In the Midst of Mozambique’s Killers  cover

In the Midst of Mozambique’s Killers

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Over the past few years I’ve been lucky enough to travel the world, documenting its best scuba diving destinations. I’ve dived with manta rays in Madagascar, cow sharks off Cape Town, and dolphins, humpback whales and their calves in Zanzibar. But when I’m asked about my most memorable underwater experience, there is one moment that stands head and shoulders above any others.





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In the Midst of Mozambique’s Killers

A Thrilling World

‘Breathing underwater isn’t natural,’ people often say when I tell them I’m a scuba diver, who photographs and writes about for a living.

Diving’s not everyone’s cup of tea. After all, humans aren’t built to be below the sea. If we were, we’d have fins and gills, and wouldn’t have to wear plastic feet and tanks. The sea is an alien environment full of knowns, unknowns, and not-sure-I-want-to-knows. There are gelatinous objects that sting, schools of toothy predators, mammals larger than buses and giant ‘flying birds’. Along with crazy-looking creatures, the ocean is unpredictable, murky, and makes people seasick.

No wonder it’s hard to understand the appeal. Yet the marine world, although unfamiliar and occasionally frightening, can also be thrilling.

The View From Above

The View From Above

Over the past few years I’ve been lucky enough to travel the world, documenting its best scuba diving destinations. I’ve dived with manta rays in Madagascar, cow sharks off Cape Town, and dolphins, humpback whales and their calves in Zanzibar. But when I’m asked about my most memorable underwater experience, there is one moment that stands head and shoulders above any others.

Some Like it Hot

I was in Tofo, a small town in the Inhambane province in southeastern Mozambique, making a documentary about shark finning, the practice of cutting off shark fins for food or medicine, then dumping the sharks’ bodies back into the sea.

This former fishing village is a convenient two-hour flight from Johannesburg, South Africa, and is one of Mozambique’s most popular tourist destinations. Everything here is hot: the weather, the people, the chilli-laced food and, most of all, the diving, which is lip-smackingly spicy.

Diving Designations

Mozambique has one of the world’s largest year-round populations of whale sharks and manta rays, and is home to dolphins, humpback whales, devil rays, large schools of game fish and a remarkable array of macro life.

The diving here can be hardcore, with rough seas and varying visibility but, when the conditions are good, there’s nowhere else like it. The beach from where we launched our boat was nothing remarkable.

The houses on its dunes were concrete boxes, rather than the lavish stilted bungalows you see in tourism brochures, and its shores, instead of being caressed by velvety waters, were lashed nightly by hostile seas. It looked far from idyllic. But below the surface, it was a different story: this is one of the most spectacular diving destinations on Earth.

Teeming with Life

It was an uncomfortably sticky day.

The scene from the beach was unusual: the sea was unnervingly flat … there was barely a ripple. We launched the boat effortlessly and it caressed through puny waves. Within minutes, we were surrounded by a pod of dolphins that were unusually playful. There were devil rays everywhere, tossing themselves out of the water like alien pancakes.

The sea was in a mischievous mood and was teeming with life. Everyone on our boat ‘ooed’ with happiness. Not a bad place this Tofo, I thought.

Killer Whales

Then we saw a commotion in the sea.

A huge flock of birds circled overhead, looking curious and apparently waiting for something. And fins – there were fins everywhere. Dolphins? Too big, too frenetic. Whale sharks? Too pointy, too black. As we got closer, we realized we were encroaching on a pod of around 10 killer whales – orcas – which had clearly just caught something large.

Chunks of flesh floated in the sea as the orcas feasted on what looked like a baby humpback whale. I’d always thought that killer whales would be the one marine animal I’d think twice about swimming with. They’re carnivorous, smart, fast, and they hunt in packs.

Although never known to kill humans in the wild – perhaps because most people get straight out of the water as soon as they see them – orcas have killed people in captivity, as shown in the documentary Blackfish. Orcas regularly hunt large mammals such as other whales and seals and, as we know, a snorkelling human looks a lot like a delicious seal, only a lot less agile.

Into the Water

I never actually imagined I’d have an option to swim with killer whales.

They are rarely seen in Mozambique – once every couple of years at most – and they usually disappear as quickly as they arrive. As far as I knew, no one had ever been in the water with them locally. So would I snorkel with them in a feeding frenzy? Not on your nelly. But adrenaline does funny things to you.

The desire to get in the water was overwhelming. I knew it was unlikely I’d get an opportunity like this again. I hurriedly put on my snorkeling equipment as if I was possessed, and prepared to get into the water with Dave Levac, an instructor from local dive centre Peri Peri Divers, and Helen Mitchell, a researcher from Marine Megafauna Foundation.

Under the Waves

Under the Waves

Dinner Guests

We slipped quietly into the water and snorkeled gingerly towards the stinky buffet; the ocean was thick with offal and flesh.

We could make out large black and white objects all around us, as fins disappeared beneath the surface. And then came shouts from the boat: ‘Sharks, to your left! More, right! Lots of them!’ We were being hounded by bull sharks who were joining the feast. They were in hunting mode, with their fins tucked into their sides, and they darted around us aggressively (bull sharks have the highest levels of testosterone of any living animal).

As they rushed towards us from the deep, we had to push our cameras at their snouts to keep them at bay, and kicked them away with our fins. The killer whales continued to gorge themselves on the calf, oblivious to the fact that we were fending off sharks right beside them; they weren’t interested in us.

Other Faces

Other Faces

Never Forgotten

Never Forgotten

When we’d seen enough, we retreated hastily back onto the boat, elated, exhausted, and with a great story to tell the grandchildren. We went diving later in the day, but the dives were a heady blur.

I remember seeing a breaching giant manta ray, a whale shark and more devil rays. As we surfaced from our final dive, we saw the tail fin of a humpback whale slap the water, just a stone’s throw away from us. Was this the heartbroken mother of the calf that had been killed, off to continue her migration without the baby she had nurtured in her belly and travelled so far with? It’s an unforgiving place, the sea.

Yet it produces moments that will stay with us forever.

Sidetracked

Images by Aaron Gekoski