Diving at Rocktail Bay in iSimangaliso
Diving at Rocktail
My next stop in iSimangaliso Wetland Park was Rocktail Bay, about 20kms south of Kosi Bay (I’m making my way south through the park). Rocktail Beach Camp is the semi-luxury lodge run by Wilderness Safaris situated near Manzengwenya Beach on an isolated stretch of the Indian Ocean shoreline. They have the exclusive concession to dive the coral reefs here. The beach camp is set back from the beach in the coastal forest. It’s stylish and comfortable, yet still maintains an understated measure that suits the surroundings.
But you won’t want to hang around at the lodge, as comfortable as it is, because the beaches are long and empty and pure, and the water is always, always warm. And the scuba diving is simply astounding. I’ve been fortunate to dive in some spectacular places around the world, including off Pemba Island in Tanzania and the reefs of Thailand and Malaysia, but the diving at Rocktail is among the best I’ve experienced.
Rocktail Beach Camp
Diving at Rocktail is one of the quintessential wilderness experiences in South Africa. Humans really are just visitors, because by definition we are a terrestrial species and the ocean truly belongs to the animals. The diversity of marine life along this shoreline is mindblowing. But what makes it very special is the pristine state of the marine ecosystem, as well as having exclusive rights to dive these waters in this part of iSimangaliso. That means you will be the only group of divers for several kilometres in either direction, and you’ll swim alone with turtles, eels, sharks, whales and hundreds and thousands of luminous reef fish.
Unlike walking in the bushveld, where animals are naturally wary of humans (as we’ve hunted them for millennia), marine wildlife at iSimangaliso is generally very comfortable in our presence, and are unusually trusting of us, especially at Rocktail, where diving and fishing have been strictly controlled. It’s special to be among wild animals, and to see and experience their trust…I remembered a quote from the great French ocean researcher Jacques Yves Cousteau who said: “The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.” I certainly was gripped and mesmerized, and I’m going to have to start saving up for an underwater housing for my camera.
The reefs at Rocktail are located offshore, and to get there, you’ll launch in a rubber duck from the beach. I was very impressed with the professionalism of Mokarran Dive Charters, which run the dive centre at Rocktail. The BCs and DVs were rigged onto our tanks for us, and all the equipment was in tip-top shape. Attention to detail is superb. Clive Smith was the skipper and expertly negotiated the pounding surf, to get us beyond the breakers. Darryl Smith was our dive master, and has been diving for many, many years (he won’t say how many exactly!), and there was a calm, measured tone to everything that he did. You really do feel safe, which makes the adventure that much more enjoyable.
Our dive boat
As soon as we flipped off the boat into the warm water, I knew I was in for something special. The visibility was over twenty metres, and as we dropped down to the bottom, a massive school of yellow snapper surrounded us. They were content to just let us drift through them…not bothered at all by our presence. Then everything just kept coming…clown triggerfish, rockcod, kingfish, Moorish idols, stingrays, the beautiful but deadly porcupine fish and several eels. You’ll also find iconic beasts like whale sharks and humpback whales in large numbers during winter at Rocktail, but we didn’t see any this time round…I’ll be back though I hope!
The diversity and number of fish is quite overwhelming at first. You don’t really know where to look, because everywhere there is something new and fascinating to gaze at.
But my favourite was a green turtle which swam alongside us for a few minutes, accepting our presence, and looking at us once in a while. Incredible. The green turtle is just one of four species of turtle found along iSimangaliso’s shoreline: the other three are Hawksbill, Loggerhead and Leatherback.
The leatherback is a truly massive turtle that can grow to more than one ton in weight, and reach two metres in length. They can dive down over one kilometre to feed on jellyfish, holding their breath for over an hour. Quite a creature!
Rocktail Bay is one of the most important breeding sites for the endangered Loggerhead and Leatherbacks. Every year in summer, they come to Rocktail in November and December to nest on the beaches and lay several hundred eggs. In February and March, the hatchlings emerge and make their way to the ocean. It’s estimated that just two out of 1000 hatchlings survive to reach a reproductive age, returning to the exact same beach on which they were born to lay eggs themselves. With the destruction caused to their beach habitats around the world, and the massive toll that trawling has taken on their numbers, a place like Rocktail Bay is truly priceless in the preservation of these species.
Interestingly, Kian Barker of Shakabarker Tours at St Lucia recently told me that the turtles were one of the main reasons why titanium mining was banned at iSimangaliso in the early 1990s. But not only because mining would destroy the beaches and the nesting sites, but also because the titanium – so highly prized as an industrial commodity – played a crucial role in conducting heat through the sand to the turtle eggs, and without the titanium, the eggs would die. So next time you buy some paint or use your cell phone (both of which use titanium as an ingredient), think about where it comes from, and the unintended impact it could be having on a fascinating species like the turtle. (Yip, we’re all guilty to some degree of destroying the earth’s natural wonders.)
During turtle season, guests who stay at Rocktail Beach Camp are allowed to go on night walks along the beach with a guide, to see the turtles and perhaps help researchers who study the turtles. Wilderness Safaris supports the research, contributing finances and operational support when needed.
I only spent a day and a night at Rocktail, but I can’t wait to get back there, as it was one of the best experiences of my Year in the Wild in South Africa. By the way, you don’t have to stay at Rocktail Bay Beach Camp to dive on the reefs here…anyone is welcome to dive here with Mokarran Dive Charters, who also do scuba training courses, so if you can’t dive, you can come here and in one week be diving on the reefs. So now there’s no excuse…everyone should dive at Rocktail at least once in their lives!
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