Mantas and Whalesharks in Mozambique

My wife, two friends and I went to Tofo in February2006. I hope this report can be helpful for other divers and photographers to know in advance what to expect and not to expect in this remote area off the beaten tracks.

The easiest way to organize a trip is to contact a tour operator in South Africa. There are many operators, most of them will require a group of ten or more divers for their Mozambique tours. We booked with Ruth Hagen / Aurora Tours. Ruth (she comes from Switzerland but has been living in S.A. for ten or so years) worked out an individual itinerary for us, came with us on the trip and also on the dives. If you wish to go on a tailor-made trip in a small group, we can highly recommend her.

Our tour started in Johannesburg; we visited the Krueger Park (which is on the way) for one day and went on to Mozambique. The roads in Moz are okay, but nevertheless, it is a long way and it takes a whole day to reach Tofo. Another option is to take an international flight to Maputo and from there a domestic flight to the district capital Inhambane (some 30km away from Tofo), but this connection is not serviced on a daily basis, and I dont know if the domestic airline is reliable in terms of baggage transport, flight schedule and safety standards...
Aurora Tours 1: (webpage currently in German only),
Aurora Tours 2:

Ruth Hagen: (German and English)

There are a number of resorts in the Tofo area, and there are at least three dive operators. Do not expect any luxury accomodation, it is more like Maldives 10 or 15 years ago. We stayed at Casa Barry; they have a nice restaurant with a great view over the seafront, and the rooms were perfectly clean. No aircon, just fans and mosquito nets, but this was okay. And the dive center, Tofo Scuba, is inside the resort. If you stay at other resorts, it can be quite a walk to the dive center - no problem if you only have a small point&shoot digicam ...

In the evening there is a choice between several restaurants, all within 15min walking distance. The food was generally fine, ranging from the usual pasta and pizza to great seafood. Although Mozambique is a very poor country, it is not an ultra-low budget destination (for a dish like grilled prawns with rice we payed appr. 8 US-$ ).
Casa Barry:

The dive center can be recommended: The girls and guys were very friendly and helpful, tanks and air were perfect, the briefing was extensive and safety precautions were clearly explained. The rental equipment seemed to be okay (we had our own gear). We did not ask for nitrox, but I think you can get it. It probably makes sense if everybody in the dive group uses it. Tofo Scuba offers a morning and an afternoon dive; if there are experienced divers only, the second dive also can be a deeper dive - where you can expect to see mantas. The area in my opinion is definitely not suitable for beginners.

There are no extra facilities for photographers (like camera tables or so), but the only REAL drawback (and this for me was a pain in the a#*§) were the rinse tanks. They have two rinse tanks and use them for everything – cameras, regulators, masks, jackets, wetsuits, booties. And since there is sandy ground around the dive center and everybody adds some sand to the rinse tanks I preferred to take my camera and sometimes our regulators to our room and under the shower. Okay, they change water daily, but ... uurghhh.
Tofo Scuba:

The diving is done from RIBs. From the beach you have to push the boat into the surf, jump on and then take a (sometimes bumpy) ride to the dive sites which are between 10 and 50 min away. There are medium to strong currents, the surge goes down to 15m / 45 ft, the reef tops of the better dive sites are at around 20m / 60ft. You roll backward (with camera) and go straight down as quick as possible, following the dive guide with the surface buoy. Decompression diving is not allowed, the group must stay together and follow the guide (it really makes sense not to get lost in these waters). Bottom times were around 20 - 25 min, then the group ascended slowly to drift in the open water during the safety stop.

There was lots of plankton, visibility was between 5 and 12m / 15 and 35ft, water temperature was plus/minus 26C / 79F but, as the dive center said, every now and then goes down to 20C / 68F on certain days.

We stayed at Tofo for 8 days and did 14 dives. On the morning dives we usually saw really huge mantas, and on the end of one dive also a whale shark. Best chance for whale sharks is of course at the surface, and we were lucky to find some on our way to and from the dive sites; the boat stoppped and we snorkelled with them. Once or twice a week the dive center offers an „ocean safari“. They mount a high seat on one of their RIBs and go out for appr. two hours in search of whalesharks. We went twice and had whalesharks on both safaris.

For uw-photography I used my fisheye lens almost exclusively. As the current was sometimes really strong, I decided to use one strobe only (Ikelite SS200). For mantas and rays it was perfect, for other stuff like spanish dancers or schools of fish a daul strobe setup would have been better. In these waters you can learn everything you always wanted to know about the proper strobe positioning, because backscatter caused by the plankton-soup was a consistent problem (- even from the sun when shooting whalesharks at the surface without strobes!)

Since the group is supposed to stay close together there is, when shooting wide angle and especially fisheye,a „good“ chance that you have always other divers somewhere in your picture. And unfortunately you cannot wait until the folks have moved on and take your time. Same with the whalesharks: Nowadays everybody seems to have an underwater camera, so once a whaleshark is spotted and the snorkellers are in the water a shooting frenzy begins, which sometimes results in overexited shooters kicking the poor fish with the fins and – whoosh – down and away it goes.

My macro lens I used only on two dives: First, I am not that interested in the perfect „whaleshark eye“ shot, and second, due to the surge that we encountered even at dephts it was very difficult if not impossible to obtain a stable position (unless you anchored yourself into the reef), and if there are inexperienced divers around, you will have a stirred-up bottom in addition.

If you are mainly interested in taking uw-photos, it might be a good idea to find some other photographers and check in as a group; you probably will get a boat and a guide for your own, which would make photography a lot easier.

Bottom line: If you want to see whalesharks and mantas, Tofo is great, but it is not a place for easy-diving. UW-photography can be tricky sometimes due to the limited vis and the currents/surge. Above water Tofo is a very relaxed place, accommodation is basic but clean, food is good and save to eat. It is a good idea to spend a day or two in the Krueger Park if you start your trip in South Africa. Take anti-malaria-pills (Malarone).

Would I go again? YES !!!