Sunday, November 16, 2008

Baia Dos Cocos

A wide bay fringed by palm tree forest and sizeable dunes, pummelled by the Indian Ocean. Within its curvature a veritable theatre of wildlife plays out its show. The greatest variety of show-stopping sea creatures I've ever encounteredAt the crack of dawn a packed chapas to Inhambane, buying peanut butter and pineapples at the local market and then squeezing into all parts of Ian's 4x4 and driving out of town and along dirt roads to our destination - Baia dos Cocos (Coconut Bay).

Ian was born in Blighty, moved out to South Africa as a younger man and now in his fifties is living the dream with his oh so zany wife, Kay, who has also followed the path from the little island up north. Together they set up Centro de Mergulho, my favourite dive shop (contact details to be inserted once I find them). Sheltered behind the dunes, surrounded by palms and protected by the cutest couple of rottweiler's (not a joke, even Dingo was comfortable with them and dog's haunt his nightmares - one of them is even called "Potato").

From the first time we came over the lip of the hill and beheld the bay, we knew the place was special. Not a soul could be seen on this vast expanse of shimmering sand. And then on the horizon…….breach….splash….a humpback whale launched itself into the sky. Gob smacked.
A first dive down on Kingfisher reef. A huge variety of fish. Colossal honey-combed morays, giant wrasse and potato cod. A swim-through some 30m down blocked by a lionfish. Out of nowhere a manta ray glided past. The first I had ever beheld, barely a glimpse before it flew off into the gloom. Some background

Divers like everyone else have "must do before I die's". The one of these you hear most often is to see a whale shark. The biggest fish in the sea. A giant shark that skims the surface of the open ocean for small specimen and can grow up to 12m (40ft) long. This strip of Mozambiquan coast is one of the best places in the world to see these creatures and I was darned if I was going to leave without coming up close to one of them.

Kay at the helm and Ian preparing his gear!

While we were on our first dive, the guys at the surface saw one….bugger…maybe next time…
Before we knew it, we (being Robbo, Ian, Kay, Paul, his wife, Ashari, Guy and me) were back in the big semi-inflatable shooting out from the shore and over some serious waves to the Mecca of Mozambiquan diving - Manta Reef. Discovered in the '60's, a manta ray cleaning station which is the ideal place to encounter these big ocean wanderers.

Serious rip currents and poor visibility impeded our dive, but we had plenty more time.
Afterwards the (to become) traditional removal of jelly tots from dodgy local spirits and then the long trip back up the coast to Tofu.

Dave and some jelly tots!

Day after Day

A day just for dives, others for ocean safaris. The David's came and joined, Esthi and Maria, the comedy Israelis and others.
Snorkelling with dolphins, cruising along with humpbacks, spotting (and nearly accidently jumping in with) a 3-4m tiger shark and watching devil rays summer-saulting out of the water.
Then more chilling on the beach, drinking with Ian and ……. and munching on whole pinapples and peanut butter and banana sandwiches.

On a particularly stormy day not seeing much, but getting kicks from riding 6ft crunching waves all the way into the beach. People slowly emerged bruised, battered and missing equipment, but vitally, apart from one of the Israelis and a mildly concussed Spaniard, with huge smiles on our faces.
Then the perfect dive. A return to Manta Reef, back-roll into a negative descent and drop right on top of a 5m plus giant manta ray. The best part of an hour floating in the cold underwater currents as 7 mantas glided all round us. Everywhere you looked were these astounding creatures, circling round and round the reef as tiny striped fish pecked them clean. Usually dispersed amongst the unimaginable expanse of the world's oceans, here they congregate and come so close you can tickle their underbellies.

Check this out....

We went back to the reef on another three days and each time I saw these other-worldy beings. Their accompaniment was not bead either, a huge variety of sea life including large showls of blue and yellow-fin tuna, numerous moray, pipe fish, rock fish, lion fish, numerous giant varieties of grouper and wee nuddibranches.


Kay and Ian, being as nice as they are, invited us to stay over on our final night. So we pitched up some tents, cracked open the brandy, beer and cigars (and whisky and gin and…) and played a particularly dangerous game of monopoly. Waking up in the morning with a slightly jaded cranium we prepared for our final day out in the bay. After a week of searching, this was our final chance to see a whale shark in the flesh. My fingers were firmly crossed as the sun came out heralding beneficial conditions.

Esthi getting pysched for the sharks

Back in the boat and bouncing over the waves. Eyes peeled. Searching for a fin…. a shadow…. a shape. Then, so close…. We met a group of divers who, though they tried to hide it (sneaky people paying more from Tofu), had obviously just encountered a whale shark, but look as we may it was gone. This just was not going to be our time.

But then, a shout, a fin. "Get ready!!". Fins and masks on and at the next shout straight into the water and after the dark shape that had emerged to our right. I kicked away from the boat and there it was in all it's glory –the biggest fish in the sea. A moment of utter elation, but then, before I could take any of it in, shock! Just below the whale shark was another fish, another shark. I pulled back and hesitated as my mind processed. Playing the moment back, what I saw was a roughly 1.5m grey coloured shark. This was dismissed as a type of scavenger fish that often follow whale sharks, until I saw one of those on the last dive and was almost certain of the distinction. The most likely candidate is a black tip reef shark. Whatever it was, it gave me one of those "WITF" moments which are part of the thrill of exploring the natural world. It took one look at me and the others jumping into the ocean behind and, in a flash, dived down to the deep.
My mind readjusted and after the whale shark I went. A huge grey/blue fish some 5-6m long, covered in sparkling white spots which combined with the ripple effect from the refraction of sunlight on the waves to produce a mythical illusion. As I caught up he expunged a unsurprisingly large amount of reddy-brown gunk in my direction. Unpleasant in one respect, but also remarkable, for I understand these creatures usually defecate deep down and this behaviour has only just been caught on camera for the first time by BBC wildlife. Then swimming alongside and diving down to move in parallel. It glided through the water at quite a pace with the lightest of shrugs of his powerful tale. I managed to manoeuvre myself to his front. I could literally look him in the eye and stare into his wide gaping mouth, filtering the water for wee beasties.
The most phenomenal experience, and what made it more remarkable was, after searching for days and finding none, as soon as we hauled ourselves back in the boat we found another whale shark. This time a adolescent. Then after snorkelling with that one we found another, a 7-8m adult, complete with scars with brushes with sea-goers unknown. To finish it all off we even saw a fourth. We could not believe our luck. The conditions had finally turned ideal and patience had paid off.

As we headed back into shore the feeling of shared delight was palpable. Smiles all round! Just time for one final dive with the mantas, sad goodbyes to Kay and Ian who had shown us such a great time and been so hospitable and on we had to go.

As the sun went down we were back in the 4x4 winging our way out of the palms of Baia dos Cocos and back for a final night of fiesta. A long road to the cape lay ahead.

Whale Shark and me!!!

And finally, thanks to Robbo - below - for providing the underwater photos!!
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