The top 5 reefs in South Africa

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The top 5 reefs in South Africa
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By Amilda Boshoff
Photos by Matthew D. Potenski

Have you ever wondered why some dive sites are more popular than others?
This article explores the most popular reefs in South Africa, bringing you in-depth and interesting information on each.

Seven Mile Reef

ImageSeven Mile Reef at Sodwana Bay, part of the Isimangaliso Wetland Park in KwaZulu-Natal, is popular amongst divers for its wealth of hard and soft corals, sponges, anemones, prolific fish life and breathtaking topography. It is a spectacular dive in crystal clear water with great visibility.

The reef, which is located 11km from the launch site, a 25 minutes boat ride, has been rated as one of the 10 most beautiful dive sites in the world and is often compared to the Red Sea dives. The maximum depth is 24m with an average depth of 18m and the kidney-shaped reef is approximately 1,4km long and 0,39km wide. Visibility is rarely less than 15m, and the water temperature in summer is usually plus 24°C and no colder than 19°C in winter. The coral growth and topography is amazing, not to mention the unbelievable amount of marine life encountered in this area.

ImageThe reef consists of three main parts, namely Northern Wall, Amphitheatre and Mushroom Rocks. The Northern Wall is one of the most popular areas of Seven Mile – it is predominantly a wall dive on the northern and northwestern side of the reef. The inside edge is relatively sheltered from the open ocean and so supports a huge diversity of fish and invertebrate life. The wall consists of three levels: the sand on the north western side of the reef that averages about 24m and where numerous rays can be seen; the wall itself which lies between 16m and 20m and is home to a variety of reef fish, and the third part is the top that is flat and forms the outside of the Amphitheatre. On the north western side of the wall there is a small Green coral tree that is home to a vast amount of sea goldies and other small reef fish. The Amphitheatre is a sunken, circular area that is between 3-6m deeper than the surrounding reef, giving one a feeling of diving in an outdoor amphitheatre that is not only filled with more marine life than you can imagine, but also has the most amazing coral formations. Mushroom Rocks is found on the southern part of Seven Mile with two huge rock formations in the shape of mushrooms the highlights of this section.

The reef is in immaculate condition with lots of sponges and corals to be seen, including Plate corals, Whip coral, Green tree coral, Leather coral and beautiful colourful soft coral such as Fleshy soft coral and various types of anemones. Starting at the right place and working your way down, passing by all the little swim-throughs and gullies, makes this dive one of Sodwana’s best. You can expect to see an abundance of tropical reef fish, huge Moray eels, large schools of pelagic fish, Potato bass, turtles (Hawksbill, Loggerhead, Green, Leatherback), and depending on the time of year, whales (Southern right, Humpback), and you could possibly snorkel with Bottlenosed dolphins or Whale sharks on the way to the dive spot. Keep a lookout on the sand for rays and Sandsharks and check the mid-water over the Amphitheatre for massive shoals of Bluebanded snappers, Butterflyfish, Angelfish and Kingfish. Black-tip reef sharks are regularly spotted and you can also expect to see Trumpetfish, Scorpionfish, Pufferfish, nudibranchs as well as the rare Paperfish. To name more will take up too much space and will leave nothing for the inquisitive diver to go and discover. Note that this is a dive for the Advanced scuba diver.

Pinnacle Reef

ImagePinnacle Reef, situated on the Aliwal Shoal, is one of the most well known reefs on the KwaZulu-Natal south coast. For those wondering why that is, it is thanks to Pinnacles that we are able to dive wrecks such as the Produce and the Nebo that now lie on the ocean floor near the Aliwal Shoal.

This section of the Aliwal Shoal is an area with long, spine-like rock formations which provide a haven for thousands of species of fish. It is an amazing place to dive when you want to do a long, slow dive with enough time to explore the reef. The depths range from 10m to a maximum of 15m and it takes around 20 minutes by boat to get to Pinnacle Reef, which is approximately 6km from the launch site at Umkomaas. The shoal operates best in a north-south current. Pinnacles stick out from the bottom to as close as 6m from the surface; on the one side Pinnacle Reef slopes down towards Raggie Cave and Manta Point area, and on the shore-side it gently slopes down to the Northern Sands area. At Pinnacle Reef you will find numerous gullies, caves, big overhangs, swim-through’s and blowholes.

ImageJuvenile Geometric eels can be seen peeping out of holes in the reef while dolphins often come by to join the divers, playing in the shallow waters. It is not uncommon to see Manta rays and turtles, while tropical fish such as Wrasse, Butterflyfish, Angelfish, Chocolate dip, Dominoes and Two-bar clownfish can also be seen on this dive. The most beautiful Turret coral in yellow and green can be seen on the walls of the overhangs and Branched black coral, Green fern coral, Dead-man's finger coral and Thistle coral in various colours can be seen at this reef.

When conditions are right and the warm Mozambique Current pushes in over the shoal, game fish abound. Huge Kingfish, Cuda, Wahoo, Seapike, Tuna and a variety of sharks such as Black-tip reef sharks, Ragged-tooth sharks, Potato bass and other reef fish are present and make for an exceptional dive experience. Pinnacle Reef is best dived when there is little or no surge or current. Visibility varies from 5m to 40m, and the water temperature in summer is plus 24°C and in winter no colder than 19°C. The depths vary between 6m to 18m with 30m sites for the Advanced diver. One mustn’t forget that June to November is Raggie season at the shoal and it is possible to swim with the Ragged-tooth sharks at close quarters. The dives on the Aliwal Shoal are all done without cages and afford the unique opportunity to see these sharks in their natural environment.

Author: Amilda Boshoff