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Review: Coral Divers - Sodwana Bay South Africa

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New Member
Mar 18, 2005
South Africa is, among other things, known for its wild coast, cold water and Great White sharks. Not really a place to go diving, you might say, but the coastline of South Africa offers a wide variety of marine environments and the northern parts of the east coast contain the southernmost coral reefs in the world. It is here, just below the Mozambique border, where the St. Lucia Marine Reserve is located.

After driving through the bustling little town of Mbazwana (last chance to get cash from an ATM, if you need some) into the heart of the Greater St Lucia Wetlands Area (a World Heritage Site!) and passing the few buildings that represent the small community of Sodwana Bay, we arrived at the gates of Sodwana Bay National park. This part of the reserve stretches from 1 mile inland to 5 miles offshore and is the home of the world renowned 2, 5, 7 and 9 mile reefs. It's also the home of Coral Divers, who are one of the two only dive operators to have a concession to operate from within the marine park. We were not really sure know what to expect, so when we arrived we were surprised by the scale of the operation. Coral Divers offers all the facilities to go diving, but also offers four types of accommodation, ranging from tents to stilted huts with en-suite bathrooms (open air, nice touch! Especially the Vervet monkeys seem to like the easy access to your toilet bag!). If you expect a small divecenter with a few bungalows, which on hindsight we probably did, then walking up here can be a bit unsettling. Coral Divers can cater to up to 170 guests and even more divers in the high season when people are staying elsewhere but want to go diving with them. This has its effect on the operation, in the sense that it can seem a bit impersonal at first. This is due to the fact that everything needs to be very well organized and highly efficient, which it is, to make sure all runs smooth with so many guests. So there are procedures that you get acquainted with when you arrive, for the transport to the beach, the rental of the equipment, the house rules and the planning/booking of the dives. Especially that last part is important to quickly get familiar with because dive boats are filled on a first-come-first-serve basis. But no worries, because there is good information in print available on the divesites at the different reefs that you can read on when you arrive. Furthermore at the daily booking session at 19.00 pm, the dive masters are there to help you make your choice, based on your experience and wishes. If you know on beforehand where it is you want to go, you can make preliminary bookings during the day, to avoid the rush at 7 pm.

When hiring gear, you are responsible for the things you hire and you keep your stuff in your cabin during your stay. This way you are diving with the same equipment for every dive. The beach is a short driving distance from the resort and Coral Divers provide a shuttle service to and from the beach. So each morning you load your gear on the shuttle, on which you should be at least 45 minutes prior to your dives, to go to the beach. In case of early dives, one can get a small breakfast from the nice breakfast buffet. In between the first and second dive you can come back for a bigger breakfast, depending on your surface interval. The buffet is open to people who have a catered package. When arriving at the beach, you are welcomed by locals who are willing to help you set up your gear and carry your stuff for the sum of 10 rand per dive per person. This is very convenient and these "beach assistants" are well trained by Coral Divers to handle and setup gear so one needn't worry about a thing. I myself prefer to kit-up up myself, but my girlfriend was very happy!

Coral Divers have a fixed shade setup on the beach from where the launches are initiated. It's also here that you can clearly see that this operation has been in business for a long time and has plenty of experience with diving at this area. The beach is a busy place with boats launching and arriving, tractors running the gear around and pushing boats in the water and pulling them out. Cylinders are constantly transported back and forth to the compressors. In peak season during summertime, they sometimes have up to 30 launches (!) in the morning. Due to the surf, all boats are (un-)loaded on the beach. Therefore the tractors have to push them into the surf before you take off. They have to make sure they do not get stuck themselves when a sudden swell comes up, so the boat has to be pushed by hand for the last bit until the engines can be started. Due to the strong surf, the use of life jackets for the first couple of hundred meters is obligatory. The launches through the surf are bumpy and spectacular and an official skipper license is required to be allowed to run boats in this area, since it is not without danger. Once past the surf, the life jackets are taken off and the pedal goes to the metal and you speed your way to the reefs. These Rubberducks with 2x60 horsepower engines are very fast and even going to the farthest 9 mile reef should takes no longer than 30 minutes (weather depending). When lucky you might encounter dolphins on your way to the farthest reefs and if they are playful, you get a chance to snorkel with them. We encountered dolphins but unfortunately they were hunting and not very interested in sticking around.

The diving is, simply said, superb! There is a very good chance of seeing some big stuff, but even if you would not be so lucky to see sharks, dolphins, mantas or whale sharks (check www.divestart.com for the presence of these critters!) the diving is very very nice. Our skipper went back to try and get the dolphins to follow him to our divesite and came across a 3.5 meter basking Tiger shark on the surface! The corals are in excellent condition and very colorful. I've also been to Ningaloo reef, the Mergui Archipelago and the Maldives and I can say that these reefs are definitively as nice as those places. The corals were in much better condition than for instance the ones I've seen in Thailand (both sides). There is a lot of fish around, as well as lots of turtles, blue spotted stingrays, lots of different moray eels (big honeycomb morays) huge honeycomb whip rays, octopi... the works! And another thing: the water is warm! 26/28 degrees Celsius. The worst visibility that we had was good according to my standards although our DM's considered 15 meters poor viz for this place. Good enough for me! Fortunately 20 meters or more is no exception.

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Most deep divesites are between 15 and 25 meters, so plenty of bottom time. The second dive is (depending on your planning) usually done on the less deep two mile reef so every dive we did maxed out at 50 minutes. Due to the average depth of the divesites here (approx 12 meters) and the time of day of the second dive (just before noon) the colors on these divesites are well lit up by the sun that is standing straight above. Around this time the water is usually a bit choppier, so people who easily suffer from seasickness should take preventive medication if they do not want share their breakfast with nemo. The ride back is always nice and spectacular. When arriving back at the launch point (Jesser Point) the skipper will try to get the boat as far up on the beach as possible, so when the swell is right, throttles are opened up and the boat speeds full force ahead to run aground as far as possible up the sand. (This allows for easier unloading, especially if you don't hold on well enough!)

At around one o'clock pm you're usually done diving and you can stay at the beach or go take a dip in the resort pool. There is a TV room, there are some magazines to read and the underwater-videographers have their latest footage on display on the computer at the activities counter. This way you get to see the nice stuff that others were encountering on their dives. There is Internet available, although it's often not connecting and is quite expensive. But hey this is Africa, so expect no broadband. There are some activities that can be arranged from here, although at the time when we tried to go to Lake Sibaya, and when the car was finally fixed, we couldn't get a driver to take us there (it requires a 4-wheel drive vehicle, so if you have one, you can go by yourself). This was one of the few points of critique that we had. It should be easier to go and see the area. This is game-country and there are plenty of game reserves only hours driving away! Hippos, crocodiles in Lake Sibaya and St. Lucia (1-2 hours). Elephants, Rhinos, Zebras Giraffes, Lions and buffalo's in Hluhluwe National reserve, are only a 1,5 hours drive away. Fortunately Coral Divers is in the process of setting up their own game lodge called Makhasa there that will be running in around 6 months, so soon you should be able to make nice excursions from Coral Divers to break away from the resort.

During night time after a nice buffet dinner one can have a drink from the well stocked bar. The food is decent. Do not expect haute-cuisine but hearty dishes. For those who have a self catering package, there are stoves and personal fridges to facilitate your culinary experiments. Everyone usually hits the sack at around 10 pm, after which people are kindly requested to be quiet in consideration of fellow quests. Bring earplugs just in case, because when the resort is full (high season and weekends), some people might forget this and apart from the luxury cabins, all huts are quite close to each other and are not very sound proof. That brings me to the next bit of advice: If possible, try and plan your stay during the week to avoid the crowds. After the weekend the resort was so much more nice and quiet and especially the beach was not stuffed with four-wheel drive pickups from the Africaners who enjoy coming over from Jo'burg for the weekend.

The DM's and instructors are relatively young (or am I old, being 36?) and are fun to hang out with. They are quite knowledgeable about the reefs and marinelife. All the diving-staff from Coral Divers have their own accommodation at the resort, so they are usually nearby if you have any questions. However, their huts are in a separate area behind the restaurant, so during daytime or at night they often retreat to their huts and you hardly see them walking around anymore. It might be nice if they would hang around in the guest areas a bit more, so that you can get to know them a bit better. Especially those people who do not travel in groups might appreciate their company for a drink or bite.

We've done three days of diving and we had a wonderful time. It's definitely a reason to travel to South Africa and if you are a diver and are in SA, Sodwana Bay is a must! I can highly recommend Coral Divers for your stay and your diving. They are very professional, have good equipment and run a smooth opration. Booking in advance is a good idea, since they are well known within SA and also cater to a number of dive operators from all over SA, so they often have groups coming in during weekends.

My score for Coral Divers is 4.5 out of 5, which equals "very good". Good and friendly staff, good equipment and accommodation, good food and a relaxed atmosphere. Why not a 5 ("excellent")... well, it can be a bit impersonal due to the size of the operation. The lack of afternoon activities is (still) something that should change considering the fact that you are in a remote area, and third, we would have liked the staff to have been a bit more involved with quests after the diving.
My score for the diving is a definite 5 out of 5.

Geerten van Hooff

(Geerten van Hooff is co-founder and co-owner of Divestart.com, a website dedicated to searching dive locations by selecting marine life species.)
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