Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Perfect Dive

It seems that magic is the Ocean's middle name. I say that because I have experienced so many incredible moments in the short period of time that I have been here in Southern Mozambique. When you spend nearly every day in or on the water, it is rare that a day will go by when you do not see something special. But some days are even more so, they surprise you with perfection and serendipity.  Life loves to surprise us. But the Ocean loves to blow us away.

It was a beautiful beginning to the day. The waves were blue-green and gently rolling. The sky was clear and bright. As we prepped our dive kits and went through the dive briefing, everyone was relaxed, laughing, and enjoying the morning. Soon we were out on the water heading to Giants Castle Reef. As we neared the drop sight we spotted two Humpback whales very close to where the reef is located. This started the energy on the boat buzzing. After everyone kitted up and we went through the safety check, we counted down 3-2-1 and were in the water. Once at depth, I was surprised to see that the visibility was close to 20 meters. Recently the visibility had been about half this good so it was a pleasant surprise. Everyone signaled that all was okay and we started exploring the reef. The current was mild and traveling in the same direction as we were so allowed for a nice drift style dive.

Almost ten minutes into our bottom time, I looked up and nearly jumped out of my suit when I recognized the Bowmouth Guitar Shark that was swimming towards me! I had been wanting to see one for the past six weeks I had been diving here but this was the first one I actually spotted. He swam past and started to turn away and leave, but I remained patient and did not chase after him. That is when he turned and swam back past me, allowing for a perfect picture. Watching him swim off into the blue felt very peaceful. I was so happy that I had finally seen a Guitar Shark that I was squirming while I swam! Being one of my last diving days, I couldn't believe my luck.

Less than two minutes later, the second surprise came swimming over the reef. It was the Smalleye Stingray, the largest of the stingrays and one of the most rare! I could not believe my eyes! To see both of these wonderful creatures withing minutes of each other was more than I could have ever imagined. As I was taking pictures of it swimming past, I was in awe.

You could sense everyones excitement as we ended the dive a few minutes later. As we started to ascend in the water column, we watched a huge school of Kingfish in a whirlpool type formation. It was beautiful to see them moving in unison and incredible to see such a large number of fish all together.

Soon we reached our safety stop and paused for the three minute interval. About half way through, I looked up to see a friend moving forward to take a picture of something behind me. I turned to see a large pod of Bottlenose dolphins swimming past! My camera had fallen asleep so I struggled to get it working before they disappeared into the blue. Then I continued to turn in the water and looked down. I couldn't help but recoiled when I realized that there were two Humpback whales swimming just behind this pod of dolphins! But then I looked down and realized that there were two more whales just underneath my fins! It is an incredible feeling to see these animals while you yourself are submerged into their own environment. Words cannot express.

Bowmouth Guitar Shark

Smalleyed Stingray

Shadows of Bottlenose dolphins

Humpback whale!

More whales!!

Looking just a tad bit excited!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

When "work" becomes "fun"!

Manta rays spend a significant amount of their day around reefs visiting the cleaning stations. These special areas of the reef are quite unique because it is the one place where larger predatory species come to be groomed by their small prey species. It is important that the larger fish come here to have parasites removed and wounds cleaned to prevent infection. The manta rays here in southern Mozambique have been known to spend as much as eight hours a day on around the cleaning stations. This is useful information not only to researchers but also to divers who are interested in viewing a manta ray from underwater. If you want to improve your chances, visit a cleaning station and patiently wait to see if a manta is swimming nearby.

The project that I am developing with MMF includes testing a new method of collecting DNA information from the manta rays. We have adapted a biopsy probe to collect mucus samples and then are preserving the mucus and will be taking it back to the lab for further analysis and comparison to the currently utilized tissue samples. This is really exciting for me because it not only puts me in the water with mantas but also has a laboratory component of research waiting for me when I return home.

It sounds simple doesn't it: “We're just going to dive down to 25 meters, collect a sample from the manta ray, and call it a day!”. But in reality, the logistics of this project is quite difficult to pull off. And the manta rays are not always accommodating to time their reef visit to correspond with your dive. But we have enjoyed some wonderful successes and the difficulty makes me appreciate the samples all the more! 

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

All in a day's work

About two weeks before I arrived in Mozambique, the local fishermen in Tofo had received a fishing boat as part of a governmental incentive to assist fishers along the coast. This boat is larger and has an outboard motor which is a significant improvement from the row boats they are accustomed to using for their daily trips onto the ocean. Despite the good intentions of this gesture, the Marine Mega-fauna Foundation witnessed some disturbing results. The boat is outfitted with large gill nets designed for offshore use. The first day that the boat was taken out, researchers here at the foundation were disappointed to watch the fishers bringing in a large number of mobular rays, sharks, and a variety of reef fish. All indications that the fishers had been fishing on the near-shore reef systems instead of taking the nets out into deep water where they could catch large pelagic fish. MMF was key in an effort to beach this boat and prevent further destructive fishing practices from occurring until governmental officials could decide upon the best way to proceed. Since then the government has been hosting a series of meetings to try and come to an agreement between the government officials and fishermen. The result was that the government has now sold the boat to the fishers for their continued use under the restriction that they do not use the gill net but only fish with hand lines. Over the weekend, the boat was once again taken out to sea but the restriction was ignored and gill nets were once again deployed. Several researchers at MMF were waiting on the beach when they returned to count the catch which consisted of two sharks, seventeen mobular rays, and a variety of reef fish.

It was a memorable experience for me as I tried to obtain high quality photographs of what was occurring while trying to avoid conflict with the fishermen themselves. There were two specific individuals who were not pleased with the presence of photographers and confronted us many times over the hour and a half that we were on the beach. As I stood there, I had mixed feelings about the situation unfolding before me. It is an extremely destructive practice and, if it continues, could collapse the delicate system here in the waters around Tofo. However, these fishermen are simply trying to make a living. They do not have the right kind of education to understand the way that the ocean ecosystem functions and are only concerned with trying to feed their families. Seventeen rays and two sharks lying dead on the beach is very sad and is bad for the local populations of those species. But when I think of the large industrial trawlers out in the ocean bringing up thousands of sharks in a single day, I know that the practices of these fishers is only a small part of a much larger problem.

Somethings you know exist, but you can't quite understand or appreciate it till you see it for yourself. It is like someone trying to explain the sound of a symphony to you. You can understand what they are talking about and, perhaps, have some reference to compare it to, but until you've heard it for yourself you can never fully comprehend the beauty and awe that it evokes. I felt my heart start to race when I watched a fishermen pull one of the sharks away from the boat, grasp the dorsal fin in one hand, and slice the fin away from the body with a knife. Shark finning happening before my very eyes. Something that I've read about, learned statistics, given presentations to educate others, but now I've seen it in person. I know its real. And I have the pictures to prove it.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Magic moments

 Sometimes an ordinary day turns extraordinary in a moment. While on our way out to the dive site on the Marine Research boat, we spotted a Humpback whale heading in the same direction. After a few minutes of trying to carefully work our way closer, we were surprised when it surfaced right next to the boat! Excitement gave way into slight concern as the large marine mammal circled within an arms reach. Dr. Marshall, our skipper, decided to give the animal a little distance in the case that it had felt threatened by our approach. We carefully moved a short distance away only to find that the whale was quickly following in our wake! The next ten minutes were purely spectacular as the whale once again began to circle the boat, making displays, and spinning as if it was wanting to dance with us. The four researchers on the boat, most of whom have extensive background with the marine environment, were in complete awe of this event. It was more spectacular and interactive than one could ever hope to experience.

His curiosity resulted in the nickname Nosy Parker

Photo by Dr. Andrea Marshall

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Gentle giants

At first you can't really believe your eyes. You squint as you begin to see a shape emerging out of the blue and you hold your breath for a moment as it slowly moves closer. But then you can see the entire outline, it is a manta ray! And this one is special, it is a leucistic male Manta birostris. Commonly named the Giant Manta, M. birostris is the largest of the rays and has a unique color pattern making it easy to differentiate between the Giant Mantas and their cousins the Reef Mantas (M. alfredi). However, the unusually pure white face of this manta reveals that it must be leucistic, a condition in which normal pigmentation is reduced or completely absent.

For years the world believed that there was only one species of manta ray. But in 2009, Dr. Andrea Marshall made a discovery that there existed at least two distinct species, and since then has been one of the leading experts in her field. It is easy to confuse one species with the other and required a sharp scientific eye to notice several key features which led to the acceptance of the species separation. Adult Giant Mantas are up to several meters larger than the Reef Mantas. Giants also have a more pronounced coloration on their dorsal (back) surface as well as have a black face, where the Reef Mantas have a white face. When considering spot patterns, utilized in individual identification because each manta has a unique pattern, the Giants have a more localized pattern while the Reef Mantas can have spots in a much wider area on their ventral (belly) side. Giants also tend to prefer more offshore areas while the Reef Mantas, as their name suggests, stay in shallower waters. The thing that makes Southern Mozambique unique is that you can witness both the Giants and the Reef Mantas side by side.

But that is enough talking! Here are the photos:

Dr. Marshall about to get a genetic sample!

On our way back up the coast from this first dive, we also came across a whale shark! We spent a few minutes snorkeling with him but he was too deep to get a really nice photo. On the last dive of the day, I was excited when we came across a sea turtle!


Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Clownfish Reef!

My first dive in Mozambique was certainly exciting!

Although I have to admit, one of my favorite parts was the boat launch! Since Tofo does not have any concrete boat ramps, the dive boats must be launched from the beach directly into the waves. The boat is loaded with all of the equipment, towed down to the water line with a Land Rover and dropped off. Everyone who is going out then lined up along the sides of the boat to help maneuver it into the water. We had quite a big wave break right at the beach so it was a little bit of a mission to get going. It was also a good thing that I was holding on to the safety lines because at one point a wave knocked the boat back and swept me off my feet! Once we had gotten it started, all of the females were instructed to jump in and get seated while the guys continued to push the boat further out. Finally, we were far enough to start the engines running and make our way, bouncing along the waves, to the dive site.

Once in the water, we had a short descent and found ourselves on Clownfish Reef! Everywhere I looked there was marine life. It was outstanding! Feeling like I was quite literally in an aquarium, I didn't know which direction to look. The 42 minutes of bottom time went past very quickly and all too soon we were making our accent back to the surface. There, we formed a group and waited for the boat to pick us up. The sun was just starting to set over the horizon, affording a perfect photo opportunity!

Post dive smiles

Can you see me?

Its called "Clownfish Reef" for a reason!

Moorish Idol

Blue Starfish

Electric Ray

Waiting for pickup

Monday, June 4, 2012

Sand, Sun and Surfing Lessons.

If my first morning in Tofo, Mozambique is any indication of this trip – it is going to be a fantastic summer! The day started at 07:00 with a surfing lesson on the beach directly in front of Casa Barry Lodge (where the Marine Mega-Fauna Foundation is located, and where I am staying). Considering that I have never been on a surf board in my life, I was quite pleased at the end of the two hour session when I had already learned to stand and ride the waves! 

Bucket list item: Learn how to surf … check!

Having arrived in the afternoon on a Friday, my first few days in Mozambique were pretty relaxed as I settled in and became accustomed to the area and the people. The beaches are beautiful, the water is stunning, and the atmosphere is phenomenal. Warm enough to walk around in bare feet and short sleeves during the day, the evenings are cooling down as the southern hemisphere enters the winter season. The water temperature is warm compared to the chilly South African seas I swam in last year but still require a wet suit for any diving. 

Over the weekend there has been some weather moving through and it has prevented any diving on my first official "workday". But we are about to walk over to Peri-Peri Divers and get all of my dive equipment set up, meet the owners, and see how things are looking for the rest of the week.  Hopefully I will be in the water soon and able to share some good photos! In the mean time, here are a few from around the lodge:

MMF Office!

Steps down to the beach from Casa Barry Restaurant

Tofo Beach

You can find beauty everywhere you look!

All smiles!