Coast KZN

The Profile of the KZN Coast

Coastal and Marine Species

The following are sections from Ugu Lwethu - Our Coast (Goble et al., 2014). Contributions are from a range of authors all of whom are credited per section. The unique nature of the coastal and marine environment and the associated ecosystems, supports a wide range of species from the smallest invertebrate to the largest of all mammals. Some are economically or socially important, while others are endemic and ecologically important to KZN.

Aquatic Plants Photo byFiona MacKay

Aquatic Plants

Aquatic plants living within the coastal environment range from species that occupy the water column such as microalgae (e.g. phytoplankton) and floating or submerged plants (e.g. seagrasses), to those that inhabit the intertidal and supratidal regions, such as emergent macrophytes (e.g. salt marsh, reeds, sedges and mangroves). The area extending from the intertidal reaches of the seashore to the subtidal reefs is home to a fourth group of coastal marine vegetation, seaweeds. Each of the different habitat types are characterised by specific species or groups of species, based on their tolerance to salinity and inundation. Aquatic vegetation is largely associated with estuaries.

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Invertebrates Photo byFiona MacKay


Around 98% of all animal species described are classified as invertebrates. Simply, invertebrates are animals that lack a backbone but are multicellular. With no backbone, these animals rely on other strategies for physical support such as hydrostatic pressure (e.g. sea anemones with a fluid-filled internal cavity), exoskeletons (e.g. crabs with a hard carapace) and shells (e.g. clams and mussels).

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Sea Turtles Photo byJenifer Olbers

Sea Turtles

Sea turtles are iconic marine reptiles. They are well adapted for life at sea, with legs modified into flippers and bodies encased in a hard carapace. While these reptiles range widely in all oceans, they have remarkably localised nesting grounds. KZN's sea turtle nesting beaches are of enormous international significance, especially as they are protected and monitored. Sea turtles represent an important element of marine and coastal biodiversity for KZN and indeed South Africa and the world at large.

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Marine Fish Species Photo byCamilla Floros

Marine Fish Species

The KZN coast is blessed with a rich diversity of marine fish species. Estimates show that the southern African fish fauna comprise at least 2200 species, and a large percentage of these are found off the KZN coast. Unfortunately KZN's marine fishes have suffered from a wide range of human-induced impacts, ranging from overfishing to pollution, sedimentation and habitat destruction. Sustainable use, careful habitat protection management and the establishment of a network of well-sited MPAs are essential to assure the future of KZN's fishes.

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The Prehistoric Coelacanth Photo byPeter Timm

The Prehistoric Coelacanth

The coelacanth is a so-called "Lazarus" species; an organism known from the fossil record long before a living species was discovered. Although it was originally argued that all coelacanths caught outside of the Comoros Islands were strays, mounting evidence points to the existence of a number of viable populations in the South West Indian Ocean region, including Jesser Canyon. This means that KZN is home to a unique, viable population of prehistoric coelacanths. They are fortunately well protected in their iSimangaliso Wetland Park refuge.

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Sharks, Rays and Chimaeras Photo byJade Maggs

Sharks, Rays and Chimaeras

KZN is blessed with a wide diversity of sharks, rays and chimaeras, a group of fishes that have in common a skeleton made of cartilage. In general, these fishes are vulnerable to over-exploitation because of their life history characteristics; hence, careful attention needs to be paid to their conservation and management.

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Whales and Dolphins Photo byLloyd Edwards

Whales and Dolphins

While occasional vagrant species of seals may be found off the KZN coast, and dugongs have historically been recorded as far south as Umhlali, it is the 36 species of cetaceans (whales and dolphins) that comprise the true marine mammal fauna of the region. While whale species have declined as a result of historical whaling activity, some species have shown recovery and further conservation of the species and their habitat will ensure populations return to sustainable levels.

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Coastal Birds Photo byMartin Taylor

Coastal Birds

Seabirds are broadly defined as birds that forage primarily on marine prey and spend most of their time (except when breeding) at sea. This excludes shorebirds, which are common in freshwater and estuarine systems but rely to a lesser degree on marine resources. The KZN coastal environment is rich in birdlife, nesting, roosting and feeding at a number of outstanding sites, often in their thousands. 

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ORI • Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University • KZN Sharks Board • University of Cape Town • Birdlife South Africa • Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology

Research Funders



Janine Adams • Fiona MacKay • Rudy van der Elst • Bruce Mann • Sean Fennessy • Larry Oellermann • Sheldon Dudley • Ken Findlay • Ross Wanless • Andrea Angel