine, which took me to reefs and wrecks from Cape Town to the Sudanese Red Sea; from Scapa Flow to Truk Lagoon; from Galápagos to Sipadan.
I have had lots of spectacular dive experiences around the world, but I’m still convinced of one thing. While the conditions in Southern Africa are not as reliable as those of many other popular dive destinations, on a good day there is almost nowhere to beat the top dive spots of South Africa and Mozambique. Here are five world-class local dive locations where you can head to escape the winter chill.
1. Sodwana Bay
Sodwana Bay, up in South Africa’s first World Heritage Site, the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, boasts some of the most southerly coral reefs in the world. With roughly 100 species of hard and soft corals, more than 1 200 species of fish and seasonal visits from pregnant ragged- tooth sharks, it promises something for everyone and is a great place to learn to dive. Sodwana has a special place in my heart. When I was there earlier this year, the visibility was 30 metres and on Seven Mile Reef, I had one of the best dives of my life. In addition to all the usual suspects – turtles, massive shoals of snapper, huge potato bass, swimming moray eels and an array of cute shrimps, crabs and other little critters – we saw reef sharks and dolphins and even heard whales. It was magical.
Sodwana Bay, up in South Africa’s first World Heritage Site, the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, boasts some of the most southerly coral reefs in the world. With roughly 100 species of hard and soft corals, more than 1 200 species of fish and seasonal visits from pregnant ragged-tooth sharks, it promises something for everyone and is a great place to learn to dive. Sodwana has a special place in my heart. When I was there earlier this year, the visibility was 30 metres and on Seven Mile Reef, I had one of the best dives of my life. In addition to all the usual suspects – turtles, massive shoals of snapper, huge potato bass, swimming moray eels and an array of cute shrimps, crabs and other little critters – we saw reef sharks and dolphins and even heard whales. It was magical.
The best diving in the area is done during the warm summer months from November to May.
If you’re not a diver The dive operators will take you out for a snorkel on the shallower reefs. Otherwise, explore the rock pools at the launch site.
2. Ponta do Ouro
Just across the border from Kosi Bay, the southern Mozambican resort of Ponta do Ouro is an affordable dive and beach destination that has long been a favourite of South African divers. With numerous dive schools, wonderful reefs and a chilled Mozambican vibe (and buzzing nightlife) this is a great spot to learn how to dive or to improve your skills. The corals are magnificent and there are hundreds of colourful reef fish and rays for novices to ogle, while deep dives on pinnacles and sightings of sharks and other big pelagic fish will certainly elevate the heart rates of the more adventurous.
A little further northwards, Ponta Malongane is much quieter than Ponta do Ouro and is well-positioned for all the top dive sites. On the other hand, if you’re looking for something romantic, head to White Pearl Resorts at Ponta Mamoli and enjoy barefoot luxury and exclusive diving.
TIP: You’ll need a 4×4 to drive there, otherwise organise a transfer from the border with the resort.
This is a year-round destination, but it gets particularly busy during the South African holidays.
If you’re not a diver: One of the biggest highlights of southern Mozambique is the opportunity to swim with dolphins, an activity that is prohibited in South Africa. Dolphin safaris are offered at all three locations.
Ponto do Ouro is conveniently located in southern Mozambique.
3. The Quirimbas Archipelago
The warm, crystal-clear waters of the Quirimbas Archipelago up in northern Mozambique are simply teeming with life. The proximity of the continental shelf means there is some really exciting diving on sheer walls that plunge into the ocean depths, as well as wonderful shallow dives, on the cards. The corals are colourful and pristine, the marine life is diverse and abundant and you’ll often encounter rays and big game fish. But it’s all the little critters that you should look for: cute little clownfish (Nemos) in anemones, delicate paperfish, long- nosed hawkfish hidden in vast sea fans, and tiny cleaner shrimp.
The dive centres in Pemba and the luxury island lodges offer top-notch dive experiences. It isn’t too cheap, but diving the Quirimbas is worth saving the pennies for.
Other than during cyclone season – a brief window over February and March – this is a fantastic year-round destination with consistently good visibility for diving.
If you’re not a diver: Check out the colourful corals, myriad reef fish and curious turtles on the house reefs of private islands such as Azura Quilalea and Anantara Medjumbe.
4. The Manta Coast
Mozambique’s Manta Coast, near the southern city of Inhambane, is on most divers’ bucket lists.
Rightly so; its diverse range of sites and regular sightings of, you guessed it, manta rays, as well as whale sharks, means that the Manta Coast has a real ‘wow’ factor. And with its magnificent beaches, ocean-going safaris, topside attractions and accommodation to suit all pockets, it’s a fabulous beach holiday destination that’s perfect for divers and non-divers alike.
This is a year-round dive destination, although the number of whale sharks and mantas sighted tends to be higher in the summer months, from October to March.
If you’re not a diver You should take an ocean safari to see the marine big five. Nothing’s guaranteed, but whales, whale sharks, dolphins, manta rays and turtles can often all be spotted on one outing. ‘Whale Shark Alley’, is one of the best places in the world to glimpse and snorkel with whale sharks – and this is a great adventure that even kids can enjoy.
Scuba divers (and snorkellers) are spoilt for choice at Sodwana Bay.
5. Aliwal Shoal
Consistently rated as one of the top dive locations on the planet, Aliwal Shoal on the KwaZulu-Natal coast, just south of Durban, offers some of the most varied and exciting dive sites for divers of all experience levels and interests. The rough topography of the fossilised sand dune is spectacular and the reefs are covered with plentiful and diverse marine life. There are a couple of wrecks, but it’s the sharks that really draw all the crowds. Several operators offer baited shark dives, so if you fancy a close encounter with apex predators, this is your spot.
Ragged-tooth sharks congregate on the Shoal to mate between June and November, while tiger sharks and even hammerhead sharks can be frequently spotted in the summer months, from November to March.
If you’re not a diver: Absolutely no diving or snorkelling experience is required for a shark cage ‘dive’. You don’t even need to be able to swim. Simply don a wetsuit and mask, then muster your courage and hop into the steel cage to get up close and personal with Aliwal’s famous visitors.
All five locations are well served by professional dive schools offering the full range of dive courses and equipment rental.
Ponto do Ouro is conveniently located in southern Mozambique.
Good to Know
Sodwana Bay, Aliwal Shoal and Ponta do Ouro in southern Mozambique are self-drive destinations. Manta Coast: Fly with LAM to Inhambane via Maputo from OR Tambo. www.lam.co.mz
Quirimbas: Airlink has daily direct scheduled flights between Joburg and Pemba. www.flyairlink.com. LAM flies to Pemba via Maputo. www.lam.co.mz. From there it’s a short, scenic (but expensive) flight out to the islands.
Ponta do Ouro
The Whaler, 084 705 2121, www.thewhaler.co.za
Parque de Malongane, 011 465 3427, www.pontamalongane.com
White Pearl Resorts (Ponta Mamoli), 011 026 7178/+258 84 605 8112
Pemba and the Quirimbas
CI Divers (Pemba), +258 82 682 2700, www.pietersdiversplace.co.za
Azura Quilalea Private Island, 011 467 0907, www.azura-retreats.com/azura-quilalea
Anantara Medjumbe, 010 003 8977, www.anantara.com
Situ Island Resort, 043 704 4900, www.situisland.com
Learn to dive
To discover how to get into scuba diving, or to find your nearest dive centre, visit:
Coral Divers, 033 345 6531, www.coraldivers.co.za
Want to discover all the best diving destinations in South Africa and Mozambique? Get a copy of Dive Sites by Fiona McIntosh. Published by MapStudio, the book includes the info you need to plan your trips, including detailed maps.
Source: AA Traveller