Manta Reef, Legendary Dive Site Near Tofo Beach, Mozambique
We were heading to a dive site called Manta Reef near Tofo Beach, Mozambique. Legendary in dive circles, Tofo is known for its big fish: whale sharks, manta rays, humpback whales.
After slamming over the waves for thirty punishing minutes, Rudy, our Dutch Divemaster, located the site on a handheld GPS and brought the boat to a halt. The swells were still intense, forcing us to kit up, perform buddy checks, and backwards-roll into the water as quickly as possible.
I dropped through a school of giant Pencilled Surgeon fish on my descent to 28 meters (92ft). Visibility was about 10 meters (33ft) – not great, but good for this time of year; water temperature was 22°C (72°F).
Tofo is not known for its reefs or coral, but as Manta Reef came into view I was struck by its beauty. Nice coral and crusty rock with tall pinnacles and low swim-throughs provided shelter for sea urchins and schools of bright yellow fish.
The water around me surged and swelled. One moment I'd be kicking hard against a current, the next I'd be whooshed forward by a surge from behind. It was a strange sensation, but I quickly learned not to fight it and literally go with the flow.
We followed more schools of yellow fish around the reef. A giant moray eel scowled at us from his hole in the coral. An enormous potato brass sat dumbly under a rock outcrop, eyes dull and mouth gaping.
We finished our dive at a "cleaning station", a place where mantas come to have smaller fishes – usually wrasses – clean parasites and crud off their bodies. Two mantas were circling the cleaning station in a holding position when we arrived. As I hovered in the water near them a surge pushed me face-to-face with one of the leviathans – worryingly close, I thought, but it soon became apparent that the mantas were determining how close they allowed us to come, not vice versa.
It was time to go up. We drifted away from the rays and began our ascent. In a final farewell gesture, a ray shot past us at our halfway point and then glided off into the gloom.
The waves were equally treacherous on our return journey to the beach. As I hooked my feet in the holds and clutched the safety line I thought, If Rudy gets me back to the beach in one piece this will unquestionably be the best dive of my life.
That's when Adam, one of my co-divers, shouted, "Fin! Fin! That was a fin!"
Rudy looped the boat around and sped back in the direction we'd come. Then I saw the fin. And another.
"Is that a ray?" Kim, my other co-diver, asked.
If that's a manta ray, I thought, it's got a 30ft wingspan.
We were right on top of the creature. I saw a vast dark shape with small white spots.
"All right, get your masks and fins ready," Rudy said. "That's a whale shark."
The whale shark was right next to me, hovering just a few feet below the waves. Fear and excitement coursed through me, every inch of my body felt boldly, blazingly alive. The shark lumbered away from the boat and I pursued him closely, gasping and shouting through my snorkel: "Gurahhhdeyecan'tbelievethisahhhhh!"
Back onboard the boat, motoring again toward the shore, the buzz was almost palpable. "That beats the gorillas! That beats the gorillas!" Adam shouted (he and Kim had been to Bwindi too). I grinned as if I'd just won a lottery or a date with PJ Harvey, shook my head, and repeated, "I can't believe it," fifty or sixty times.
Then: "Look, there's another one!"
We reared the boat around and sped over to where another whale shark dominated
the surface of the water. "That's a female!" Rudy said. She swam right
up against the boat; the while spots on her back showed vividly. She circled
the boat, swam beneath us, and then hovered on the other side. We leapt back
into the water. I was so excited I forgot to put my snorkel in my mouth; I just
held my breath and burst with excitement as the mammoth, beautiful beast sailed
directly past me and then off into the choppy, magnificent sea.