What lies beneath


The Indian Ocean off Mozambique is a fantastic place to explore the marine world but the ecosystem and its inhabitants are under pressure. The Inhambane Province, in the south, is a good example of the challenges faced and what is being done to tackle them. Struan Douglas reports

Mozambique has one of the longest coastlines of any country in Africa — 2470km of secret reefs and hidden treasures with a rich underwater biodiversity. The Inhambane Province is a popular tourist destination, famous for its marine attractions. One can visit the pristine beaches of Vilanculos or go snorkelling in the Bazaruto Archipelago.

But the number one draw is diving with whale sharks and manta rays, which lure 42 per cent of visitors to the province and contribute between US$16 million and US$25 million to the economy annually. A prime spot to view them is off the coast of the small village of Tofo, where the high plankton content attracts the world’s largest populations of both these species.

“Directly out from Tofo beach lies the meeting point of cyclonic and anti-cyclonic eddies, mixing temperate South African waters with tropical Madagascan waters, allowing for a continual reflux of nutrients to and from Tofo waters,” says Brodie Dearman of the oldest scuba dive centre in the area, Tofo Scuba.

“Paired with a steep continental shelf, dropping to more than 1km depth within 3km of the coastline, the reefs here see pelagic marine giants at recreational dive-able depths. It is for these reasons especially that all of the 20-plus dive sites found so far in the Tofo region are so wildlife-rich,” she explains.

The ocean here is a delicate and complex ecosystem. Dolphins are resident and humpback whales pass through on their annual migration from Antarctica. A huge variety of marine creatures — from turtles and billfish to leopard, grey-reef and white-tip sharks, as well as bowmouth guitarfish and myriad tropical and game fish species — can be encountered.

Award-winning Dutch underwater photographer Arco de Man has made 20 dives off the coast of Tofo to take pictures of the megafauna. He says, “I give the ocean around Tofo 10 out of 10. There are amazing dive sites, and during the boat ride you have the opportunity to see the wildlife such as whales and devil rays jumping out of the water.”

However, megafauna sightings off Mozambique have declined in recent years. A 2011 study claimed an 88 per cent decline in reef manta ray sightings and a 79 per cent reduction in whale shark sightings from 2003 to 2011. Indeed, in July 2016, whale sharks were officially listed as Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and 31 August has been declared as an annual International Whale Shark Day.

Marine conservation is a priority for all Tofo businesses, which have created a pioneering combination of tourism and conservation to ensure the future of the underwater life. Dive centres and local fishing vessels have developed a mutual respect for one another, and are seeking out ways to use the ocean sustainably, acting under an agreed code of conduct concerning both in-water and above-water activities. From instructors, boat skippers and tractor drivers to compressor operators, lifeguards and tour promoters, more locals are creating sustainable lifestyles for themselves.

Assisting children in learning skills specific to the area, so they can find jobs in diving and tourism, is one successful intervention. Fatima Vieira established the first backpackers’ accommodation in 1987, and initiated the sponsorship of English and swimming lessons for local children. Her businesses in Tofo are currently assisting 18 youngsters to develop the necessary skills to find better jobs in the area.

Carlos Macuacua, film-maker and conservationist of the company Moz Plunge & Films, was the first local Mozambican to become a dive master and instructor in 2007. He established Bitonga Divers to teach the community the value of the marine ecosystem.

When Luciana Adamo joined Bitonga, he was a barman in the market. Now, he is head dive instructor at Tofo Scuba and has passed his skills on to 20 other local people. And he believes it is crucial that the community knows the value of the various marine species.

“There are lots of conservation organisations working in Mozambique but few of them focus on community education,” he says. “We can do a thousand things today, but if the people living along the coast are not educated, they will destroy it in one day. I would like to get more locals involved in conservation. That is the only way we can save our species here in Tofo.”

Adamo delivers one talk in a local village every month. He explains: “We have tourism in Mozambique because of whale sharks and manta rays. Travellers that come to Tofo do all their shopping at our local market, and that benefits the whole community.”

Macuacua has taken the issue to a much wider audience with his film-making skills. His 2010 documentary, Shiver, exposed the illegal business of shark fins in Mozambique and he has presented the recent documentary Mãe Oceano (‘Mother Ocean’), which reveals some of the worst fishing methods and possible solutions to the problem. He is currently working on a documentary on Mozambique’s underwater landscape, with inspiring information and curious facts.

“The threats facing the coral reefs and marine life are overfishing, unsustainable methods of fishing and lack of conservation law enforcement,” he says. “For a very long time the government did not really do anything, but recently the Ministry of Land, Environment and Rural Development has shown great interest in establishing more [protected]areas and more conservation enforcement.”

The Marine Megafauna Foundation (MMF) was started in 2009, with the mission to study and protect populations of threatened marine megafauna around the world. Through conservation classes, swimming instruction and ocean festivals, the MMF has reached over 1800 young Mozambicans and their families in the Tofo and Bazaruto areas.

MMF has developed an integrated curriculum and implemented it in six local primary schools. It is also working hard to increase collaborations with Mozambican universities and recently worked with scientists from Maputo’s Eduardo Mondlane University.

The Mozambican government has engaged MMF to provide long-term conservation strategies to protect these species and the economic value of tourism. “Our hope is to inspire and enable this new generation to safely enjoy the ocean and secure the future of their marine environment,” says Sarah Bishop, the Education Program Manager.

As Sabrina Weiss, also of MMF, points out, “Protecting ocean giants also achieves umbrella protection for a wide variety of marine species in the same habitat, creating a stable environment for the future.”

In addition, MMF is working with local community leaders, fishermen and other stakeholders in the area with a view to reducing fishing pressures and unsustainable practices such as the use of gill nets.

“These are the key reasons for declining fish stocks and megafauna populations. But for many coastal communities in Mozambique, fishing is a primary source of food and income. People depend almost entirely on resources from the sea for their survival,” adds Weiss.

In November 2016 MMF and the Tofo community trialled a six-month reef closure, the first in the province, in order to replenish fish stocks and marine life. This is seen as a key step in the setting up of a Locally Managed Marine Area (LMMA), which the foundation describes as “an area of coastline managed by members of the nearby local community who work together to make sure the natural resources and marine life are protected from overfishing and exploitation”.

Following the reopening of the reef in June 2017, fishermen have cited an increase in fish stocks, and research teams and tourists have recorded more encounters with megafauna on dives and ocean safaris.

Many students have joined MMF to gain fieldwork experience or do their PhDs on the unique marine life of Tofo, and volunteering has become popular either as a career break or full-time. Helpers can support the research through data collection and monitoring of the local megafauna populations. Moreover, a citizen scientists programme allows tourists to get involved, accompanying researchers who go out to sea on a daily basis with Peri-Peri Divers.

“Manta rays have a unique spot pattern on their underside like a human fingerprint, which can be used to determine whether it is a new or returning individual,” says Weiss. By following the movements of the marine megafauna and contributing identification photos, visitors can help develop global databases in order to protect these species as effectively as possible.


For more information on Marine Megafauna Foundations’s work in Tofo, and marine conservation in general, visit www.marinemegafaunafoundation.org

All images in this feature were supplied courtesy of Marine Megafauna, with particular credit to the photographers Arco de Man and Ross Newbigging.