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Swimming with Whalesharks

Written on: Saturday April 4th, 2009

Although Maputo proved to be an enjoyable experience, seeing this city was not the reason that I came to the country.  No, sir.  I came for the beaches, diving and laid back, tropical atmosphere that had made the almost 2500km of Mozambique's coastline legendary amongst budget travellers.  Maria wanted to come along to do some shopping in the local markets, so she joined me on the bumpy, nine hour ride to the teeny weeny little town of Tofo. 

The journey was fantastic!  The city quickly gave way to open, tropical wilderness, with coconut, mango and banana trees extremely prevelant.  Occassional dwellings were scattered across the land, constructed almost exclusively of stick and mud.  Admiring the countryside for hours on end brought back fond memories of Tonga and driving across the island with Jesse, perma-smiles fixed to our faces as we took it all in.  Like Tonga, there were a lot of local farmers, resulting in regular roadside huts offering fresh bananas, oranges and coconuts.  As we neared Inhambane, the largest town near Tofo, the coastline became visible.  The dramatic view on both sides of the vehicle confirmed that I made the correct choice by coming here.  It was spectacular.

Entering the town itself, we hopped off the bus and started hiking toward the backpackers.  It didn't take long for a truck to approach and offer us a lift, turning the twenty minute walk into a three minute ride.  The Bamboozi Resort was cool: rustic, quiet and competely built on beach.  Our accommodation was extremely basic: two beds and two mosquito nets under an open air log structure; the power shut off at eleven.  Although I was fine with this, I got the feeling that Maria was not quite used to such basic accommodation.  Oh well...I warned her. :)

My first priority was to set up diving for the following day.  The resort had a dive shop on the property, and after discussing the sites and conditions with the local divemaster, I felt comfortable going with them.  Dinner was spent chatting with other divers about their experiences in the water, which only added to my excitement.  Consequently, I hit the sack early while Maria went out for a couple drinks. 

As I helped load my dive gear into the boat the next morning, I was slightly dissapointed to learn that there were three other divers that had signed up for today's excursion late the night before.  They were significantly less experienced and as a result, we were going to do a shallow dive on the inner reef.  But I was assured that it would be enjoyable.  No worries.  It will be a good introduction to see what all the hype is about.  So we walked down the beach and waited for the twelve person zodiac to be pulled across the sand by the dive shop 4x4 pickup truck.  This is where the fun began!  Since the waves were rather significant (up to six feet), we were instructed as to the procedure for getting past the reef and into the big blue.  First, the truck would back the trailer into the sea, with the zodiac already untied and ready to separate from the trailer.  As soon as the water came up high enough to lift the boat from its support, the truck aggressively charged forward and cleared the way.  Now it was up to all of us to handle and turn the boat so its bow was pointed out to sea.  We held it steady as the driver climbed aboard...guys in the front, ladies in the rear.  We walked the boat depper into the drink, getting knocked backward by several rounds of pounding surf.  When we got close to the necessary depth, the driver gave the call of "ladies up", at which time all the women hopped aboard and strapped their feet into the safety canvas fixed to the floor.  The guys still pushed the boat out further until we had attained adequate depth and were consequently given the "everybody up" order.  We flipped into the rubber craft, secured our feet and held on.  Now it was a game of timing.  The driver waited until the wave took us to its crest, then gunned the propeller to cover as much ground as possible before having to slow down to absorb the impact of the next wave.  It tool several rounds of this pattern before we finally cleared the surf and started on our journey to the dive site.  That experience alone may have been worth a third of the cost of the dive...it was fun!

The dive site was in a shallow reef sporting a maximum depth of fifteen meters.  Furthermore, I was informed, there was little coral.  As I spat into my mask and cleared the lense, these two facts made me uneasy.  However, upon entering the water, and I mean immediately upon entering the water, my opinion changed.  Before I even reached the reef I saw two blue-spotted sting rays gently swimming away from the commotion that we caused.  Finding perfect neutrality two feet above the ocean floor, I was happy to spot two large nudibranchs.  Jeez...I haven't even started the dive and I've already seen more than some sites offer!  We continued gliding around the rocky reef for 55 minutes, taking in a myriad of underwater delights.  In total, I saw eleven blue-spotted sting rays.  I counted eight eels and six nudibranchs.  Four scorpionfish were also detected, despite their incredible ability to blend with the environment.  Cleaner shrimp worked on picking the dead skin off large fish, as well as off my fingernails.  When a 1.5 meter grouper passed through it certainly made for some excitement.  Lionfish abounded, their brilliant bodies shimmering in a mix of red, orange and white.  But the cherry-on-top had to be when I spotted two, rare manta shrimp mating in a sandy patch of ocean floor.  As you might understand, they were preoccupied enough to allow me and the only other person I could wave over in time a good thirty seconds to view their actions.  Soon they finished and dashed into separate crevaces, neither of them seemingly interested in cuddling afterward.  As I reluctantly got out of the water, I couldn't help thinking that I could dive this site every day for a month and not get bored - it was that interesting.

With my mind ecstatic upon our return to land (and yes, charging over the crashing waves in the zodiac was even more fun on the return than on the way out), I parlayed the morning's adventure into another favorite activity as I ran 11km across the wide open beach.  It was turning out to be a phenominal day.  In dire need of energy I scarfed a seafood pizza and a cider before meeting up with Maria at a nearby resort.  She had contented herself with a morning of shopping and an afternoon of cocktails, so when I spotted boogie boards and rented them for both of us, she was reluctant.  I showed her the basics in the shallows, and watched her start to get the hang of it.  Then I returned to adrelaline mode, swimming out to the six foot breaks and riding them over 150' back toward shore.  It was a fun hour and a half of riding and watching the sun set behind the trees, turning the sky into a box of crayolas.  Drinks at Dino's ensued and the day ended with me walking solo back to the hut, ipod cranked, voice desecrating a certain Ziggy Marley song while the ocean ebbed and flowed above the sand at my feet.

The following day's highlights were also water based.  The zodiac once again plowed its way through the surf, but this time an additional 45 minutes of back-breaking slaps on high swells was included as we went to a distant dive site in search of manta rays.  The site itself was spectacular: fantastic rock walls and crevaces, lots of current and an insane number of fish.  Dozens of species schooled near the protective reef, and larger fish abounded.  Black lionfish were quite common and were bigger than any I had ever seen.  Sadly, the combination of too many people in the water who were not able to adequately handle the current and an overly controlling dive leader caused a bit of frustration, as people continually bunched up and our 'leader' didn't deal with the situation in the best of ways.  Nonetheless, amazing critters were still sighted, including an enormous scorpionfish, several robust eels and a small gathering of four devil rays. 

The return trip made the trip.  We found whalesharks!  The first one dived as soon as we approached, but that at least allowed us to have our masks and snorkels at the ready for the next sighting, which occurred just five minutes afterward.  This time we were able to stop the boat and jump in the water to take a close look at this amazing creature.  The experience was strange, but I will relay it in detail.  I was the second person in the water to try to get a glimpse of the whaleshark.  The first person was swimming toward the shark, about 8m in front of me.  The shark was about 8m in front of him, swimming perpendicular to the first swimmer.  I chose to swim in the same direction as the shark, contented with my current spacing to it.  The clarity of the water easily allowed me to take in the creature's majesty from my vantage point.  But then the shark turned...toward me.  It actually started coming right for me.  Strange, I thought, but nothing to worry about.  They eat plankton, and although they could easily swallow you whole in their huge mouths, they didn't eat animals.  But yet it continued toward me, now only 5m away.  It was spectacular!  It was huge!  It was coming closer....to the point where I actually turned perpendicular to the direction it was swiming and did my best crawl stroke for 10m.  When I stopped and turned to continue my gazing, I realized that the shark had also turned and was directly behind me, its massive mouth fully opened, feasting on the tiny critters in the waters between us.  By now only me and one other person remained in the water.  When I looked back to gauge how far the boat was from my current location, I saw all the dive maters laughing and pointing as the beast continued to track my every move.  Here I was torn: I knew that I was safe, and that it was probably just curious and for whatever reason had targeted me as its point of interest.  I could probably have stayed right where I was and let the shark come up to me and gently glide by, caressing it with my hand the entire length of its juvenile 20' body.  Or I could swim back to the boat and get out of the water.  I chose conservatism, and made my way back to the zodiac, the shark trailing at my fin kicks like a faithful dog at my side.  I popped up onto the rubber edge and waited...it came right to the side of the boat and just stopped...inches from me...seemingly staring and waiting to play some more!  I reached forward and put my hand in front of its now closed mouth, seeing if it would initiate contact, but it just stayed there, watching.  It wasn't until I removed my hand and fully climbed into the boat that it descended and made its way back to deeper waters. 

Did I regret not engaging in physical contact with him...not riding the dorsal fin like I could have easily done?  Not really.  I hold strong opinions about not over-handling creatures while I'm diving, and even though this one sure seemed like he wanted to play, I was happy with my decision.  Regardless, it would still go down as one of the coolest things that I experienced on this entire trip!