April 4, 2012 - Mike's Top Ten: No. 5
"Pinnacles" - Ponta D' Ouro Mozambique, Africa
A few short years after I abandoned the grind of my office job in New York City, I was in the need for some adventure. I just finished up working as a mate on a dive vessel in Hatteras, North Carolina in 1999 and was in the market for a new job as well. Scanning the internet one day I came across this dive job posting:
"Dive resort manager wanted for remote African dive camp in Mozambique."
"Perfect", I thought to myself. "Where is Mozambique?" "What is a dive camp?" What better place to run off to than a country I had little idea where it was. I did know it was in Africa, but I didn't know where. After doing some more research, I discovered that Mozambique was located on the south east coast bordering South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania with coast line twice as long as California on the Indian Ocean. I wanted to experience life outside the United States and living and working in Mozambique might be just what I was looking for.
I spoke to the dive operation manager of the dive company, Blu International, over the phone, who was based out of Johannesburg, South Africa. We both decided the job would be perfect for me. He indicated I would be sleeping in a tent and getting paid 2000 South African Rand per month to manage the dive camp on the very southern tip of Mozambique in the small town of Ponta D'Ouro; a popular dive vacation destination for South Africans. That didn't sound so bad. Even though 2000R was equivalent to a mere 333USD, we worked out the details and it was a deal. This job wasn't about the money, but the adventure.
Most of the newer structures were made with reeds and framed out by tree poles. There were a handful of proper private homes in the area, but they were mostly owned by foreigners from SA and Portugal, the European country that colonized Mozambique prior to 1975 before it reached independence.
After getting settled in to my humble abode (a leaky tent), I wandered down to the beach to get a glimpse of the Indian Ocean for the first time and to see how the diving was conducted. As I walked down the beach, all I could see for miles was vacant waterfront property over looking the blue sub-tropical waters. Ponta D, Ouro, when translated from Portuguese to English means, 'point of gold'. It was 'golden' indeed.
It was towards the point, where the town got it's name from, that I discovered where the dive operators set up and launched the dive boats. From a distance, I could see a semi-rigid inflatable rib weaving through the surf and heading in to the beach at full speed. I wondered when the skipper was going to slow down, but it became quickly apparent that he had no intention. With dive passengers holding on to straps and seated on the pontoons, the skipper drove the rib 20 feet right up on to the dry beach at full speed. The twin 150 HP outboard engines roared as the free spinning props popped up out of the water. I had never seen anything like.
For the next 6 months Ponta D, Ouro was to be my home. I managed the dive operation and coordinated all my customers needs from accommodation to diving. It was a challenging job due to the remote nature of the camps. Everything had to be shipped in from near by South Africa; fuel, food and of course the tourists.
I experienced some amazing diving over the next 6 months on the reefs of the Indian Ocean. However, the dive that stands out to be the most memorable was called, "Pinnacles". About 4 miles off the beach was a couple of sea mounts that shot up from the sea bed that attracted a myriad of marine life. Schools of giant trevally and big eye jacks were common site as were zambezi and hammerhead sharks.
(Unfortunately, my trip to Mozambique was before I became a keen underwater photographer, so I have no underwater video or photos to share with you.)
The dive to Pinnacles that was the most memorable for me was done with a group of divers visiting from England. They had travelled a long way and were eager for top notch diving. Sad to say their trip so far was riddled with problems. The tents that they were using leaked terribly and it seemed to rain nearly every night they were there.
In an effort to make their stay more enjoyable, I promised I would take them to Pinnacles every day, since it was renown for being the best dive site, but it happens to be the furthest one from the beach and trips out there are sporadic at best due to the cost of fuel required to get there. At this stage, preventing a dozen angry Brits from assaulting me was more important than a few dollars of petrol.
The boat we used was about 21 feet in length with a rack running down the center line of the boat to hold tanks and BC's. Launching from the beach in Ponta D' Ouro is a team event requiring everyone to participate. 4 x 4's would tow the boat down to the water line where muscle power would finish the job. Paying divers would line up along the side and help push the boat down the beach and in to the surf. The skipper would say, "one, two, three", and on three everyone would push. Once the boat was in the water all of us would hold on to stabilize it. On a calm day this was easily done, but when 3-4 foot waves rolled in holding on to that boat was a challenge even with 12 divers.
The captain would enter the boat from the transom and head to the helm that was mounted almost up on the bow. He would lower the engine, start them up and then tell everyone to get in. Sometimes he would have to engage the props while divers were still hanging on with feet dragging in the water in order to prevent the boat from getting thrown back on to the beach again. This was a 'hairy' experience when it happened and not just for the poor person being dragged around.
When the skipper gave the ok, everyone would pull themselves in to the rib over the pontoons. Some with weaker upper body strength would have to be pulled in by their britches. Once all on board the skipper throttled up and headed out to seas weaving in and out of the breakers. On many occasions these boats were known to flip over when captains would poorly judge when a swell was about to crest. Fortunately, I did not see this while in Mozambique, but I had heard many stories.
The trip across the open ocean was most often a bouncy one. These high speed boats were driven hard by there skippers sometimes with little consideration for passenger comfort, but then again this was Africa. Toughing it out with little complaint was a way of life there.
Once at the dive sight, the skipper would triangulate positions on land to determine if he was on the right spot or not. The use of electronics was not the norm here and frowned upon by the veterans who prided themselves on being able to drop divers without there use. When everyone was kitted up and ready to go we all did a backward roll entry in to the warm Mozambique water and headed straight for the bottom 110 feet down.
This dive was pretty simple. Start deep, drift through the water and look for marine life. After the first few minutes while cruising along the bottom we all spotted what looked like a very large zambezi shark, otherwise known as bull shark. This 8-10 footer swam around us a bit and then swam off. At first I didn't think much about it, but it bugged me as to the species of this shark. It didn't figure. It wasn't until after the dive later on that we all concluded it was a small great white shark that casually swam past us. Very cool.
After a few minutes we left the bottom and began our very slow ascent to the surface and spent the rest of our dive drifting with the current. It didn't take long before someone was waving there hands and pointing out in to the blue water. There they were. A school of about 20 hammerhead sharks about 30-40 feet out from us. They would swim around in small circles together for a few moments and then disappear only to emerge again a few moments later. It was an awesome sight.
While this was going on some of the largest giant trevally I have ever seen would cruise up to us for a close inspection. Then off in the distance I could see yet another shark species on the fringe of our vision. As it drew closer in I could see that it was a zambezi. This shark would keep his distance and travel along with us for the duration of the dive.
The show kept getting better. After only another minute a dozen beautiful devil rays in formation appeared below us. Devil rays are much like their relatives, the manta ray, but much smaller in size and are known to swim together in large groups. There we were drifting along in the wide open Indian Ocean with a dozen hammerhead sharks ahead of us, a zambezi lurking around behind us and these stunning devil rays cruising beneath us. It was breathtaking.
This dive continued on for another 30 minutes until most of us started to run out of air. No one wanted it to end and popped there heads up only when the last breath had been drawn. One by one the divers scurried over the pontoons and back on to the boat. Just before it was my turn to hop in, I took one last look out in to the blue and saw, for a brief moment, a 6 foot marlin swim by. I just shook my head and knew this dive was going down in my log book as one of my all time greatest. Twelve years and several thousand dives later, my Mozambican drift dive is still in my top ten.
So much could be said about the country of Mozambique and its people, but their story is one that requires respect and in-depth attention to tell. The country was emerging from a harrowing civil war when I arrived in 1999. What I saw was both inspiring and heart breaking. The people of Mozambique have come a long way, but with a long road still ahead.
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