When it’s your job to write about one of the most beautiful dive locations on the planet, you feel more than a little bit of trepidation. People travel from all over the world just to spend a week diving in Sodwana Bay, and here I am sitting pretty in week three. It’s mind-blowing and supremely humbling at the same time. I’ve managed to rack up more dives in the past 20 days than I have in the past four years of diving, and I’m here for absolutely every moment of it.
However, since I am not in the business of skirting discomfort or hiding blemishes, I’m not going to lie: my first dive in Sodwana was not the best dive I’ve ever had. I’ve done 95% of my diving in the Caribbean, where the water is always flat, calm, clear, and warm. I was also used to shallow multi-level dives, meaning we would start shallow, gradually work our way down to 20m/60ft, and then level our way back up to the anchored boat. Here, conditions can change from crystal clear, no current, no surge to “we’re all turning nasty shades of green” in a matter of hours. The reefs also don’t slope, so there’s no multi-level diving. We go out to a reef, drop down to 20m, and stay there until the first computer reads 5 minutes to deco (deco = decompression time. Recreational divers should never be at depth long enough for their computers to read 0 minutes to deco). It was my first time ever diving like that, and I was more than a little uncomfortable the entire time. I was constantly checking my dive computer, my air, and I wanted to cancel my dive after only 30 minutes. Visibility also wasn’t great that morning, so I was getting motion sick from the surge during our three-minute safety stop because I couldn’t see the ocean floor. I could tell I was moving, but since there wasn’t a solid visual anchor point, my stomach was doing flip-flops. Oh, and then there’s getting back up on the boat. You hand your gear up first, and then you’re supposed to “fin up” onto the pontoon by kicking hard with your fins and pulling yourself out of the water using the rope handholds. I’m not joking when I say it took me two weeks before I learned how to do it (and if we’re being totally honest here, my success rate is still somewhere in the low 80s). So yeah, my first dive here ended with me being exhausted both mentally, emotionally, and physically, and we hadn’t even gotten to see anything cool (not to fear, things have improved dramatically since then). I seriously considered what my options were if the diving was going to be that unpleasant every single time. But, not being one to give something up without giving it a decent try first, Emma and I decided to stick it out, and now we can’t imagine being anywhere else to do our Dive Master training (we started EFR and Rescue Diver this week; more on that next post).
If South Africa is known for having The Big Five, then Sodwana Bay is known for what I like to call The Big Four: Manta Rays, Whale Sharks, Raggie Sharks, and Leatherback Turtles. Some of the Instructors and DMs have been here for two years and have yet to see all four. My sister, on the other hand, had been here two weeks when she got to see a Leatherback turtle on her staff dive. While I missed that particular dive (I’m not jealous) my staff dive ended up dropping straight down onto a 1.5m Raggie cruising by underneath us. Oh, and we’re also allowed to swim with the dolphins if they come up to us while we’re on the dive boat (Sea World has nothing on this place). But perhaps even more impressive than the macrolife is the microlife (read: itty bitty sea creatures that are really hard to spot). Sodwana is full of these little creatures called nudibranchs (nudis for short)that look like very colorful snails without shells. While they do come in bright yellow, blue, red, and spots, they average a size of only about 3-4cm, so they’re almost impossible to spot until you’re right on top of them. The nice thing is that they tend to group together, so if you find one, chances are there are three or four more lurking close by. We also have an abundance of shrimps, including the Peacock Mantis Shrimp (the one notorious for punching) banded cleaner shrimp (they’ll pick the dead skin off your fingertips if you can hold still long enough) and clear cleaner shrimp (you have to be on your belly on the sand and two inches away from them before you can even hope to see them). You don’t see a lot of people hovering high over the reefs here in Sodwana. We’re all inches away from the coral, upside-down and sideways, trying to peer into every nook and cranny to find the incredible biodiversity that lives here.
So, potential future travelers, here’s what I have to say in sum about the diving. First, it’s cold. I’m a pretty experienced diver (JUST HIT 100 DIVES THIS WEEK EVERYBODY) and I dive in a bathing suit, leggings, a full 4-mill FireFleece wetsuit, and booties and I still get chilly after half an hour on some of the deeper dives. Some of the natives wear board shorts and a top piece wetsuit, and I think only two or three of the Instructors don’t wear a wetsuit at all. The rest of us are all cold and bundle up accordingly. Second, leave your shakers and noise makers at home. We don’t use them here because the metallic sounds disrupt normal aquatic behaviors, so you have to learn how to make this gulping sound in your throat to get people’s attention instead (we stayed up after everyone had gone to bed and practiced cause we couldn’t do it right away). Third: dive every chance you get, even if the conditions don’t look so great. Because most of the dives here are deeper than 15m/45ft, the surface conditions generally don’t impact the reefs (besides the surge. The surge is eternal). Fourth and finally: ask questions and learn everything you can about the reefs from the other DMs and Instructors. Most of them have been here for upwards of a year, and they know things about the reefs that make you question if they were born or if they simply walked out of the ocean and started working at Coral. The people here are hands down as big a part of the dive experience as the actual time you’ll spend underwater.