South Africa Marine Field Course: Sodwana Bay

Saturday 7 April: I left my house around 2PM on Friday to fly from Gatwick to Durban via Istanbul and Johannesburg. Surprisingly, I slept quite well on the long flight (9.5 hours) and before I knew it, I was in Durban.

There were six of us on my flight and we were the last to meet up with our university group of 20 total people: four staff, five Master’s students and about ten undergraduates. We piled into a sweaty shuttle-van and headed to Sodwana Bay four hours away.

My first impressions of South Africa were humid, sunny and green. It was interesting to pass small villages on our way out of the city to our hotel. We also passed a game reserve and saw zebras and giraffes from the bus!

I had no idea what to expect with our accommodation Reefteach, but it blew me out of the water (pun intended). It was amazing. I shared a room with Tori and Emma, two other graduate students. In the main room, there were three beds, a few night tables, a desk and a wardrobe. Through a small hall, there was a tub, shower, toilet and sink. It was quite spacious and to my understanding a lot of the other students got a similar treatment!

After we moved our luggage into our rooms, we had a short briefing from the hotel staff, who also loaned us our scuba gear. We had an incredible dinner and dessert and that’s when I confirmed we would be well taken care of here.

Sunday, 8 April: Today began with a false start. I woke up to my alarm, accepted my fate and got dressed. We were meant to leave the hotel at 7AM, so at 6:30AM I woke up my other two roommates for them to say, “We still have another hour.” I then realized my clock, thus my alarm, had not changed with the change in time zone from Istanbul and I was an hour ahead. After changing my clock and another hour of sleep, we left the hotel at 7AM to get to the beach for a bit before 7:30AM.

When we got our first views of Sodwana Bay, it was complete silence among the group. I’ve never seen a coastline so pristine and unexploited but still so rich in underwater wildlife. And terrestrial wildlife too for that matter, we saw so many monkeys and mongoose.

We got comfortable at the modest ramada for our dive hotel, got kitted up and had breakfast on the beach. While we gave our sizes last night, this was the first time we tried anything on and it took quite a while for all 20 of us to find the right wetsuit and kit.

Today’s dives were just meant to get comfortable with the kits, boat procedures and the environment before diving into (pun intended) (if you haven’t noticed, I make a lot of bad puns) our research projects. We were put in two groups of ten for the zodiac specialized for scuba divers. The zodiac took us from the shore, through the choppy surf and to the dive sites at 2 Mile Reef.

My dive buddy for the two test dives was course convenor and my project supervisor Bill, although when things went wrong with a student diver, I was paired with someone else, Eddie, while Bill sorted the other student. Eddie was a great partner and had an eye for spotting honeycomb moray eels. Other species of note were the blue-spotted ray and nudibranchs, which I also saw on my Egypt trip.

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We returned to the hotel for a quick shower and lecture from dive leader and hotelier Brian about the uniqueness of Sodwana Bay.

Over dinner and dessert, we squabbled over our dive log books and project proposals trying to get everything in order for the first “real” dives the following morning. At 9PM, it was lights out for me after an exhausting day.

 

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Monday, 9 April: We started early to get a jump on project dives, we were in the water by 8AM. My project partners were Isabella and Edona, my supervisor was Bill, who would often join us on dives, and our dive leader was called Ed, who would give us a short briefing of the dive site and help us in the water find what we needed for our projects.

Here is some background on our methods:

  • Find predatory grouper fish and record their behaviour
  • Another person takes videos of the surrounding environment where we find the grouper
  • The third person records all hawkfish found on the dive
  • Compare data across different environmental conditions

For the first dive of the day, Isabella, Edona and myself all dove and took data. The first dive was rocky as we were still trying to get the routine down. We all have different tasks: I record grouper fish behavior, Isalbella takes videos and mental notes of the surrounding habitat and Edona searches for hawkfish, another reef predator.

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After breakfast, on the second dive, we got decent data and saw a giant guitarfish!

I was feeling a little bit nauseous after the second dive so as a preventative measure, I sat out the third dive so at least one of us would be fresh for the final dive of the day.

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For the fourth dive of the day (my third), Bill said we didn’t have to take data, so Isabella and Edona called it a day and Bill and I just had a pleasure dive. We even saw a whitetip reef shark!

That night, we were so tired and a lot of people fell ill to either seasickness or decompression sickness. Most everyone headed for bed immediately after dinner, lecture and project meetings, which puts us in bed around 8PM after over 12 hours of non-stop work.

Tuesday, 10 April: The next day, we had a similar start times, but only three dives. After Bill asserted to the groups that we would lose marks if he didn’t see us actively trying to prevent getting ill, nobody experienced any issues today.

We thought we would implement a dive rota so that there would always be someone on the bench ready to bat if someone else in our group got tired or ill. The three of us did the first dive and although we were all feeling fine, I took one for the team and sat the second dive out. During the second dive, I reviewed my observations from the last few dives and take a power nap.

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Sure enough, Isabella had to sit out after the second dive so I swooped in to join Edona and Bill for the third dive. We didn’t get amazing data, but we saw another shark: a grey reef shark. Note: all shark encounters have been from a great distance, usually they’re barely more than a silhouette.

The wind was picking up so the last dive of the day was cancelled and we returned to the hotel early. We had the evening to hit the shop, mull over data and observations, catch up on log books and have a drink. Even though this was our “short” day, we still didn’t finish academic work until about 7:30PM. Another full day.

Wednesday, 11 April: We got to sleep in until 8AM as the diving for the day had been blown out. However, we still had a very full day of data analyses and report and presentation writing. On the bright side, we did have a very delicious lunch at a fun and friendly pub in “town.”

Thursday, 12 April: We had another early start, but today was just for pleasure dives. On the first dive, we saw a green sea turtle and dolphins on the boat ride back in. It was magnificent!

I was feeling less than amazing after the first dive so I sat out the second one. Sure enough, after the boat launched, I felt even worse, so I’m glad I stayed back.

We are now back at the hotel in Sodwana Bay fixing to leave for St. Lucia for a safari tomorrow before going on to Umkomaas and Cape Town. It’s been so hectic but a really amazing experience!

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3 Comments

  1. Charlene Redpath
    April 12, 2018 / 7:19 pm

    Really fascinating reading Rachel. As a “protective” aunt, I’m glad you had a dive leader. The sharks probably recognized him and backed off (it helps to believe that). Will be thinking of you on your 23rd birthday coming up. Lots of love, A.C.

  2. Don Cox
    April 12, 2018 / 10:32 pm

    Sounds like you have been very active. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Greatness Reinvented
    May 12, 2018 / 4:22 pm

    Wow what an amazing trip and some amazing photos. We need to get to South Africa and enjoy the delights.

    GR | https://www.thegreat.uk

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