After more than a year of planning, we finally arrived at our first volunteering experience – Underwater Africa, a marine research and conservation program in Paria de Tofo, Mozambique. As we explored options for volunteering during our 10 months in Africa, I had come across this program which combines scuba diving with marine research and local conservation efforts. Although we are not die-hard diving folks, Colburn and I really do enjoy scuba diving. The kids had a taste of it when we were in Thailand several years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. Mac’s response at the time (he was nine years old) was that he had, “found what he wanted to do with his life!”
Because of his age at the time, he was limited to only two meters depth, but was very comfortable under water and had a keen eye for spotting wildlife. We thought if he loved it that much at two meters, his head might explode when he was able to go deeper and see more creatures. Lucia was also excited about the possibility of spending more time underwater, so once they both were old enough to became Junior Open Water certified, they did their course in Lake Tahoe late this spring and loved it despite the dearth of life in the lake.
Unlike many volunteer programs which exist almost exclusively for the participant’s benefit, Underwater Africa started as a collaboration between Casa Berry Lodge and Dr. Andrea Marshall. As the first person to complete a PhD in manta ray research, Dr. Marshall started her career in Tofo before going on to found the Marine Megafauna Foundation (MMF). The research programs have since grown and expanded to the point of becoming their own independent entities but Underwater Africa continues to accept citizen scientists with a new lead scientist in order to continue the data collection and conservation efforts as well as supporting ongoing research. We thought that this would be a great way for the kids to learn not only about marine science while enjoying one of our favorite pastimes but also about the challenges of data collection, conservation efforts, and the local community. A few Skype calls with both the volunteer and science coordinators left us feeling confident that it would be a good experience for us all. With our time here completed, the experience has exceeded expectations.
There is a rhythm to each day and week that is simultaneously exciting and reassuring. Mornings start early at 0630 with a simple breakfast in our chalet before making the 10 minute walk to be at the dive center by 0730. The chalet is wonderful: a good sized two bedroom reed house with a partial view of the bay. It has a small yet very functional kitchen and fridge as well as a great front porch that easily fits two hammocks – just perfect for a family of four.
Once at the dive center, we get briefed on the day’s dive, don our wet suits and head down to the boats for the first excitement – launching from the sand beach. A tractor pushes the boat as far out in to the surf as it can before the divers and staff have to haul it the remaining distance until it is deep enough to start the engines. The difficulty of the launch varies by both the tides and the weather – some days are very smooth and coordinated, others are more challenging – but it is always an adventure! The water inside the bay tends to be quite choppy so the boat lurches and hurls a fair bit, but things typically settle out some once beyond the mouth of the bay. The dive sites are a 15 to 30 minute journey away. During our rides out and back, we use a GPS system to track any spottings of whales, dolphins, turtles, mantas, whale sharks or other megafauna. If any wildlife, especially whale sharks, is spotted and it is appropriate to do so, we can get in to snorkel along side of them. This has happened on several occasions but not always. The anticipation is our second great excitement of the day.
The dives themselves are the third excitement of the day. Each site has its own unique draws – beautiful landscapes, schooling fish, and whale songs at Marble Arch, three for three sightings of mantas at Giant’s Castle with one of the encounters lasting for at least 20 minutes, the variety of life at Rob’s Bottom, etc. Each dive also comes with its own challenges too – difficulty entries, strong currents, and changing visibility cannot be determined until actually at the site – but there is an excitement of not knowing what the dive will hold. Unlike many of the other locations we have dived, it is standard to have two dive instructors/masters on each dive. As a parent with two kids in the water, this lends a sense of security and comfort knowing that there are trained professionals both in front of and behind us keeping an eye on everyone! Because most of our dives are deep, we are limited to around 20-30 minutes of bottom time before heading back to shore and landing, the fourth great excitement of the day.
Landing in Tofo is probably the biggest adventure of the day as the boat must run full speed up on to the beach in order to avoid being toppled by the surf. Imagine gunning two 115 horse power outboard engines at full speed for several hundred meters while simultaneously attempting to time the landing to take advantage of the extra depth of the waves in order to get maximum distance before having to raise the engines so they don’t get stuck in the sand! There is definitely an art form for the skippers. Most landings go quite smoothly, if a little nerve wracking. Unfortunately for us, our first landing was not at all smooth – in fact it was quite traumatizing. The high spring tides had produced a foot high vertical rim around the bay. We were landing at high tide, yet despite having one of the most experienced skippers, we hit the sand rim at nearly full speed. Hanging on to grab lines and having our feet firmly in the foot straps, we were all (including the dive staff and skipper) thrown to the floor and moderately traumatized. It was a one-off event, but did cloud our perception of landing for quite a while.
After cleaning up the dive equipment and reviewing the dive, we head back to our chalet for a shower then meet other volunteers at the restaurant around 1100 for the first substantial meal of the day and data entry. There have been three to four other volunteers with us during our stay. They vary in age from late teens to near my age and come from different backgrounds – two gap year students from Australia (not a couple, just coincidence that they are both Australian), a dive instructor from Northern Ireland who is getting her master’s in marine science, a Swiss/Icelandic couple traveling who came just to see what the program was about, an English woman who loves documentaries and wanted to live the dream of swimming with mantas, etc. Each person has a different story but all are interesting and we have become a bit of extended family during our stay here.
Afternoon activities vary by the day but have included helping dig a tilapia farm for a local community, observing a community meeting with a consortium of fisherman who are considering making one of their fishing areas a marine protected area, spending an afternoon at a local village learning how to prepare some of the staple foods, creating and translating lecture presentations for the local conservation police, developing a curriculum to teach adults how to swim (for the local conservation police), performing and doing data analysis of transects and dive logs, etc. Since our main focus for being here was science for the kids, they were given a specific question to answer (“do the species sets observed differ between the northern and southern reefs?”) from the director of science. He has guided them through the process, not only how to use the data, but also how to construct the reports so that they can be used in future grant applications, reports, and other documents.
By the end of the day we are all quite tired, not only from the excitement of the morning activities, but also from the mental effort of the afternoons. I really thought that we would have time to focus on getting a bit of math done every day, working on some video editing from Madagascar that I wanted to do, and planning our next stage. But, this has not proved possible as after dinner at the restaurant, we are typically in bed by 2100 and all fall asleep immediately. We try to recover on the weekends, but there are surf lessons, runs to town for both treats and necessities, dinners out, paying bills and other general life activities which need to be accomplished.
This weekend we decided to take a PADI Rescue Diver Course as a family so just finished five hours in the pool practicing rescue skills after a full day of watching videos and a second morning spent doing content reviews. We are beat and incredibly tired after the busy weekend yet will be up at 0630 tomorrow in order to begin another week. Tomorrow morning we retrieve a camera trap that was placed last week and will spend the next two afternoons reviewing and entering data for what was observed on the camera traps. Later in the week we will do another community visit and work on marking some other protected areas. The work is never completed so there is always something to do, no matter how tired you are. It is a feeling of being both useful and well-utilized simultaneously. At this point in my life, that is a good feeling.
One question many people ask us is, “would you do this again?” The answer is an unequivocal, “yes!” We have not only accomplished our educational goals for the kids but also experienced the community in a way not typically available to tourists (for example, being taught how to use a machete to open and grate a coconut and how to roast cashew nuts over an open fire and shell them only to be out-shelled by a three year old), met some amazing people, saw amazing sights (including watching a manta at a cleaning station, seeing migrating a mother/calf pair of humpback whales, and swimming with a whale shark all on one dive!), had a momma cat and her two newborn kittens adopt us and experienced the sensation of part of something larger than ourselves.