#MPADay: The small town on the border of two of South Africa’s most beloved Marine Protected Areas

by Janet Middleton for Plett Tourism Association

by Tia

Plettenberg Bay’s location at the heart of the Garden Route is enhanced by two exceptional Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) to celebrate this Marine Protected Areas Day – 1st August 2023 – Robberg MPA and Tsitsikamma MPA, one of South Africa’s oldest Marine Protected Areas.

The protection of our coastal and marine assets are essential to our environmental survival and to a town so established in a Sustainable Blue Economy. At heart, Plett is an ocean community with eyes cast ever seawards. 

Both nearby Marine Protected Areas – Robberg and Tsitsikamma – are well known and highly prized by visitors to the area for their vibrant natural attractions and unspoiled beauty. In addition to its prime location, Plettenberg Bay was recently declared one of only seven certified Whale Heritage Sites in the world, has six international Blue Flag beaches and boasts resident and migrant whales, dolphins and sharks, and year-round seal and bird populations attracting thousands of visitors to the town and surrounding areas each year. Plettenberg Bay lies comfortably nestled at the foot of the Tsitsikamma Mountains, sheltered on one side by the sweeping landmass of Robberg Peninsula and, on the other side, the breathtaking Tsitsikamma region. 

Robberg Nature Reserve – Western Cape – South Africa

Africa’s oldest “no-take MPA” – Tsitsikamma – was proclaimed in 1964 and remains in near-pristine condition providing a protected habitat for marine wildlife including birds and endangered species. The MPA is important to the distribution of several South African endemic species that are in urgent need of protection including red stumpnose, red steenbras, musselcracker, poenskop, dusky kob and others.  Known as the “Heart of MPAs”, Tsitsikamma has enabled healthy intertidal and subtidal habitats, and their associated marine communities, to thrive for over 50 years. Those fortunate few who have hiked the famous Otter Trail – which traverses this coastline – can attest to its wild beauty and abundant marine life. The MPA covers 60 km of coast and two provinces from near Eersterivier in the Eastern Cape to Nature’s Valley in the Western Cape and stretches over 5 km out to sea. 

Robberg MPA was proclaimed in 1990 and is a vital part of Plettenberg Bay’s most iconic view. Robberg is most certainly a peninsula of plenty extending 1.8 km offshore into the Indian Ocean – a lone land mass offering breathtaking views across Plettenberg Bay to the Tsitsikamma Mountains on the leeward side and across wilder ocean on the windward side. The Marine Protected Area is frequented by whales, dolphins, sharks, seabirds, and Cape fur seals. The inshore and offshore reefs provide protected habitats for endemic fish species and a guided swim with the seals of Robberg is a popular tourist activity.

Depending on the time of year, visitors can enjoy panoramic views of migrating Southern right and humpback whales, great white and bronze whaler sharks, and pods of dolphins. This MPA offers the dual benefit of protecting both our coastline and our heritage as Robberg – a World Heritage Site – provides a fascinating look into the history of the region with rocks dating back 120 million years to the breakup of Gondwanaland and caves along the peninsula, particularly Nelson Bay Cave, provide evidence of middle and later Stone Age inhabitation. 

Seals at Robberg by Offshore Adventures

However, it is beneath the waves where these MPAs really start to shine, the coastline is alive with fish and a vibrant array of soft corals due to the nutrient-rich currents that flow along the southern Cape coastline of South Africa offering an exciting glimpse below the surface for adventurous scuba divers or snorkelers. Anemones, orange wall sponge, cuttlefish, shysharks, pyjama catsharks, colourful nudibranchs, enormous sea fans, sea squirts and basket stars are just some of the wonders to be encountered beneath the waves. 

In much the same way that national parks support terrestrial conservation, South Africa’s MPAs form a vital part of South Africa’s conservation efforts and, in this regard, the country has taken a giant stride forward. In 2019, the government declared 20 new offshore MPAs – a move that increased the oceans protected around our country’s mainland from 0.4% to 5%. Illustrating South Africa’s incredible biodiversity, this 5% of our ocean protects 87% of the different marine ecosystem types found in our waters and includes the Port Elizabeth Corals, Protea Banks, Isimangaliso, the Agulhas Bank Complex, Pondoland and many more. Dr. Judy Mann, Executive of Strategic Projects at Two Oceans Aquarium, initiated the Marine Protected Areas Day concept in 2021, making South Africa the first country in the world to do so.

Robberg MPA by Brendon Morris

“This helps us collectively appreciate the value of MPAs and how they benefit both us and the incredible marine biodiversity they are designed to protect,” says the official South African Marine Protected Areas website www.marineprotectedareas.org.za. “It’s a day to share stories and information about why and how we need to conserve our oceans and keep building support for MPAs. We hope that MPA Day will help more South Africans recognise the important role MPAs play in preserving our oceans for both people and nature.”

Whether visiting Plettenberg Bay in summer, winter or anytime in between, our visitors are encouraged to appreciate and share the natural beauty and marine life along our coastline and in our oceans in a sustainable and non-invasive way. To quote conservationists across the globe: “Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints.”

For more information on Plettenberg Bay, please visit www.pletttourism.com.

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