In the laid-back village of Sodwana on the far north-eastern Elephant Coast, where, in a sense, the beach and the sea are the meaning of life, I meet a man with a dream to equip needy children of the area to be champions of nature.
Peter Jacobs, who has been diving in Sodwana Bay since the late 1980s, and is perhaps more at home in the ocean than on dry land, runs a community-outreach programme teaching local youngsters about conservation and the natural wonders of their region.
Life, he says, is grim for many children there and they often roam the streets aimlessly. “Some have never even been to the beach, so we take them there to have fun. We teach them to swim, and then to surf, and we incorporate other activities, such as turtle tours, and trips to Lake Sibaya, and do regular litter pickups.”
The effect on the children, he says, is remarkable. They dare to dream. “They develop a different perspective on their home town. It becomes more than just a place to leave.” Instead, it’s where they can find opportunities to be part of the vibrant tourism industry that exists because of the abundant marine biodiversity there.
Touched by the ocean
They’re not the only ones whose lives are touched by the ocean. We are all dependent on it. As Jacques-Yves Cousteau said, ‘… the water cycle and the life cycle are one.’ And so the gazetting of 20 new Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) earlier this year is to be celebrated as an important step toward protecting ecosystems, along with our own health and well-being.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature defines an MPA as, ‘A clearly defined geographical space, recognised, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values’.
Says Dr Bruce Mann of the Oceanographic Research Institute (ORI) in Durban, an arm of the South African Association for Marine Biological Research (SAAMBR), “The world’s approximately 5 000 MPAs cover an area of 2.85 million square kilometres. This represents 0.8 per cent of the world’s ocean space. Prior to the recent declaration, South Africa had 25 MPAs [including the Prince Edward Islands and Walker Bay].
Around mainland South Africa this is made up 0.43 per cent of our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). With the recent declaration, South Africa now has 41 MPAs that cover five per cent of our EEZ.” Yet the total isn’t enough. The Aichi Biodiversity Target is for ten percent coverage by 2020 and, says Bruce, more MPAs are being planned.
UNESCO Marine Protected Area
These MPAs represent diverse ecosystems along our 2 850-kilometre coast, from the most north-westerly one – the 1 200km² Namaqua Fossil Forest MPA off the West Coast, where unique submerged fossilised yellowwood forests are protected ̶ to the most north-easterly and, at 10 700km², the biggest ̶ iSimangaliso, where intricate ecosystems provide refuge to coelacanths, and Critically Endangered turtles among other marine species. This expanded MPA is also the first and only UNESCO Marine Protected Area World Heritage Site in South Africa and happens to be in my backyard. So I head up there to explore with my friend, iSimangaliso’s media liaison officer, Debbie Cooper.
With a coastline stretching some 220 kilometres from Kosi Bay in the north to a point roughly in line with the Cape St Lucia Lighthouse 20 kilometres south of Maphelane, iSimangaliso’s expanded MPA would take months, even years, to fully explore. We have only a few days so we decide to focus on Sodwana Bay. If anywhere is a gateway for visitors to immerse themselves in the MPA, it’s that section of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.
But first, we hop on a sunset cruise on the St Lucia Estuary that, when the mouth reopens one day, will resume an ancient symbiotic relationship with the ocean. Early the next morning, we take in a show-stopping sunrise on St Lucia’s Ingwe Beach which is within a controlled zone of the MPA – it’s an area where, inter alia, limited fishing is permitted.
Other types of zones (Restricted and Wilderness) rule out fishing altogether.
“MPAs can be zoned to accommodate different forms of human use,” says Bruce. “The strictest type of zonation is generally a no-take zone where no consumptive use of marine resources is permitted. Importantly, fewer than ten per cent of MPAs globally are zoned for no-take.”
Leatherbacks and loggerheads come ashore to nest
Next stop is Mission Rocks where the low tide has exposed the intertidal zone that’s so vulnerable to illegal pillaging, and then Sodwana, where we have our conversation with Peter Jacobs about preparing youngsters to take part in the ocean-tourism sector. At the time, Peter had plans for one school leaver to enter a diving internship. This highlights some of the benefits of MPAs like job security and education.
Our discussion moves to turtles, which nowadays are synonymous with the region, especially in summer when leatherbacks and loggerheads come ashore to nest, and when, about 60 days later, the hatchlings make a dash for the sea.
With his partners, Themba Ndlovu and Sbu Mlambu, Peter owns Ufudu Turtle Tours, the only turtle-tour operator in Sodwana. “We work hard to increase awareness of turtles,” he says. “In the early days, many people who came here knew nothing about them. They’d even drive over the nests.” Since then, though, restrictions on recreational beach driving have been a factor in the increase of turtle numbers.
Just as the turtles are icons of iSimangaliso, so are Sodwana Bay’s reefs, which Peter describes as pristine, and as among the world’s top diving destinations. We meet another long-time diver Debz Oscroft who says, “One reason our reefs are pristine is the protection the earlier MPA provided.”
Debz and her husband Rod were among the first dive instructors permanently based in Sodwana Bay in the 1990s and were the first two PADI Instructors to teach at Coral Divers, the only dive operator at Sodwana to be located inside the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. “In Mozambique, local fishermen have dynamited a lot of coral reefs to stun fish. There’s no control like there is here. The expanded MPA is a fantastic thing. It’ll pay off in years to come. As other reefs in the world die off, ours will still exist.”
The volume of marine life is mind-blowing
It’s sunrise and we’re on the beach marvelling at a dramatic skyscape of gun-grey clouds flecked with mauve, pink and silver ‒ the promise of a glorious day. An electric atmosphere prevails as beach staff line up the dive boats close to the water. Conditions in the bay are choppy this morning.
“It looks rough,” I remark to skipper Jo Ncube, who practically grew up on the beach and reads the ocean like a book. “It’ll be okay,” he says with a confident smile. “We just have to choose the right gap.”
One by one, the boats are pushed into the water and wetsuited divers clamber aboard, excited at soon entering another world. “The sheer volume of marine life and diversity on our reefs is mind-blowing,” says Debz, “and the corals – about 100 identified species – are exquisite. I’ve dived in other top spots like Madagascar and the Red Sea but in terms of biodiversity, Sodwana is supreme.”
Sodwana is supreme
Long may that last. And it should if the MPA rules are enforced. “Policing needs to be a priority,” Peter says. “It’s great to have MPAs, but who is enforcing the rules?” According to Bruce, law enforcement and policing are currently inadequate. “In many cases, it’s going to be up to stakeholders (including fishers) to support the MPAs and help protect them as they will ultimately benefit from processes such as spillover from the MPAs.”
He emphasises that MPAs should not be seen as the panacea for ocean health, it’s just one important tool. “Good fisheries management, controlling pollution, and so on are just as important.” But he points out too that the air we breathe, the rain that falls, the climate we experience, are all intimately dependent on our oceans. That makes us all stakeholders in MPAs.
South Africa’s Marine Protected Areas
SAAMBR has played a direct role in the establishment of the KZN and Pondoland MPAs.
Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife was the lead organisation in KZN. Nationally, DEA, SANBI, DAFF,
UCT, NMU and the University of KZN have all played an important role.
The expansion of iSimangaliso MPA makes iSimangaliso Wetland Park the second biggest
Wildlife Reserve in the country after Kruger.
Peter Jacobs’ outreach programme is part of an initiative called Small Steps Surfing’
South Africa’s Marine Protected Areas, marineprotectedareas.org.za
@Heritage House, St Lucia – stylish accommodation as well as tours of iSimangaliso including estuary cruises. 035 590 1195, atheritagehouse.com, [email protected]
Mseni Lodge, Sodwana Bay. Delightful, comfortable cottages in unspoilt coastal forest within iSimangaliso and a short stroll to the beach. 033 345 6531, [email protected], mseni.co.za
Ufudu Turtle Tours 082 391 1503, ufuduturtletours.co.za
Coral Divers 079 384 3679, [email protected], coraldivers.co.za