Aquarium Reef at Kosi Bay is one of the most unique and exhilarating places to explore KwaZulu-Natal’s underwater world. A wide variety of marine life, tucked into a small corner of the beautiful Kosi Lakes system, is an obvious attraction. We’ve spent many hours drifting up and down this aquatic centerpiece during our Ultimate South African Road Trip and here’s how you can do the same.
- Snorkel a shallow, sheltered reef.
- Marvel at the diversity of tropical fishes.
- Explore one of the gems of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.
- View the 700-year old fishing technique of the Tsonga people.
- Bask in the sun on one of KwaZulu-Natal’s most unspoiled northern beaches.
Aquarium Reef and Kosi Bay
Kosi Bay is one of the gems of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. Situated a few kilometers south of the South Africa-Mozambique border, Kosi Bay is as tropical as South Africa gets. Made up of four interlinking lakes surrounded by coastal vegetation and forest, Kosi Bay is home to a wide variety of plant, bird and animal species. Notably, it is one of the few locations where the Palm-nut Vulture may still be seen in the wild. Unlike other vultures, this bird feeds mainly on the fruit of the Raphia palm and its distribution closely matches that of the palm. As well as its natural beauty and diversity, Kosi Bay is rich in human history too being the traditional fishing grounds of the Thonga people who still practice their 700-year old technique of constructing circular fish traps out of sticks and brush.
The four lakes vary in size and depth and are joined by sinuous narrow channels, with the system connecting to the sea at the mouth. Because of the mixing of sea and fresh water, these lakes are home to a wide variety of both marine and freshwater fishes. The shallow sandbanks attract large flocks of pink flamingos that gather to feed, and groups of hippos can be found wallowing in the deeper holes. A variety of species of mangroves line the water’s edge and on the beach, a large forested sand dune shelters the estuary from rough swell and the southerly wind.
The attractively named Aquarium Reef is a shallow rocky reef that lies within the estuary at the base of the forested dune and extends upstream for some 120 metres. With Kosi Bay’s open mouth, this area of the system is tidal and high tide sends a rush of warm clear seawater into the lower lake. The clean seawater provides great visibility and this is when snorkeling is best and safest, as the current flows upstream rather than out to sea. Snorkelers can jump in at the start of the reef and drift along above the rocks, watching colorful tropical fish dart out from the shelter and ominous eels siting open-mouthed in their holes.
Snorkeling Aquarium Reef
Snorkeling Aquarium Reef is the perfect day’s activity for those wishing to experience the underwater world of Kosi Bay. What is more, it is the easiest and most relaxing type of snorkeling; sheltered from the surf, snorkelers can simply jump in and allow the current to move you gently through the calm waters.
Aquarium Reef is a low profile rocky reef. Look carefully as you drift above as there are plenty of eels hidden in rocky crevices and beautiful lionfish (devil firefish) tucked away beneath overhangs. Tiny blue cleaner wrasse have set up cleaning stations at various intervals along the reef and many of the bigger fish stop for some grooming.
Arriving at the car park, Aquarium Reef is a walk and wade or swim across the wide mouth to the base of the sand dune to the south. Visitors are warned about the presence of stonefish in the estuary so tread carefully as these well-camouflaged, venomous fish can deliver a painful and potentially lethal sting from their needle-like dorsal fin spines.
Timing your snorkel with the tide is probably the most important thing that you can do to make for an enjoyable experience. We didn’t do this on our first visit to Aquarium Reef and the water draining from the lakes made for very poor visibility, but we quickly learnt from our mistake.
We love snorkeling Aquarium Reef because it provides the best of both underwater worlds – beautiful tropical marine reef fishes in a shallow, calm and sheltered setting. Not to mention being met with the incredibly beautiful wilderness that is Kosi Bay when you emerge from the water again.
It is easy to spend a whole day at the mouth. As well as the snorkel, visitors can spend time on the sandy beach and explore the small rocky platform which has some great rock pools at low tide. There are plenty of places to picnic and while away the heat of the day in the shade, and of course the Thonga fish traps demand some closer inspection. Please remember that these are operational fish traps and do not do anything to damage or otherwise interfere with them. On your exit there is also a short sand road that leads to a vantage point with breathtaking views up the first lake and into the lakes beyond. If you are looking for an iconic photo of Kosi Bay, this is where you will find it!
Gate entry times:
6:00 to 18:00
Park entrance fees:
Children (under the age of 12): R25
Vehicle charge: R50
Community Levy: R5 per person
Updated entry details can be found on the Ezemvelo website.
A 4×4 vehicle is required to visit Kosi Mouth as the roads are soft beach sand. Visitors must also obtain a permit from the Ezemvelo KZN Park office at the Kosi Bay Camp. The number of vehicles allowed at the mouth at any one time is limited so be sure to buy your permit early during peak holiday periods. The beauty of this restriction is that it keeps crowds down and maintains the feeling of isolation and wilderness that is so incredible to experience at the mouth. Apart from a parking lot, there are no facilities at the mouth so be sure to come well-prepared with everything that you might need.
Visitors to Kosi Mouth are warned to look out for Stonefish. As their name suggests, these fish are very well camouflaged to resemble stones and sit very still on the bottom. They have needle-like spines in their dorsal fins that can deliver a very painful and potentially lethal venom. Take care where you place your feet when wading through the water.
There are plenty of Thonga fish traps in the lower channel that are easy to access. Please remember that they are operational traps so treat them with respect, taking care not to damage or otherwise interfere with them. If you would like to photograph them and the fisherman is present, always ask for permission.
Kosi Bay is considered a high risk malaria area. Consult your doctor before visiting, and take precautions such as making use of insect repellent and wearing long sleeves in the evening especially during the summer months.
Local guides are available should you wish to make use of their services, but please make sure that your guide is registered. Many locals will offer their services as a guide but not all of them are legitimate. We have found that exploring Kosi Mouth is very easy to do as a self-drive, especially since if you are planning to snorkel most of your time will be spent underwater anyway! If you do want a guide to show you around though, we can highly getting in touch with Safari and Surf. They are really good guys who are very big on safety!
Although generally calm, strong currents can develop at Kosi Mouth especially at peak tide and during spring tide events and there are no lifeguards on duty. Always identify the direction and speed of the current before getting into the water, and do not get in if it is above your swimming capabilities. If uncertain, be sure to only snorkel where you can stand and regularly lift your head out of the water to look around and get your bearings.
What to Pack
- Suncream and hat.
- Mask, snorkel, fins and towel (snorkeling gear is available for hire from the EKZNW Camp office).
- Underwater camera.
- Water and other picnic goodies.
- Bird and fish identification guide books.
When to go
Snorkeling is best when warm, clean seawater flows into the estuary at high tide. We would therefore recommend snorkeling during the incoming tide. Consult a tide chart to plan the optimal time for your visit. These are available online or the EKZNW officer at the Kosi Bay Camp reception should be able to help with this. Beware of strong currents that may develop at the peak of the tide and during spring tide events.
Northern KwaZulu-Natal summers can be very hot and humid. In our opinion, the cooler and drier winter months of May-July make for a more enjoyable experience in this region.
A 4×4 vehicle or at least a vehicle with a diff lock is needed to get to the EKZNW Kosi Bay Camp as the roads are sand tracks. The roads at Kosi Mouth are very soft sand and a 4×4 vehicle is required. Many of the nearby lodges and tour operators offer transfers for visitors without 4×4 vehicles however.
Directions to the EKZNW Kosi Bay Camp:
N2 from the south: from Hluhluwe take the R22 towards Sodwana Bay. Pass Mbazwana and continue to KwaNgwanase – following the signboards to the Farazela Border Post between South Africa and Mozambique. Continue through the town and after 7km turn right onto a sand track. The 5km sand track to the camp requires the use of a 4×4 vehicle, or a vehicle with a diff lock.
N2 from the north: Drive to Jozini and continue to KwaNgwanase. Continue through the town and after 7km turn right onto a sand track. The 5km sand track to the camp requires the use of a 4×4 vehicle, or a vehicle with a diff lock.
Kosi Bay Mouth is a 22 km and 45 minute drive with a 4×4 vehicle from the Camp. Visitors can obtain directions from the Camp office, or ask any local should you get lost along the way. Alternatively, follow signs for Utshwayelo Lodge which is situated near the access gate for Kosi Mouth.
Details to keep on hand
Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife
EKZNW Kosi Bay Camp: +27 (0)35 592 0236
Ezemvelo Central Reservations: 033 845 1000
Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife Website
Office hours are from 08:00 – 16:30 daily. Sundays and Public Holidays are 08:00 – 16:00 daily.
iSimangaliso Wetland Park