But, like many ecosystems above ground, the ones below the water’s surface are also under threat.
This year has been called the International Year of the Reef by the International Coral Reef Initiative, and it aims to raise awareness about underwater ecosystems and the threats they face, including overfishing, destructive fishing methods, coastal development, pollution and agricultural run-off. But to make people to be aware of conserving this natural wonder, they have to be able to appreciate it, and Michelle Morris, of snorkelling company Tidal Tao in Salt Rock, said experiencing the underwater world first-hand was key to lessons about conservation.
“There is so much beauty to discover about the ocean,” she said. “However, there are also children who live not even 50km away from the beach who have never been to the beach.”
Some of the proceeds from the company go towards giving underprivileged children who have never been to the beach, the chance to try snorkelling and to see marine animals first-hand.
Morris said Salt Rock had possibly some of the best snorkelling experiences the country had to offer, with year-round warm water, and lots of fish and marine life in shallow, safe, protected areas.
“There are so many issues around ocean conservation; from marine litter, overfishing, climate change and coral bleaching to ocean acidification.
“It’s difficult for most people to even consider these issues because so much of it is hidden under the waves. We don’t see it every day. The oceans are largely considered ‘this other place’.
“As an example, fish don’t get the same protection from cruelty the way birds do, and our beaches don’t get the same protection as our parks.
“We don’t think of the beach as a nature reserve, even though we see amazing wildlife, like whales migrating past or dolphins playing in the waves.
“We enjoy teaching kids about the marine world. As an example, we teach them to identify and not to touch the scorpion fish, or a sea urchin. We also focus on conservation and we teach kids about why pollution and plastics are so bad for our oceans,” she said.
Morris added the “coastline wilderness” rivalled that of a big game reserve or national park in its size and diversity.
“We see whales on ancient migrations pass our way each winter, and dolphins playing in the surf. We have recorded fish and other water organisms, and had scientists telling us that some of the southern-most shallow-water hard corals in the world can be seen here.
“It’s a special place and worth protecting. We estimate that you see about 5% of what is actually in the water. Stick your head under with a mask and snorkel, and an entirely new world is suddenly opened up to you.”
Professor Michael Schleyer, a research associate at the Oceanographic Research Institute, based at uShaka Marine World, said coral reefs were very rich in species diversity - as rich in the marine world as the Amazon forests are on land.
“Coral reefs provide an important food source for such people in the form of abundant and diverse fish and shellfish. Furthermore, reefs are the focus of ecotourism and also important in shoreline protection,” he said, adding that KZN’s reefs were in good condition.
Schleyer said that while coral reefs in KZN enjoyed considerable protection, other coastal reefs were under threat from exploitaion of their reef resources such as fish and shellfish and, to a lesser extent, pollution.