Mike visited:

» Thailand
» Myanmar (Burma)
» Laos
» Cambodia
» Vietnam
» India
» Nepal
» Egypt
» Jordan
» Uganda
» Tanzania
» Malawi
» Mozambique
» Swaziland
» South Africa

View a map of his route.

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Manta Reef, Legendary Dive Site Near Tofo Beach, Mozambique

riding the swells to the dive site
The Indian Ocean was rough that morning, and our hard-bottomed inflatable skipped over the swells like a skier racing over moguls. Accustomed to rubber rafts flipping unpredictably (see Whitewater Rafting in Jinja), I dug my feet into the holds and clung doggedly to the safety line.

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.

spaceships in the sea
I was adjusting my buoyancy on the bottom when Rudy pointed over my left shoulder. I turned around and caught a glimpse of a manta ray gliding off in the distance, moving with beautiful slow assurance. Stunning. Shocking too – the giant was at least 15 feet across.

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.

diver and potato brass
Three more manta rays slipped by, their wings curled up to reveal their white underbellies. They looked like stealth bombers or UFOs – otherworldly and mysterious, but perfectly in their element. Filtering plankton out of the water with gaping mouths, the docile, harmless giants soared past us at remarkably close range.

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.

manta ray and diver
As we lingered at the cleaning station a third ray came into view. Then a fourth. A fifth. A sixth. In all, eight manta rays swam in graceful circles around us, mesmerizing in their beauty and might and bizarreness.

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."

whale sharks are the biggest fish in all the oceans of the world
The whale sharks in Tofo are legendary – and numerous. These giants can surpass 30ft in length and 24,000lbs in weight. I knew that they were docile, harmless, didn't even have teeth. But suddenly the prospect of leaping in the ocean with a 30ft shark seemed very frightening. I stood on deck in my fins and mask, indecisive. Adam and Kim were already in the water; I could hear muffled, tinny-sounding exclamations coming through their snorkels – "Aaaahhh!" "Ohhmmygawahd!" "Ooooahhhurgggod!" I screwed up my courage and leapt into the water.

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.

What do you think?

  • Ever seen any whales or big fish?
  • Keen to leap in the water with a 24,000lb leviathan?
  • Would PJ Harvey date me?
Posted on September 22, 2003 07:29 AM


Comments (post your own below)

This post is almost enough to have me tender my resignation today and board a plane to Africa. (Why not? I have 2 good reasons, aged 3 and 1).

I can empathize with the adrenaline rush, though, having been to "shark-ray" alley off of Key Caulker in Belize. The local dive leaders have a pact, where one or two will chum the waters each day. The result is that any boat motor is a siren calling all sharks and rays. We snorkled in 8 to 15 of water with pristing coral reefs, surrounded by 20 to 30 nurse sharks and almost as many rays. With the help of our guide, my wife cuddled with a docile nurse shark, flipped on her back having been mesmarized with some stroking and a hand on her nose.

None of this, though, can touch your whale shark adventure. Wow.

Posted by: John on September 22, 2003 09:39 AM

(ahem) that was the nurse shark, not my wife, who was mesmarized with some stroking and a hand on her nose.

Posted by: John on September 22, 2003 09:41 AM

I hate to say it buddy, but you'd have a better chance with A.M. radio legend Paul Harvey, than with the lovely and talented PJ.


Posted by: MJ on September 22, 2003 09:42 AM

Mike dating Paul Harvey?

I'd like to hear the rest of that story...

Posted by: Chuck on September 22, 2003 12:01 PM

Wow, sounds like the dive of a lifetime! I love how you told the story; most people would leave out the bit about being nervous to take the second plunge. ^.~

The best sea life I've seen was actually on my ferry from British Columbia to Ketchikan, Alaska. I believe I counted about five whales, and 10-15 dolphins.

But I guess all those came secondary when there were three of the most majestic bald eagles I've ever seen, following our boat the entire way. I even got to see them swoop up fish along the way.

Posted by: Sunny on September 22, 2003 02:55 PM

Not that this is related to your story, but I've learnt you're now in Maputo. I spent four months living there, and all I can say is that it's undoubtedly one of the most hectic and exciting capitals in Africa. Nice colonial architecture, open-minded, laid-back people, and a pretty active nightlife scene among others. Do not hesitate to spend at least one night at the Mini Golf, the cream of the cream in Maputo. Too bad you've missed the islands, though. Many travellers who know Mozambique in depth were a bit disappointed when they made it to Swaziland/Lesotho/South Africa.

Posted by: cave canem on September 22, 2003 06:14 PM

PJ Harvey - No, Mike, and you should really try to get over her. Have you thought about TJ Hooker, maybe?

In any case, you've already done used up all your luck on that dive trip...and South Africa yet to go. Looking forward to your exploits with great whites.

Posted by: Charlie on September 26, 2003 03:54 AM

Incredible story, reminds me of the best diving I've had. A similar situation, we were returning from the last day of a weeks diving the reefs surrounding Pemba, Tanzania, when the dive master spotted mantas leaping above the surface in the distance. By the time we arrived on the spot, they had disappeared. Undaunted, we jumped in with masks and snorkels, hoping to catch a glimpse of these elegant creatures. Suddenly, one glided beneath me, so close I nearly stopped breathing, then they disappeared. I can imagine your excitement. Great site - thanks for the armchair travel!

Posted by: Brent on September 26, 2003 11:43 AM

i learned to dive on the barrier reef (queensland, australia), where i had incredible experiences with both mantas and dugongs, not to mention dozens of reef sharks, moray eels and giant cod. i tried to go diving in australia's whale shark capital - western australia's N.W coast, but alas, a giant cyclone cancelled our plans. so reading your story made my stomach churn with excitement and jealousy!

i note that TODAY is your 365th day on the road. your slogan is one man one year - does this mean your trip is coming to a close?

i love your site for both it's design/layout and content. inspirational. i don't want you to stop travelling.....

Posted by: martine on September 30, 2003 11:08 AM

Yes, martine - 365 days today. Go team!

I don't want to stop traveling yet either, so I've tacked on an extra five weeks to see South Africa. I fly back to the US on November 9. Hopefully there will be a few more updates between now and then.

Thanks for your good words and for sharing your story.

Posted by: mike on October 1, 2003 10:10 AM

oh, that's so sad. only 5 more weeks to go. i'll miss your tales. maybe you can plan another (shorter) jaunt - or series of - for next year?

let me guess: you caaaaaan't wait to get home, hang out with friends and family - and yet you never want this incredible adventure to end. the normality of settling down to a house/apartment, finding a job, reverse culture shock... not the easist of times.

i read a great quote about travel:
"the whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one's own country as a foreign land." (from a great site actually: quote garden)

now that's some food for thought.

Posted by: martine on October 1, 2003 10:57 AM

All your experience sounds so adverturious!
But I can't help but wonder since daily life can be sometimes mundane and tedious, that you aren't making all this up. Instead of you being in all these exciteing places, you could be in a little swamp shack down in the Louisiana boondocks, equipped with the latest Dale computer and a vivid imagination!
However, I urge you to keep on dreaming. After all that is how we got some of our best loved classics. Most were written by authors that barely left their homes. The best known authors had the lisence to borrow farms and anything they needed to write a good story. Mark Twain, himself once said that he loved to travel without fatigue. Every year he went to India by reading the book Kim.

Posted by: Ouida on October 3, 2003 07:54 AM

You're crazy. What's a "Dale" computer? I assure you that Mike's "adverturios" adventures are quite real. Funny post. Thanks for the laughs.

Posted by: cj on October 8, 2003 11:29 AM

Wow - the cage dive looks like an incredible experience. A few years ago I did a shark dive in Moorea at a dive site called "The Tiki". This was one of my best dives ever. We saw grey sharks, reef sharks, and a couple of lemon sharks. After years of dive companies taking divers to this site, the sharks have gotten pretty tame. No shark cage was required. The divemaster instructed us to lay flat on the ocean floor and stay as still as possible. I have some photos of the dive on:

Posted by: Mike D on November 13, 2003 07:55 PM

That is an incredible dive, but one day, a shark is gonna turn and diving as we know it will end.

Posted by: Mr. Jupiter on May 9, 2004 08:23 AM

That is an incredible dive, but one day, a shark is gonna turn and diving as we know it will end.

Posted by: Mr. Jupiter on May 9, 2004 08:23 AM

No Mike, I am committed already. Nice site though.


Posted by: PJ Harvey on October 25, 2004 11:28 PM

Comments closed.


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