Howdy!My name is Latoosa and I’m from the great state of Texas. While browsing around for a new job I stumbled upon an advertisement to come do and Volunteer/Internship program with Whale Sharks and other Megafauna down in Mozambique. This sounded like an amazing opportunity that I couldn’t pass up, so licitly split I applied, was accepted (YA!), got my visa and flights in order, and in no time I found myself in Mozambique!
From my previous job I had traveled a lot so upon arriving I didn’t have any jet lag (Ya!), and there was someone there to pick me and the other volunteers up (Double Ya!). From the start Messias was full of helpful answers and tips for our time here in Mozambique. Biggest one is that Data is way cheap and totally worth it if you’re staying more than two weeks. That and the nearest ATM is like a 20min ride from town so pull out more than you think you’ll need for your stay (ok maybe that’s a personal one ha).
Upon arriving to All Out Africa’s homebase in Tofo both Katie and Giustina were there to greet us and give us a quick blurb about tomorrow and let us loose to find our cabin and get settled. My first impression of everything was just jaw dropping gorgeous! I mean the view from the office was this!
Whats not to love about that! I just kept imagining how hard it will be to focus on work while I have a stunning view like that to stare at haha! Anyway we walk on down like not even 30ft away from the officer to our Bungalow. Me and the other two volunteers, Anita and Joe, have already found out that we are all close to the same age and that Joe is from Australia, Anita is from Switzerland and I of course the US. So we see the rooms are set up from Anita and I to share a room with two beds and Joe gets his own room. Great no issues there. So with that all set up we grab dinner at the hotel that is less than 10 paces away from the office. Now with full bellies and tiered eyes we go to bed ready to start our Mozambique adventure!
The first day Katie establishes what we already do/don’t know. I come with a Bachelors in Marine Biology while Anita is a graphics designer and Joe is a Math, English and History teacher; meaning we all have various knowledge ranges in the Ocean and its animal life. At no point of the project did this difference in knowledge posed a hindrance in any of the work that we did. Katie does a great job of explaining to us the basics of megafauna, what we should see here in Tofo, what work will be expected of us and why that work is so important as well as answering any questions we came up with. She then shows us and Giustina, for she had only arrived the day before to be Katies new assistant researcher, all the various forms we are to fill out. Now at first glance it’s like WOW that’s a lot of paperwork to fill out! But each serve a specific purpose and most you only fill out when you see the animal it’s for. Then she showed us how to take GPS coordinates off the portable GPS and use them for exact locations associated with the Animal ID paperwork. As well as showed us that once all the information is filled out were that data is entered online. Some of the data is for international uses; like Whale shark, turtle or Manta Ray ID shots; others if for research that’s currently being conducted. All this to me gets me excited for it will be a good mix of the super exciting part of collecting the data as well as the equally important part of entering all the data for analysis.
The next day Messias takes us into Inhambane (pronounced more like in-yan-ban not in-ham-bane as I was corrected haha) to let us get data sim cards, pull out money, and show us the town and the culture. Though the most memorable part of this trip had to be the ride to and from Tofo/Inhambane. A van waits in Tofo and takes people to Inhambane or anything along the way; so Messias, Joe, Anita and I all pile sitting alongside several locals with space to spare and off we go. Along the way the van stops and lets people off, but mostly lets people on. So soon all seats are taken and everyone is shoulder to shoulder and yet still the van stops to let a few off and more on. I had the song “Another one rides the bus” by Weird Al playing in my head at this for people are crammed into standing spots only and I think at one point we counted something like 28 people in the van haha! It made for an interesting experience for sure! Once we were back to Tofo we check in with Katie and Giustina for the next days plans; and lo and behold our first dives are next! Like our life experiences, Joe, Anita and I all were at different levels of Diving. Anita and I had our Open Water certificates while Joe was new to the diving world. Therefore Joe would start with his open water courses while Anita and I would start our Advance courses! Now to get the materials we will all need for this we head on over to our friendly dive ship Peri-Peri! Another 10 steps out of the office and we are stepping into the Peri-Peri office and are introduction to Nick, who is the co-owner of Peri-Peri. Nick is excited for us to advance, and for Joe to start, our diving with them as well as gives us our books and some…Homework we will need to do before our first dive on Monday.
With this project our weekends were ours to do with. After a fun Friday night introduction to Tofo and more of her residents we all used our time to enjoy the sun and beach and get ready for next week! The week starts off with a rush of bubbles for Anita and I are off to do our first ocean dives, while Joe does his poolside basics. This is the first time Anita and I are to go out with the dive shop Peri-Peri. Now the walk from the AOA (All Out Africa) Office to the dive shop was a grueling 60ft away so for a 0715 assembly time we were hard pressed to make it after leaving our bungalow at 0710 (as you can tell its not that big of a place). The staff there already has some of the gear out saw our confused but excited faces and helped us find what sizes we needed for our various pieces of gear. Next was going over our Homework. With that out of the way and our gear all assembled and up in the truck making its way to the dive boat it was time for the Diving Brief. All of us gather round a whiteboard were the reef we are going to has been drawn out and cleaning stations, ledges and other things have been marked out. The leader of the dive is the one giving the presentation and they go over how the current might be and if so how we will dive the reef. They also go over all the important details like how we launch the boat, surface current, negative entry, what to do if lost, how to ascend from any depth without a computer, and the 3 big T’s. No Touching, No Teasing and No Tasting….uh I mean No Taking! Haha. Then the standard video of if we see a whale shark (OMG that would be awesome!) on the way out/back and how to interact with the animal in such a way that we have an great encounter as well as not harming or detouring the animal (meaning scaring it away from Tofo altogether). Now that all that is out of the way it’s down to the beach and to the boats!
By the time we get down to the boat all our dive gear is already in the boat and the tractor has turned the boat around so that she is stern to the water. So a bit like this (mind the two goofballs in the foreground ;D)
So we jar the boat lose from the trailer and we all push one side of her so that the bow points out to sea. Then we split up hopefully half on one side and the rest on the other as well as the guys who helped loaded the gear onto the boat and we all push the boat out into the crashing waves. Once the water is starting to get past our knees they call “Ladies up!” and all the women jump up. Then the skipper starts the engine and calls “Men up!” and the men all jump in, sometimes needing a helping hand to get the last bit inside. On the deck there are straps for you to slide your feet in to help you stay in the boat for those rough days or if you’re not too steady on a boat, and off she goes! This time we are heading South to Manta Reef! And as the name suggest they do sometimes see Mantas at that reef!! To get there it’s, to me, an enjoyable 30min or so ride; pitching as the small boat rides over the waves with her excellent skipper dropping the speed so we don’t fly over the waves crest (as fun as that is a fully laden boat with passengers isn’t the time to do that). As we head towards the dive site we keep our eyes peeled looking for dark shapes in the water possibly being a Whaleshark or a Manta.
We arrive at our dive spot, checking the GPS to make sure we are where we think we are ;D, and start to get ready. If you weren’t already you move to sit in front of your BCD and Tank while the DM’s (Dive Masters) pass out weightbelts, masks, cameras, slates or anything else if needed while you grab your fins and put those on along with your weightbelt. Personal note I would also at the time open my own tank, they also did this but I liked to do it for my air. Once those were on they would help you get your BC on and then you’d wait till everyone was ready. Once everyone was ready they would do a gear check. Check your Weightbelt, your straps, your tank, your BC and finally your air. The since you’ve always drifted a bit by then they motor on over back to the dive spot, the short way you’re sitting there mask on hand holding your Reg near your mouth waiting. The DM calls for “Regulators in” then you know you’re about to go if for on the DM’s count of three we all will do a negative entry. Now this is my first time doing one so I hope I can get all the air out of my BC and don’t get stuck and float at the surface! “3, 2, 1 GO!” We all topple off backwards holding our Regs and masks to our face while dumping any air out of our BCs and trying to figure out where is down is amongst all the fins and bubbles. Im not the only one who dosent get all the air out of my BC the first time so I bob back up and have to try for a slightly slower entry and swim down to the bottom. Now with it being over a year since my last dive and with only 21 dives under my belt it took me a little bit to get my neutral buoyancy…. Na it probably was more due to that I was distracted by the beauty of the reef I was looking at.
To welcome us there was a HUGE potato grouper just hanging out, he must have been close to 5ft (1.5M) long! And he was very photogenic so I got some great close up shots of him. The dive was a great dive overall, no surge, no current, and tones of fish to keep you looking about. If you kept a sharp eye out you’d spot scorpion fish hiding as rocks, or various eels poking their heads out of rocks or cracks, and if you were to distracted by the swimming of the black clown fish in the sea anemone they would point out the monstrous potato grouper that is swimming off to your left or the blotched tail stingray hiding under the ledge over there. And as always on the lookout for the Tofo’s big 5! Whalesharks, Giant Manta Rays, Leopard Sharks (in the US we call them zebra sharks), Smalleye stingray (rarest stingray in the whole world!) and the Bowmouth guitar Shark (which is a ray and not a shark actually). Far too soon our time is up and we must start ascending to the surface. Once we break the surface Anita and I are babbling about the giant potato groupers as well as various fish we had learned how to identify! Once all the gear and people are back in the boat we head back to Tofo beach and as we draw close to it they explain to us our next exciting bit, beaching the boat. So basically you shove your feet into the straps and hold onto the handropes as the skipper races the boat towards the shore only at the last second to pull up the engines and the boat exhilaratingly stops usually high up in the wet sand. After that it’s usually the debrief and paperwork but not today. Today we jump out of the boat take off our wetsuits and once again help push out the boat for its time for an Ocean Safari! Anitia, Giustina and I excitingly talk about hopefully seeing a Whaleshark or Manta Ray as we keep our eyes peeled for any dark shapes in the water. But it’s not a dark shadow that catches the skipper’s eyes but the blow of Bottle Nose Dolphins! So he deftly maneuvers us as close as he is aloud as we all scramble to put our fins, masks and snorkels on. We quietly splash into the ocean and swim after the Dolphins, who lazily out pace us but eventually come back and give us a very pleasant close encounter! After spending a good time with the dolphins we search for more life but that is all the ocean is willing to give up today. Luckily for us we have more days to search still! For now once we are back ashore it’s time to fill out all that paperwork from the dive as well as from the Ocean Safari.
The next week flies by with each day being a mixture of Diving, Ocean Safari’s, filling out paperwork and remembering to pull the GPS data before it got rewritten. Some days were more amazing then others, like the Ocean Safari were Anitia and I saw 2 whalesharks that day (Not to brag of course)and rare humpback dolphins!
A great accomplishment of this week is Anitia and I finishing out Advance Open water and Joe, after a stomach bug setback, gets his open water! Then we could start our dives were the whole point of the dive was to collect data, either by a presence or absence count or by a transect count. Out of those two were the easiest for us to do with the presence/absence counts. Sometimes those dive got interrupted by the megafauna like a Giant Manta deciding to come and circle one particular cleaning station so we pretty much didn’t swim farther then 10ft in either direction of our drop point for the whole dive. Other dives were punctuated with the sheer amount of scorpion fish or eels you were able to spot; and the ultimate spotting of the elusive Nudibrancies! And as always recording when you saw a one of the Big 5. Trying to get an ID shot or if not that remembering as much detail about it; as in did the manta have an old bitemark out of its left fin, or did the turtle had a long tail (easy male vs female ID), and things such as that for the paperwork. Then of course filling out the paperwork with the correct information; for its only worth anything if the date, time and location are correct.
It’s during this second week I get my own special project to work on. In February of this year Tofo was hit by a large cyclone and not only did this change the land but it also changed the seabed. In particular one of the shallow reefs we dive at, Salon Reef, had much of its life scrounged off and new rocks uncovered. This became the ideal place to do a succession study! Meaning we can see what organisms come to colonize are area and then what comes after them and so on and so on until there is an established climax colony. We determined that 1 cubic meter would be the size of each study. With some help from Messias in collecting the raw materials (cement and rebar) I made 6 small anchors to make the locations that will be studied for the next year or two. After a few trial anchor designs just a simple 20cm tall, 8cm wide cylindrical shape was the anchor with a 26cm long piece of rebar in it; so about 15ish cm stood out of the concrete. While those set we went to each dive center and explained them what we were doing at Salon Reef, what a Subsection study is as well as please to not remove the markers. We also gave them a laminated flier to add to their diving brief of Salon Reef so that none of the DM’s or and tourists saw this sticking out of the ground and thought it was trash and tried to remove it. Once all the concrete markers were made each one got a bright green line and a numbered blue bottle cap attached to it for easy underwater identification. Then the big day to drop them at Salon Reef! Katie had some spots in mind so down we all go; Anita, Joe and Giustina off to fish count while Katie and I set the marker points. As you can see from the photo they came out great! During the placement of the markers their locations were marked on a map and initial colonization amount photos were taken. Afterwards as an extra precaution we made tags to attach to the markers that read “All Out Africa Marine Research T3 Please Do Not Move” and attached those on a different dive.
This took up some of my free time over the 2nd weekend and during the 3rd week. As with the 2nd week it just flew by with awesome dives and Ocean Safaris. By now Anita, Joe and I were joined by a group of 10 students from Louisiana University. This added excitement for they were also there to work on their own projects for the next two weeks, some ended up working on beach micorplastic, some sea urchins, some fish counts (different from our fish) and then other did a large biomass that took in much of the others groups data. This added a bunch of excited and consistent faces do the dives, and gave the dives more a sense of purpose vs just having fun (which you still did for every dive is fun!). Just like us volunteers they worked with AOA so every dive they did or Megafauna they spotted had to be recorded, logged and eventually entered with the dive site or GPS data all on it. And with us Volunteers down to one computer this meant entering data was a bit backlogged; but luckily this wasent much of an issue.
As a special treat we got to go to the estuary! We were up before the dawn for it’s quite a bit of the ride to the estuary. Two trucks showed up an hour late (its African time meaning its till on its own time haha!) to take all of us, volunteers and University students, to the estuary. The estuary was quite a nice change of pace, and while there we saw many reedy pipe fish, spiny sea urchins, colorful starfish, shiny Nudibranches, and the elusive Sea Horse!
With the passing of the 3rd weekend the dawning that our final week was already upon us came out of the blue. How could the time already be passing by so quickly! This week we all have our fingers crossed for Giant Manta and WhaleShark encounters on the Ocean Safari for Joe had yet to see either of those! It wasent until our very last Safari did our luck really hit home! A 15ft wingspan Giant Manta was spotted and we got to swim with her for at least an hour! She was a gorgeous Manta and since everyone followed the rules and didn’t get to close we had the chance to get some amazing photos! And what was cool was we realized we had seen her before on a previous dive! That big bite mark out of her left pectoral fin makes her easy to identify once we went back into the previous photos.
During my last week Katie found one more project for me to work on. She had a videosterio system she needed to assemble. She had just gotten the last parts but didn’t have the time to put it all together. To drill the holes, to bolt the handles and camera stands. That was a nice afternoon project that Katie said is already working spectacullary!
All too soon our last dive comes up. We lament about this on the boat ride out to our favorite reef, Manta Reef! The dive itself was a beautiful dive, tons of gorgeous colorful fish, eels galore and the challenging to find scorpion fish. We all keep our eyes peeled for the hope of seeing a WhaleShark on the ride back and we were rewarded! Joe’s first WhaleShark on our last dive! What luck! We all scramble to put our fins and mask on, remembering to grab our cameras as well, and quietly splash into the water and tear after the WhaleShark. It’s a wonder the skipper saw it! It was 12-15ft down and even in the water above it was a shadowy figure, but again we were rewarded as it came up closer to the surface for us to get again some ID shots! But the gifts from the sea were not done for as our time drew short we left one whale shark only to spot a different one closer to the surface! Do again we grab our gear and dive in after the Whaleshark! This one was a bit camera shy so no ID shots from that one but it was still great to get to do a double last swim with Whalesharks! So lucky Joe got not only one but 2 Whalesharks for the price of a dive haha! A great day for sure!
With our feet dragging in the sand we take our bags to the van that will take us to the airport. We hug the friends we made, emails and facebooks are exchanged and promises of to “keep in touch” or “don’t forget to post your great photos!” are passed. Friends come running up to catch us before we leave giving us hugs again and how the time here was just spectacular and that the memories of the people and things we saw will be bright spots in our memories! This has been one of the best experiences I have had and I couldn’t oh had such a great one if it wasent for all the guys and gals at Peri-Peri who incorporated us into the daily life and really made us feel like a part of the group. My awesome fellow volunteers, Anita and Joe for making this a fantastic 4 weeks! And I can’t forget the gals at All Out Africa who helped us the whole time with questions and ideas as well as opening this project up to Civilian Scientist!