The power of the sea draws many of us to it, fascinated by the continual ebb and flow, the never-resting vitality of the waves, the life beneath the surface and on the shore, with many of us – besides those making their living from the sea – associating the beach with rest and recreation and taking time out from our usual routines.    

The seaside can remind us of nature at its most elemental – thundering surf on sand and rock, powerful winds and deep currents that can overwhelm us. Away from the coastal cities and beach resorts the seashore can seem timeless and unspoiled.

Lagoon entering the sea on misty morning on Maputaland coast, Sodwana Bay

After dawn at Sodwana Bay with high dunes just visible through the rising mists

Sodwana Bay, on the northern KwaZulu-Natal coast in Maputaland might seem to be such a place – somehow timeless, primordial even. But the bay is part of a dynamic system – even the lagoon (that can  be seen flowing into the sea in the photo above) is constantly changing its course in response to events inland that effect the flow of water, and events in the ocean that change the shape of the beach.

High dunes at Sodwana Bay, KwaZulu-Natal coast, South Africa

The curve of the high dunes that form a crescent around the bay at Sodwana, with a foreground of glistening sand as the tide goes out

The Maputaland coast is relatively undeveloped for tourism.  Much of it forms part of iSimangaliso Wetland Park and the adjacent Maputaland Marine Reserve, which is well known for providing a protected nesting area for sea turtles. Leatherback and Loggerhead turtles regularly visit to make nests where they lay their eggs above the high-tide line, and more rarely Greenback turtles are on record for nesting there too.

Limits to beach driving in nature reserve on Maputoland coast, South Africa

Nesting turtles and other forms of wildlife in the littoral zone have been impacted – sometimes quite literally by crushing – by beach driving, resulting in vehicles being banned from driving on the beaches on substantial stretches of the Maputaland shoreline

Sodwana Bay is a mecca for scuba divers – the offshore reefs and canyons provide habitats for an incredible variety of marine life. Sodwana Bay is recognised as being one of the world’s top scuba diving sites. The first time I went there was in fact to scuba dive, having just completed several weeks of theory and swimming-pool training. The calm warm waters and a choice of relatively shallow dive sites make it a brilliant place for newly-qualified divers to learn how to dive in open water.

And so we arrived full of anticipation at Sodwana Bay with our dive instructor and a small group of other divers, but I was unprepared for what I found on the part of the bay designated for dive operators.

Scuba diving operators and divers on the beach at Sodwana Bay

High density hustle and bustle from the dive operators on the southern section of the beach at Sodwana Bay

Tractors on the beach at Sodwana Bay, South Africa

Heavy vehicles for towing boats and tractors for pushing dive boats in and out of the water line up on the sands

View of lagoon and dunes at Sodwana Bay with tire tracks on the sand

The above photo does not avoid showing the hectic tyre tracks on the beach and around the lagoon. This photo was taken at a period when the lagoon was not flowing into the sea

Tire tracks in the sand at Sodwana Bay, South Africa

Sanderling resting on the beach at Sodwana Bay, KwaZulu-Natal north coast

A Sanderling enjoying a quiet moment in the morning sun before most of the traffic arrives on the beach. In South Africa, Sanderlings are non-breeding migrants from Siberia or Greenland

Launching a dive boat at Sodwana Bay

Filled with expectation for the dive, a group of divers push and pull the dive boat out into the surf

Dive boat going out to sea at Sodwana Bay

The skipper waits for a gap in the waves so he can take his group of divers out to the dive site


Off they go, this time in an unusually choppy sea

Apart from the thrill of being out in open water, there is much for divers to see offshore. Being more used to snorkelling or seeing brightly lit underwater photographs, I was surprised at how quickly the colour disappears as one descends underwater. Although I had been told about it, it is quite another thing to experience the colours literally being greyed out. Water, being denser than air, absorbs light – so much so that red disappears at a depth of around 5 metres, to be followed by the disappearance of orange at about 10 metres and yellow at around 20 metres.

Coral reef near Sodwana Bay, South Africa

The typical bluey-grey light and colour at a depth of about 18 metres evident in this photo of coral and attendant fish on a shallow reef not far from Sodwana Bay. This photo was taken by my husband

So, apart from being surprised by the loss of colour, how was my first dive? Well to start off with, my husband and I were taken by surprise at the buoyancy in the salty water and so we were slow to descend and got separated from the group. Alarmingly, we found ourselves all alone in the great blue. We surfaced and could see only swelling waves – no boat, no land, only waves. Anyway, eventually we got our bearings from the anxious shouting of our instructor who had come to surface and was not far away.

Reunited with the group and 17 metres down, I started to relax and let the gentle surge wash me to and fro. Everything – the seaweed, the fish, the bubbles – was gently washing to and fro, to and fro. Unfortunately, I am very prone to motion sickness and soon found myself vomiting heartily under the sea. I removed the breathing mouthpiece when necessary and took careful breaths in between releasing my breakfast into the ocean. Once that was all over, my instructor asked me to clear my mask – a strange request under the circumstances, I thought. Turned out, painlessly and unknown to me, something in my nasal passages had popped and my mask was filling with what he later described as “blood and gunk”.

Anyway, I finished the dive, but back on the boat the smell of petrol exhaust from the motors triggered another bout of me being sick – not something the other divers sitting in my line of fire while they were holding on for dear life on the bumpy ride back home particularly appreciated. The aftermath of my dive was a nasty ear infection, and so since then I have decided to limit myself to paddling or snorkeling when at the seaside.

Honeycomb l near Sodwana Bay

A Honeycomb Moray Eel photographed by my husband – something my non-diving self has not seen

Meanwhile back on the shore not everyone is involved with diving. People visit for many reasons, including coming to swim or to play beach games, to fish or to explore the rock pools or take a quiet walk along the shoreline.

Swimming at Sodwana Bay

Enjoying the warm surf

Angling with high waves at Sodwana Bay

On a day when high seas made launching boats and diving impossible, this fisherman nevertheless decided to try his luck

African Zionist church group entering the sea at Sodwana Bay, KwaZulu-Natal

A church group entering the sea for ritual purposes

Children swimming in the lagoon at Sodwana Bay

Children enjoying the sheltered waters of the lagoon

Beware of crocodiles at Sodwana Bay lagoon

It is advisable not to venture too far upstream

The reason why in this post I ventured out from suburbia and started thinking about the seaside is in response to the announcement this week of the approval of the IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. For an in-depth summary of the report see The IPCC press release emphasises that choices made now are critical for our oceans and the frozen components and regions of the Earth. I urge you to read these or other summaries of this important report – how our governments and corporations respond or fail to respond has far reaching consequences for all of us.

As the IPCC notes in its press release: Global warming has already reached 1°C above the pre-industrial level, due to past and current greenhouse gas emissions. There is overwhelming evidence that this is resulting in profound consequences for ecosystems and people. The ocean is warmer, more acidic and less productive. Melting glaciers and ice sheets are causing sea level rise, and coastal extreme events are becoming more severe.

The report provides “new evidence for the benefits of limiting global warming to the lowest possible level – in line with the goal that governments set themselves in the 2015 Paris Agreement. Urgently reducing greenhouse gas emissions limits the scale of ocean and cryosphere changes. Ecosystems and the livelihoods that depend on them can be preserved”.


Pebble in the sand with outgoing tide at Sodwana Bay

Cloud reflections at Sodwana Bay. KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

Man contemplating the sea at Sodwana Bay

Posted by Carol

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