Reality or Illusion? Unraveling the Mystery of Mauritius’ Underwater Waterfall

The Underwater Waterfall

If you’re working through a bucket list of exotic vacations, then you’ve seen vibrant coral reefs, pristine beaches and dreamy lagoons.

Majestic mountains and lush rain forests are probably nothing new to you — but how many underwater waterfalls have you seen lately?

Some places on Earth seem to have more than their fair share of natural beauty.

Thanks to its most famous attraction, Mauritius is one of them. This is a great place to let your eyes deceive you.

Mauritius’ Underwater Waterfall Aerial View
Dominik Ruhl / Pexels

One-of-a-kind Mauritius

We’ll get to that gorgeous optical illusion, but here’s a bit about the setting.

Mauritius, a remote island in the Indian Ocean, is not exactly a household name. It lies off the southeast coast of Africa around 700 miles east of better-known Madagascar. It may be remote, but boring it is not.

More than 1.3 million of the world’s most interesting people call Mauritius home. “Local” cuisine is decidedly international, featuring Chinese, Indian, Creole and French influences. Ethnic festivals play up the multicultural vibe.

Morning on Flic en Flac beach, Mauritius
Teodor Kuduschiev / Unsplash

Sailing, scuba diving and kite surfing are popular pastimes. Sports fans have their football, horse racing and golf. For shoppers, there’s no shortage of boutiques and markets with one-of-a-kind goods.

Mauritius Island Nature View
Focus Photography Mauritius / Unsplash

Best of all, though, Mauritius is the ideal place to lose all track of time in nature.

The island boasts two UNESCO World Heritage Sites. You missed the long-extinct dodo bird by 350 years, but almost 30 endemic bird species grace the island. They share space with ornate geckos, brilliant butterflies and exotic flowering plants.

Yes, there’s plenty to do on land in remote Mauritius, but the underwater waterfall, its real claim to fame, is best seen from the air.

A Waterfall Like No Other

There are just a handful of underwater waterfalls in the world, and this one is arguably the loveliest. For one thing, the numerous shades of clear blue water take your breath away.

Mauritius' Underwater Waterfall Illusion
Photo credit unknown

The underwater waterfall is at Le Morne, Mauritius’ southwestern beach. By all appearances, the water on the ocean’s surface is cascading into the depths.

Imagine a giant hand pushing down Niagara Falls to just below the river’s surface.

Then, imagine viewing the torrential underwater falls from the riverbank.

Niagara Falls on sunrise
Sergey Pesterev / Unsplash

The cascade in Mauritius is just that dramatic. It appears that the beach, the palm trees, the world-class hotels and the island itself are on the verge of literally going down the drain.

The Denmark Strait Cataract is another example of this extremely rare phenomenon. In that underwater waterfall, the dense, frigid Nordic currents rapidly sink below the lighter, warmer water from western seas. A powerful downflow results, creating a waterfall off the enormous drop in the ocean floor.

That’s not what happens here in the warmest ocean in the world. In fact, this is a good time to remind you to bring your swimsuit.

Mystery Solved: A Surprising Explanation for the Underwater Waterfall

Allow us a few paragraphs to blind you with science. Your knowledge and sophistication will impress the natives.

Mauritius' Underwater Waterfall
Photo credit unknown

Just like Hawaii, Mauritius exists because of volcanic activity.

Geologically speaking, at about 8 million years old, the island is a toddler. A formation known as the Mascarene Plateau — called an ocean shelf or submarine plateau — lies beneath it. It’s the plateau that makes this underwater waterfall unique, so pay attention.

On most continents, the slope from land into deep ocean waters is gradual. Not until some distance from shore does the slope fall off dramatically and give way to the abyss.

In Mauritius, however, the plateau quickly plunges to approximately 4,000 meters in depth.

Earth's Largest Waterfall
National Ocean Service / NOAA

Here, unlike in the Denmark Strait Cataract, there are no extreme differences in water temperature or density. The Mauritius marvel doesn’t result from one source of water colliding and falling into another.

Despite appearances, the explanation for this underwater waterfall has little to do with water. Instead, it’s all about sand.

Sand waves under water
Martina Bombardieri / Unsplash

The Mauritius Waterfall — Illusion and Reality in One

Yes, the illusion of a waterfall is created by erosion.

As you sun yourself on that glistening, carefree beach, sand is being forced off the plateau by oceanic currents. The cascade off the plateau’s sheer vertical drop is actually sand sinking from shallow waters into the much deeper abyss.

The only way to fully appreciate the underwater waterfall — which is part world wonder and part mirage — is to view it from a helicopter or seaplane.

Flight over Mauritius' underwater waterfall

Don’t let the word “erosion” alarm you. With any luck, you still have several million years to see this stunning phenomenon for yourself.


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