Pillaging of coral reefs by impoverished local communities dependent on marine resources is common world-wide.
Sodwana Bay has been inside a National Park for 80 years, so the local Zulu community has only recently been given free access to the protected marine environment. Consequently, the marine resources never became part of the traditional tribal diet.The Sodwana Bay reefs remain pristine and the crayfish live to a ripe old age, while giant cowries flourish untouched, and hermit crabs grow to monstrous size using gigantic discarded conch shells.
Greg de Valle, the charismatic, controversial owner and manager of the Sodwana Bay Lodge Scuba Centre was the first to introduce the local community to the protected undersea world, and his dive operation is an iconic example of co-operation and training between the local people and the 4 x 4 owning diving community. Initially employed as a dive master by Blue Print Diving in the 90’s, Greg decided to make diving his career and life’s work. He travelled the world to various dive operations, and acquired an understanding of how the International diving operations were managed.
From 1997 Greg took over management of the dive shop at Sodwana Bay Lodge. Competition was fierce, and at one time there were 65 dive boats launching from Sodwana Bay. Dive masters were unknown. If you were prepared to tow a buoy line so that the boat could follow you, you could dive for free. New reefs were discovered.
Managing a dive operation that catered for both local and international diving visitors became Greg’s job, and he had problems keeping Dive Masters. Most Dive Staff from the cities stayed for a few years, and then just as they were becoming really world class they would leave Sodwana and travel to exotic destinations taking their training with them. Having bought the diving operation, Greg was growing more and more frustrated until one day he realised that the solution lay with the beach assistants.
These were youngsters from the local Mbila tribal group who had found short term employment on the beach washing visitors’ dive gear, carrying their equipment to and from the dive boats and generally looking after their customers. Greg realised that these guys were humble, were learning English, and understood the demands of their customers. So he started training a group of local youngsters to become dive guides, skippers and dive masters.
20 years on, Sodwana Scuba Centre offers the best service I have ever experienced in a dive operation, and that includes Bali and Mauritius whose service levels are definitive. Ben my DM takes care of my gear, and I get a dry wet-suit every morning. Prince, the skipper on my boat, makes sure my gear is loaded where I like to sit on the boat. These 2 guys are humble in their excellence. They are aware of their customer’s every need, and they make diving with them an absolute pleasure.
Greg has done a little more than just own and manage Sodwana Scuba Centre. He has invested training and no small amount of money in the local community. He has built his house here, and his children go to school here.
To own land at Sodwana Bay is not possible, as it is within the land area controlled by the Ingonyama Trust, who issue leases to approved residents. To live here, you have to become a member of the local tribal community, and Greg has done just that. He is an honorary Zulu.
Words: Jill Holloway
Pics: Stephen Stamp
Copyright: Crafters Lodge