SCUBA diving Mozambique: An Adventure Diving the Wild Frontier of Tofo Beach
SCUBA Diving Mozambique is Great For:
*adventurous divers wanting something off the beaten track
*big megafauna – humpback whales, whales sharks and mantas
*healthy fish populations
*possibly the best white sand beaches in the world
SCUBA Diving Mozambique is Not Great For:
*divers looking to be coddled
*divers not wanting physical dives
*hard coral reefs
*highly developed infrastructure or nightlife
We were headed over to Africa and had heard about the diving in Mozambique for quite some time. The timing wasn’t right for the zenith of all divers’ wish lists, the Sardine Run, which turned out to be a blessing as the Sardine Run of 2011 was basically a bust.
But we had been invited to visit friends in Maputo, Mozambique and as we began researching the area we found Tofo Beach. Two of our Dive Master friends had recently worked there and raved about it, calling it their favorite diving in the world. Not well known in the US market, Tofo Beach is a very laid back beach town, an eight hour drive north of the nation’s capital with some very interesting surprises!
In order to get a full assessment of the area, we set up different types of accommodations and arranged to dive with three different dive operators. Most divers fly into the nearby town of Imhambane just a short drive from Tofo but we opted to drive to get a better look at coastal East Africa.
Mozambique is quite a different animal from it’s neighbors of South Africa and Tanzania. Just after realizing its independence from Portugal in 1975 it plunged into civil war from 1977-1992 leaving the country in vast disarray. Driving up the coast it is easy to see that it remains one of the least developed countries in the world. We passed village after village of reed huts with dirt floors, no electricity or running water. Thousands of children walked the road back and forth to school and the small cities we passed through were flooded with people in the markets selling anything they could to make ends meet. Women and children walk with oversized plastic containers balanced on their heads coming home from the local well. Along the way, roadside stands sold an array of goods but seemed to specialize in two things, cashews and hot sauce. The cashews are picked and roasted by hand and packaged in plastic bags which are then tied to the trees. It’s easy to spot these “plastic bag” trees from hundreds of yards away. And with a price of 200 Meticals ($8) for a huge bag, they were impossible to resist! The hot sauce, called Peri Peri varies from household to household but all are made with the bird’s eye pepper, tomatoes, garlic and who knows what else… all I know is that it’s HOT HOT HOT. It can be found at hundreds of stands along the way bottled in whatever empty bottles the family has. Don’t worry, any contamination is sure to be killed by the spice!
The highways, however, were in good repair all the way to Imhambane (courtesy of Chinese investment in exchange for commercial fishing rights. That in itself is another story!). Though you couldn’t see the coastline for much of the drive, gorgeous white sand beaches and dunes hug the shoreline for hundreds of miles. Mozambique may be the most beach rich country in the world. From Inhambane, it takes about 30 minutes into Tofo and we arrived just after dark with no reservations for the first night. We decided to check out the “backpackers” lodge and checked in to the only remaining room at Bamboozi Beach Lodge. The parent company, Barra Resorts, owns a few different levels of accommodation in the area and Bamboozi is at the bottom. We were given a bamboo “chalet” which was quite spacious with a double and two single beds. Many travelers in Africa like “self catering” style accommodations which means they have kitchen facilities and many sleep four, six or eight people so a group or family will rent larger units. While we were expecting “backpacker” level we didn’t expect dirty. Our water came out brown and it never drained from the shower. The mosquito netting over the bed had holes and we were both completely eaten alive that night. We went to the restaurant where we were served pretty good food on very dirty tablecloths. I tried hard not to think of what the kitchen looked like! While food in Mozambique is plenty expensive (due to corruption and the fact that it is all imported) hotel accommodations are reasonable. Our dinner (one appetizer and one chicken main plus three beers ran about $40). They were “out” of wine. The hotel ran $60. We left our small flashlight in the room when we checked out and when we returned the next morning to get it, it was gone and was never turned in to lost and found. The room had been cleaned but no one else had checked into the room.
SCUBA DIVING MOZAMBIQUE
In the morning we were excited to get to the diving. The Tofo Beach area is mainly known for big and abundant megafauna including , humpback whales, manta rays and whale sharks… what a combo!!! We set out for Tofo Scuba just a few minute drive up the beach. We were greeted by Joan, the manager, as Nikki, the owner was out of town for a wedding. Joan had been fully briefed on our impending arrival and went about getting us set to dive. As the domestic airlines LAM, had “misplaced” all of our luggage en route from Kilimanjaro to Maputo, we arrived without any of our dive gear. The staff at Tofo Scuba went over the top helping to outfit us and some of the Dive Masters lent us their personal gear.
The shop has a great area for “kitting up” and a small pool for teaching. The front side of the building sits on an incredibly gorgeous stretch of beach. Chaise lounges, picnic tables and a small restaurant serving a hearty pre dive breakfast and lunch complete the picture. The only part of this laid back dive shop that didn’t meet my expectations was the locker room which was a bit dank and dark. However, the never ending hot water showers were luxurious!
At Tofo Scuba the majority of the Dive Masters were expats mostly from S. Africa. They were all young and fun and upbeat. They gave thorough dive briefings and knew the dive sites well. Considering that none of them were probably over age 25, they had a good level of experience. Matt and Nick were our main DMs for the three days we dived with Tofo Scuba.
The process of diving at Tofo Beach is quite unique and not for the pampered diver! There are no jetties to tie up the dive boats and often there is a large swell pounding the beach. So the completely rusted out Land Cruiser (what else would you expect in Africa!) hauls the eight meter RIB on the trailer to the long flat beach. Then they throw it in reverse and floor it towards the water. Then just when you think the Land Cruiser is going to turn submarine, they jam it into forward gear and the boat comes flying off the trailer! The divers all run over to the boat and together we push and pull and turn it around to face the waves.
Once the boat is floating they yell, “ladies up!” and all the girls clammer into the boat. Then once the boat is in shoulder deep water the men jump in and we pound our way through the surf. One day the surf was so big, a wave smashed out the plexiglass windshield!
Off to the dive site we go. All of the deep sites 60-100ft are about a 30-45 minute boat ride away, the shallow sites only 5-15. On the way, the boats always keep a look out for whale sharks. At first we thought, right, what are the chances but then soon enough the cry came, “whale shark!”. The boat stopped and we all grabbed for masks, fins and cameras and jumped overboard. The Tofo Beach area, it turns out is one of the largest areas for whale sharks in the world. 20% of all identified whale sharks worldwide have been identified in this small stretch of coastline (300 out of 1000). Enough so that a manta and whale shark research station is set up here with a small staff working hard to protect these incredible animals.
BEST TIME TO DIVE TOFO
Sometimes it can be difficult to find out the truth of when is the “best” time to dive an area. Most dive operator websites say, “year around” is best. We were told that October was a great time of the year, though it was at the end of the humpback season. Turned out we saw just a couple humpbacks but missed most of them by about two weeks. It was said it was a banner year for the whales who breach incredibly close to shore and many divers have had the chance to see them underwater. But we knew that mantas and whale sharks would be our main attraction. However, what we weren’t prepared for were the total “unusual” conditions we found. The water, which is normally about 26c (78.8F) this time of year varied from 20c (68F) to a mind chilling 16(60.8F). Since I am normally cold in a 7mm in 85 degree water, you can imagine my shock in a rented 5mm in 60! Not only that but because of the upwelling associated with the unusual wind direction the normally clear water was very green and fairly dark with a range of 20’ to 30’ visibility. I didn’t even to rig my video the whole week.
Over the next five days neither the temperature nor the visibility improved. However, it was GREAT for whale sharks. We had plenty of opportunity to freeze our butts off chasing whale sharks and watching them turn vertical and suck in the plankton soup. The mantas were also there and probably in more of a force then we could see, we simply had to imagine that behind the two or three we saw on each dive, there were more following. Given the number we saw splashing and leaping on the surface, this was undoubtedly true.
What we saw at Tofo was great POTENTIAL. When the water is clear and warmer, which probably occurred the day after we left (smile) it would be fantastic. Tofo has some beautiful, Fiji like soft corals (dendronepthya) – which took us by surprise – and very abundant fish populations including large groupers on almost every reef. . Interestingly, the red toothed triggerfish is the staple of the reef. Tofo is not known for lush reefs. To find the lush reefs you would need to head further north to the Bazaruto. There you will find nice lush reefs but a lack of megafauna. It would be a nice combo trip.
BUT PERI PERI DIVERS WASN’T EVEN IN BUSINESS
We had arranged two days of diving with Tofo Scuba and then our next stop was to dive with Peri Peri Divers, a relative newcomer to the scene. All I had read about it had been great! However, when we arrived, even after the owner had told us to come on down and dive, we were told, “They are not currently doing business”. That would have been good information to have been given by the dive shop! So we returned to Tofo Scuba who were more than happy to have us back diving with them again. The day before we left we caught up with one of the employees of Peri Peri who informed us that the other dive shops were trying to run them out of business and they were now having problems because the other dive shops paid off someone in the government to shut them down. At this point, we don’t know the truth but the claim seemed far fetched to us.
NEXT STOP DIVERSITY SCUBA
After our now three days with Tofo Scuba, we went around the corner to dive with Diversity Scuba. They were also warm and welcoming and again, lent us whatever gear we needed and again, some of the DMs lent us their private gear including computers. Diversity Scuba is not on the beach like Tofo but just a block away. They have a new, clean facility as well as a teaching pool. They have a cool upstairs deck where the dive briefings are held in cozy chairs. They have a small bar but no restaurant. That’s okay however, because one of the beach’s best restaurants, Waterworks, is right next door. We found that Diversity and Tofo both were safe and well run dive operators and I would gladly dive with either of them again. Diversity owns and operates a hotel on the beach which is undergoing a huge renovation and Sergi, the owner, promised us photos of the new place in the next four months! I did feel that one of the Dive Masters we were with was definitely not as experienced and a couple of times he appeared lost on the dive. He had broken his dive computer and was diving on the deep reefs without one, swimming over to his other DM to check for time and depth. However, one thing you can never bank on is for Dive Masters to be there when you get back. Like every other diver on the planet, they too want to dive the world.
If you have a chance, you can also take an Ocean Safari. At Diversity Scuba, they offer the opportunity to go out with a biologist to look for whales, dolphin and whale sharks. Any chance encounter, they stop the boat and you can get in with them. The biologist does an informative talk at the shop before you go. Then you help out by identifying each whale shark’s sex and size and if you can take identification photos. It’s definitely worth spending an afternoon doing.
THE ACCOMMODATIONS IN MOZAMBIQUE
After our stay at Bamboozi Lodge, we stayed next at Casa Barry. Casa Barry is advertised as the most upscale lodge on Tofo Beach. Yes, it is more upscale than the backpacker’s lodges but we were still in a bamboo room with cement floor and a basic bed back off the beach. There are a few larger A-frame units right on the beach which were definitely nicer than our back of the house casita. The hotel has a nice beachside restaurant which is probably the most expensive in the area and a very nice bar. One of the great things about Casa Barry is that they have given free space to house the manta and whale shark research station. Three nights a week there are talks. On Mondays, Dr. Andrea Marshall (star of the BBC documentary, Andrea – Queen of the Mantas) who started it all here at Tofo speaks. Unfortunately, on our Monday, she had missed her flight as she was returning from another part of Africa so we never heard her speak. On Wednesday, Dr. Simon Pierce speaks on his research of whale sharks. He is funny, interesting, poignant and a must see. On Friday is a general talk on the ecology of the area by one of the PHD students. It’s a nice touch and a great way to learn about what’s going on in Tofo.
After three nights at Casa Barry we moved on. We were still searching for THE truly upscale hotel in the area. We spent one entire rainy afternoon searching out areas nearby Tofo. We went and looked at Barra Resort’s other lodges, Flamingo Bay and Barra Resort. Flamingo Bay is nice with overwater casitas with air conditioning, something we often did not find in Tofo. However, during our inspection the pool was a horrible green and the tide was out exposing the mud flats. Our preference was something more on the beach. Barra Lodge is a family resort and if you are not into the family thing, I would steer clear. Otherwise, it is on a nice stretch of beach.
But then we came across Barra Beach Club. We pulled in and as we walked in our eyes lit up. In front of us was a gorgeous dining room with white linen, high end wine stems and a true European flair! We excitedly asked for a tour. The eight rooms and one “honeymoon cottage” gave it a distinctly boutique feel. The beds were soft with high quality linens. The pool area was beautiful and well kept. At the beach was an upscale beach bar with another beautiful swimming pool. We arranged to stay the night. When you book here, room, dinner and breakfast are included at a very reasonable price of about $250. However, if you have dinner a la carte as we did, it was over $100 just for the meal.
The manager, Evan, has big plans for the hotel. Currently, they work in tandem with Tofo Scuba though it is about a 30 minute drive to the dive shop. He plans more boutique rooms in separate buildings and a huge dive facility. It will be interesting to see if they can execute on these grand plans. Meanwhile, we feel that this will be a place that an upscale market will appreciate.
Our final night was at a wonderful B&B called Baia Sonumbula, run by a gem of an Italian woman named Laura. The B&B is small with just five rooms. It sits just on the beach next door to Casa Barry. The two rooms inside the main building have a large bed with plenty of storage and large bathrooms. They do not have any views and are in the back of the house. However, the three remaining rooms are fantastic. They have sliding doors that completely open up the rooms with sea views. They are decorated with low platform beds, Asian style with raised basins in the large bathroom and open showers. They have A/C and we used it to keep out the mosquitos which can be an issue at sunrise and sunset if you don’t have a breeze. . It was heaven to open the doors in the morning to watch and listen to the waves roll in and the breeze float into the room. Above the rooms is a sun deck and a covered area with a dining table where made to order breakfast is served each morning. It’s truly a place where you know you will make friends and a place you will want to come back to.
OVERALL IMPRESSIONS OF TOFO BEACH
Tofo Beach grows on you. My very first impression was that it was a little dumpy with sand streets and some run down backpacker hotels. But within a day, I was starting to feel at home. At every turn, we would meet someone we had already met. We sampled most of the few restaurants and kept meeting more and more people. By the fifth day I think we knew everyone! One night, Waterworks put on a steak night. For only about $10/pp we had fabulous steaks on the grill, spicy potatoes and salad. Our Dive Master, Nick, from Tofo Scuba was the main entertainment and he showed incredible talent on the guitar. Everyone showed up, from the Dive Masters to the owners of the shops to guests we had met from the hotels, other divers and even the two gals who run the only up-end deli in town. There were probably 75 people there that night and we must have know 80% of them.
We will return to Tofo Beach at some point to have that hometown feeling in a little funky beach town in the middle of struggling Mozambique. We’ll return to all the restaurants and dive with both Tofo Scuba and Diversity. But we will call in advance and make sure there aren’t any unusual conditions because we want to see more than the just the potential for great diving. We want to see reefs packed with fish, mantas, whale sharks and the humpbacks in all their glory.
And, there is no denying the grand scale of Mozambique’s amazing beaches – something only the South Africans seem to really know about. But now, you do too.
FINS UP FOR:
•Amazing Whale Shark Encounters
FINS DOWN FOR:
•Peri Peri Divers
•Bamboozi Beach Lodge
•Unusually Crappy Conditions
TO YOUR DIVE ADVENTURES!