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Adventure Mozambique

The Shark-bitten Mantas of Jangamo

Story and photography by Tim Rock

 

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Whales and whale sharks. Mobulas and mantas. Bottlenose and humpback dolphins. Bull and great white sharks. They’re all here waiting for ya. The potential of the place really sinks in from atop a rolling, sandy hill near the Mozambique coast.

Look inland. It takes but one evening of watching a sunset from high atop and ancient dune overlooking broad plains of trees and rolling hills with not a telephone or power pole in sight and only two track roads meandering off in the distance to realize Mozambique is someplace special. Perhaps it is as close to the “real” Africa one expects. Look toward the sea. The sound of crashing surf and rolling seas stretch out across the horizon. The beaches are endless and there’s no one on them but sea turtles.

Immediately crossing the border the change from South Africa to "Moz" is astonishingly apparent. Situated on the northern border of South Africa and along side the Indian Ocean, Mozambique is a country that boasts rich diving. Divers can spend a few days in nearby South Africa in the famous Kruger National Park hunting big game with a camera and then go for the undersea life as well. Just leave the Crocodile Bridge gate and drive toward Maputo.

There’s a mostly one lane black top that carries divers north of Maputo to the hotspot of Tofo Bay. Mozambique is known as a year round diving destination. The best months to dive along this coastline are May to July, due mainly to more moderate temperatures.

History

Humanoids have been around Mozambique for over 2 million years, and Homo sapiens have been settling the area for at least 100,000 years. Starting around 2000 years ago, Bantu peoples (named for their language group) began migrating into the area, bringing iron tools and weapons with them. Toward the end of the first millennium, several towns along the Mozambican coast grew into Bantu trading ports with links to other parts of Africa, the Middle East and India. The Arab influence in these ports was strong, and Swahili was the lingua franca of trade.

The country was not always accessible and hospitable. A recent long, horrific civil war has scarred the country, shattered its infrastructure and left a million land mines scattered about the countryside. Much of its wildlife, including big game such as elephants and rhinos, has been decimated by war, and much of its coastline has been ravaged by cyclones. Droughts and floods take turns rubbing salt in Mozambique's wounds.

But it seems Mozambicans are a resilient bunch. They have begun putting the past behind them and have begun rebuilding their country at a remarkable pace.

Mozambique is fast reclaiming its former status as prime seaside destination. Mozambique is a somewhat reasonably priced destination. Very comfortable dive travel is available for US$150 a day or less.

Most dives are done from 8m-rubber inflatable boats powered by 2x85hp+ motors. Dives sites vary considerably from approx. 7m down to a current-swept 35m plus.

Inhambane & Tofo

Divers head north up the coastal highway to the various venues along the expansive coast. Getting there is truly part of an amazing journey through Mozambican life. People center much of their lives and activities along the main roads. Kids swimming naked in swimming holes, women with immense bundles of wood atop their heads, men shooing cattle down the sandy path are all images gathered while careening down the oft potholed two-lane blacktop that winds north to the famous beaches and reefs. A boy hawks a small parrot in a handmade wire change. Young girls with baskets of red berries try to attract passing buyers. Buses with massive lists and a crushing loads huff down the highways. Pickup taxis brim to capacity with people.

Colorful clothing and spicy music punctuate the characters in the cafes and bars of the many towns and Coca-Cola signs add a splash of red to even the drabbest setting. Old Portuguese architecture often sits in ruin but many places are starting to rebuild and a prominent church can always be seen as well as a central plaza, which is an evening gathering place for much of the town’s populace. The markets are the focal point by day and smiling faces and greetings of “Bom Dia” are accented by bright smiles coming from sun-darkened faces with a kaleidoscope of fruits and gay clothing making the venues a feast for the eyes and senses.

Mozambique has become the escape of choice for northern dwelling South African divers. Many make weekend drives into “Moz” to enjoy the beaches and reefs.

About eight to ten to twelve hours drive up the two-lane (sometimes pocked) blacktop is a jutting peninsula. It can now divers can fly on small turbo-prop planes. Baggage can be a bit limited but it is fast and less bone-jarring. In two hours you’re there from Johannesberg.

The newest hotspot is Tofo Bay. Protected and scenic, this bay holds some nice lodges and motels. The Casa Barry Lodge is the home of the The Manta Ray & Whale Shark Research Centre, small science outpost with a big job of trying to survey and protect the area’s main attractions. You can hear whale shark and manta lectures at the lodge twice-a-week. Tofo Scuba is the main dive operation here. It’s a PADI 5-Star with all kinds of training available. Longtime Moz diver John Pears runs the place and is still finding new dive sites along the coast.

Manta Reef

The premier site of the Inhambane coastal peninsula is without a doubt the massive manta cleaning station. Manta Reef, as it is cleverly called, starts in about 20m of water along the top of a rocky and craggy ridge.

Divers are always on the lookout heading for the site. Whale sharks feed along the coast and seasonal humpback whales breach and play amazingly close to shore. Sometimes they even come right into the shallow Tofo Bay. We slipped in to the water with a pod of bottlenose dolphins and the pod playd with us for a while before moving on to better things. We were told we were snorkeling in the same place a diver had seen a great white shark the year before!

The Manta Reef reeftop is featureless although there are some cracks and crevices. Its full of many sea anemones in amazing numbers. Soft leather corals also thrive here and stubby but brilliant red soft corals feed in the constant flow. The attraction is not only the mantas but also the holes, valleys and cracks that run along either side of a ridge bottoming out at 27m on the shoreward side and 31m on the seaward side. Here schools of striped snapper congregate in large numbers along with shoals of bigeyes and lots of red fang triggerfish.

The cleaning stations here are also the place to see large and somewhat docile potato cod.

But the reef got its name for the mantas and they are there feeding in the current and swooping in for cleaning. According to resident marine biologist Andrea Marshall, this relatively unexplored section of the Mozambican coastline boasts what appears to be one of the largest most stable populations of mantas in the world. She has seen upwards of 30 mantas on a single dive being cleaned at the various cleaning stations. She feels over 400 mantas actually live and thrive in the area. Her years of research at the Centre leads her to believe the consistency of the numbers of mantas on these coastal reefs is unparalleled. Manta Reef is consistently being used by mantas throughout the year.

There are actually three main cleaning stations that the mantas visit. And these mantas are generally huge. The biggest are mostly females. Mantas can be seen in numbers of up to 30 rays at a time. They circle a reef flat area looking for a quick clean from a wrasse and can get quite close to divers if one says still and doesn’t chase them. The largest ray may exceed 7m across.

And one odd thing about this population is well over 70% of the mantas have some sort of shark bite. Some have huge crescents taken from their wings and rear areas. Others are even missing a mandible. Many have no tails. In all, it is tough to be a manta in these waters. And even though large sharks are rarely seen on this reef, they are evidently here. Not only are the mantas a testament to their presence, but bait balls often boil in the water only to dissipate in a flurry of writhing fins and tails at the surface of the Tofo sea. So the sharks are here. Zambezis (bull), tigers and even great white have been reported in the area.

When we approached the reef in September of 2007, a mother, baby and escort humpback whale group was swimming right over the reef and headed to our RIB. Seeing humpbacks here is one of the many bonuses of a visit. They shied away as we tried to approach them. It was a rather clumsy attempt considering we had scuba gear on. But they came back while we were down diving. The biggest thrill came when the mother and calf swam right overhead. “It looked like a sailboat and a dinghy,” Yoko Higashide said of the shadow of the mom and calf that cruised over us 20m above. The throaty whines, cries and blurps of the humpbacks could be heard echoing across the undersea waves during our entire dive. It was amazing.

Later we saw the mother giving the baby breaching lessons. The mother was much more adept, of course. The baby’s comical flops and aborted thrusts did show improvement as it repeated this fun, new activity 30 or more times.

Divers can also look for mobulas, eagle rays and the occasional reef shark to cruise by. Sometimes the toylike mobulas come in to clean with the giant mantas. And marble rays and guitarfish can be seen in the sandy flats off the reef in the sand or under crevices. Sea turtles like loggerheads and even leatherbacks are here as well as lots of other tropicals and the collection of goldies (anthias) is amazingly colorful and active.

Ascend the buoy line and decompress in open ocean keeping an eye out for whale sharks as they like it here and are sometimes seen feeding over this reef.

The first time we visited this reef years ago, we were blown away by the marine life. To see if this place was for real, we went here again to see what the morning would bring. Descending, a school of batfish greeted us at 10 feet as we descended the plankton rich waters. The reef was bustling with activity. Just as we hit 60 feet and came along the anemone-covered reef flat, a large manta slowly winged its way into view and paused at a cleaning station. Cleaner wrasses and an army of butterflyfish enveloped the manta and it reveled in the cleaning job it was getting.

Then another appeared out of the depths, mouth open. We were circled and surrounded by the mantas for the first 10 minutes of the dive. In the background all sorts of other happenings took place. A large potato bass swooped right across my head. A reef whitetip and grey reef appeared. Schooling jacks coursed back and forth in front of us and circled into the sun. Two large, lemon yellow trumpetfish patrolled the top of the dropoff. A shoal of snappers made a brilliant yellow sheen on the reef edge.

Then the mantas came back and swam through a huge school of goldies and baitfish. And they just kept coming. We realized we had stumbled onto the cleaning station of the day. Just when the dive could not get much more exciting, a huge shadow loomed at the edge of visibility. Just 15 feet off the reef, a whale shark moved into clear view and slowed to look at us, stopped briefly over the cleaning station and it then proceeded on until it left us as silently as it had come. As we watched it depart to the left, a glance to the right revealed a manta ray almost at arm’s length with white belly showing and its huge wing gliding gently past.

This was one of those dives where the diver wished he or she could stay all day. Even as we ascended, the batfish patrol reappeared and then six giant rays moved across the reef directly below us. Few dives have the consistent electricity and variety this place has and even fewer can package it all in one submersion. This little spot off the continental shelf is a truly superb site by any and all standards.

As if the mantas aren't enough, one of the many great attractions in Mozambique waters is the chance to see and dive or snorkel with a whale shark, Rhincodon typus. The focal point of this endeavor is the area south of Tofo Bay but they can cruise the shallow northern coast as well. The sharks here are feeding happily on an abundance of plankton in the water. Encounters of up to ten whale sharks of all sizes have been reported in a two-hour span. This relatively shallow expanse is only 5-30m deep.

For best results, snorkel with the shark and don’t touch the big fish. Some get spooked and dive down away from snorkelers but others get curious and actually seem to want to play, slowing to swim with the snorkelers. Even though them seem to be barely moving, whale sharks are cruising at a pretty brisk clip. Watch the graceful motion of the largest fish as it seines food. When the whale shark does decide to leave the presence of its short-term guests, it may does an almost balletic move, twisting tail and body and showing off its white underside as it careens downward into the abyss. The rays of the sun reflect in shafts through the water and make the departure of the shark and amazing sight to see.

More Tofo

Beachy and laid back, this tip of the peninsula is blessed with an eastern sunrise and a western sunset over the mangroves. Waters are plankton rich and feature whale sharks in season and plenty of game fish and sea life. It isn't a luxurious place to stay and pushing the boat into the surf every day can be a real chore, but rewards are worth the efforts. This is the ocean at its finest. Wild Tofo.

There is also another manta cleaning spot called The Office. On one dive we saw twin leopard moray eels, a manta with white wingtips and small valleys and gorges with lots of sea life. Anemones colonies were encased in soft bristle corals. There were Goldies, triggerfish and lots going on. When we surfaced, a huge leatherback turtle was sunning itself close to our RIB.

Also nice are the shallow reefs just out from Casa Barry Lodge. There are very good sites for small fish life and juvenile fish. Linkia starfish releasing, dragoneta, many nudibranchs, oyster, crocodilefish, green mantis shrimp, glassy sweeping huge numbers with baby barracuda.

More and more of the coast is being explored and the wealth of big marine life here is just beginning to be fully appreciated. From migrating whales to whale sharks to one of the world’s most incredible manta array populations, this piece of the African coast delivers. It is a diver’s dream vacation and a special part of the world.

 

SIDEBAR:

Imperiled Manta Rays of Jangamo

By Tim Rock

Mozambique's has a long history of violence and exploitation by outsiders. Fueling the rise of Swahili culture, Arab traders first established settlements along the Mozambique coastline in the 8th century. By the 18th century, slavery had become the mainstay of Mozambique's economy. In the late 19th century. The Portuguese rented out Mozambique's work force to neighboring countries and parceled out its land to private companies for development. Under Portuguese Prime Minister Anténio Salazar (1932-1968), Mozambique workers were treated little better than slaves in rice and cotton fields.

Now, the ocean resources are in grave peril due to exploitation by longline fishing vessels that catch anything and everything they can along the coastline here. Especially at risk is the robust manta ray population along the Inhambane coast.

Everyone who lives along the coast has witnessed the devastating impacts of long line fishing. It is a fact that one can wake up in the middle of the night and witness first hand how dangerously close large foreign trawlers come inshore. Locals say that ever since Mozambique sold its fishing rights, these boats have been overfishing the previously unspoiled fish stocks and indiscriminately catching unwanted marine mammals, reptiles, and elasmobranchs, including mantas.

The effects of these indiscriminate fishing methods are widespread and devastating. Everything from sharks and game fish to mantas and turtles are being affected by their unsustainable practices. This particular stretch of coastline in eastern Africa is also host to a very large population of whale sharks, a small population of rare dugongs and for 3-4 months of the year this area is also home to hundreds of migrating humpbacks.

The Tofo Beach area is rapidly becoming a major centre for sport diving. The abundance of both manta rays and whale sharks, with year-round populations of both species, is a boon to the local marine tourism industry. International dive tourists are becoming aware of the consistent sighting rates in the area. This has lead to  stakeholders from the tourism and dive industry sponsoring aspects of The Manta Ray & Whale Shark Research Centre to ensure the long-term sustainability of the area's marine life.

Despite being the focus of major international tourism industries, populations of both mantas and whale sharks have been decimated by fisheries in many countries. Few scientific studies have examined these gigantic fish and little of the information necessary for successful conservation efforts is available.

Research at the centre targets the information gaps to provide data on the population ecology and conservation biology of these threatened species. All of these animals will certainly be affected by this unsustainable activity in the years to come if they are not already feeling the effects. Of particular concern is the highly vulnerable manta population which is extremely sensitive to fishing pressures and whose population, even as stable as it might seem, could crash within a few generations.

Mozambican governmental organizations seem to have little to no interest in these matters and the long liners are neither regulated nor monitored sufficiently. In addition to the heavy indirect pressure from the long liners, the manta population also faces heavy threat from local fisherman who specifically target the large defenseless animals for the large volume of food they can provide. In December 2003 alone, one biologist recorded seven mantas being taken within a 20-kilometre stretch of coastline. Again, there has been no regulation of this activity along the coast by governmental agencies. The biology and life history traits of mantas leave it powerless to recuperate from this type of loss. Mantas are thought to give birth to one pup every two to three years and have traditionally been found to have few natural predators. The combined effect of the coastal long lining and the directed local fishery will certainly devastate this local manta population. Worse still, because of the remote location, little to no international attention is being paid to the plight of these animals.

This coastline is a well-established, commonly used area for mantas. Many areas along the coast serve as critical habitats that support their daily feeding and cleaning activities, as well as seasonally serving as a mating and nursery grounds. It is hoped through images and articles like this that the plight of these mantas will be recognized and positive steps can be taken to save them.

 

Mozambican Manta Facts

- The only documented population worldwide with such high percentages of shark bite wounds up to 70% of individuals in some months

- Mantas in this location are known to mate, clean, feed, and give birth

- Mantas are directly caught by the local Mozambican people for their flesh and indirectly caught by long liner nets offshore

- Over 60 individuals have been positively identified in under a year at Manta Reef at Jangamo

- The mating season for these rays appears to be in December and January

- No black mantas ever recorded along coast

- One manta that was slaughtered on the beach in 2003 had two pups inside her not yet fully developed, suggesting that mantas might occasionally give birth to two live young

- No large male mantas over 12 feet in length have ever been seen along the coast

- Up to 30 individuals have been spotted on Manta Reef at one time

- Newly born mantas have been seen on the Jangamo coastal reefs including individuals 4/12 to 5/12 feet in length

 

Whale Shark Facts

- Whales are mammals, so they breathe air. Sharks are fish, so they ‘breathe’ water. Thus, whales have a ‘blowhole’ (modified nostril) whereas sharks have gills.

- Tofo area whale sharks are mostly juvenile males. There are some adult male and female sharks.

- There is still a lot of mystery surrounded the lives of whales sharks and really, not much is known. Whale sharks don’t become adults until around 8-10m in length and getting to 20-30 years old. Thus, their protection is getting more critical as fisheries attempt to catch them.

- Since they don’t use their (tiny) teeth in feeding, it is likely that whale sharks only use them in mating: males bite onto the female’s pectoral fin.

- Satellite tagging still has a few technical issues to overcome but it’s the best way to date to study whale shark habits. Depth-sensing tags have shown whale sharks dive far deeper than expected: possibly 1500 m or more. Australian sharks are thought to swim to Indonesia and back each year using ocean currents. Elsewhere, much more data is needed.

- Whale shark fisheries are unsustainable. Unfortunately, even with the best of intentions, whale shark populations will take a long time to recover from even modest exploitation. - Worldwide, whale shark tourism is worth at least US$47.5 million annually. Whale sharks are most common in some developing countries, providing a valuable tourism resource. In Taiwan, a 10,000kg whale shark is worth US$21,400 dead. In Belize, each shark is worth around US$2,094,340 alive.

- They are fun to snorkel with if you can keep up. Whale sharks are harmless, curious and often extremely friendly. However, as close as they come, they won’t touch you. They expect you to extend the same courtesy to them. Give the shark some space. Watch out for the tail, and each other!

- Lots of research is necessary: how many sharks are there? Where do they go? What do they do? Whale sharks are now protected in many areas, and trade is severely restricted. Increasingly, sharks are valued as a tourism resource. This is a positive development, as long as the continued presence of the sharks isn’t taken for granted.

 

Support:

To support the being done in the Tofo Bay area by this small and very dedicated group of scientists see their website. You can donate toward equipment and even adopt a whale shark or manta! Dr. Andrea Marshall and The Manta Ray & Whale Shark Research Centre conducts & facilitates research, conservation and education on the marine life of Mozambique. Current research focuses on sharks and rays, primarily manta rays (Manta birostris) and whale sharks (Rhincodon typus).  http://mozmarinescience.googlepages.com/

 

SIDEBAR:

Travel Facts:

When: Mozambique is known as a year round diving destination. The best months to dive along this coastline are May to July, due mainly to more moderate temperatures. Rainy season starts in February.

Visas: All visitors need visas, which are good for up to three months, and proof of onward travel. 


Time: South Africa is GMT/UTC plus two hours. When it's noon in South Africa it is 8 p.m. in Sydney, Australia, 2 a.m. in San Francisco, California, and 10 a.m. in London, England.

Electricity: 220/240V, 50Hz is the standard as it is in South Africa.

Weights and Measures: The system of metric weights and measures is used. Depths are registered in meters and weights in kilos. All sale and rental dive gear is oriented this way.

Language: Each of the major ethnic groups in Mozambique has its own language. The common tongue and official language is Portuguese. Since teenagers and young adults had their education interrupted by the civil war, Portuguese tends to be spoken only by older people and the very young. English isn't spoken much outside of the tourist areas of the south, but you can get by.

Money: The most readily accepted currencies are Mozambique meticais and South African rands. In the south you can pay for a lot of things (such as accommodation) with rands.

Health: Medical facilities aren’t as plentiful or as of a high standard as in South Africa. Visitors must also be aware of bilharzia, hepatitis A & B, typhoid, diptheria, tetanus, meninogococcal meningitis, polio and malaria. Mozambique is classified as a malaria risk country and precaution as prescribed by your doctor is advised. For divers, the nearest chamber is across the border in South Africa in Richards Bay. First aid kit & oxygen are found on the boats of the better dive operations. Ask if your operator supplies these essentials.