There are two things that are really special about Tofo – the first being the obvious one that it is a fantastic place to see manta rays and whale sharks…
But the second point is the fact that there are two highly experienced marine scientists based there and between them are able to provide an almost unique perspective on the marine mega fauna – significantly enhancing your stay in the area and interaction with the creatures.
Located at the southern end of Tofo’s beach is the dive tourism lodge Casa Barry, which is the host and primary local sponsor of the Foundation for the Protection of Marine Megafauna and it’s Manta Ray & Whale Shark Researh Centre.
The foundation and the research center are the work of Dr. Andrea Marshall & Dr. Simon Pierce, with Andrea focused on manta rays and Simon on whale sharks.
Every Monday evening in Tofo Andrea Marshall gives a presentation at Casa Barry on her work and on Wednesday’s it is Simon Pierce’s turn to talk about his research on whale sharks.
Then on Friday nights PhD student Chris Rohner does an excellent talk about the overall marine life of the Tofo area.
I spent a total of two weeks in Tofo and was lucky enough to arrive over the weekend and caught Andrea’s talk on the Monday night.
Frankly I was stunned at what she presented – not only was it factual & interesting, but she also has a great repertoire of one-liners that keep you fully entertained as well as enthralled.
So interesting were all the presentations that I went twice to all of them and became a little concerned that I might be reported to the local police for stalking…
Tofo itself is a small and pleasant place with a few nice restaurants & bars, and if you go there plan your trip so you can attend all three presentations – you won’t regret it!
Diving Mozambique – Conservation
The obvious benefit of having such intensive and regular research in a mega fauna hotspot like Tofo is that over time a clear picture starts to emerge about the overall health and vibrancy of it’s star attractions.
Unfortunately there are clear indications of a possible decline in both the whale shark & manta ray populations, but whether this is an actual decrease or just a reduction in their ‘sightability’ in the usual locations is not clear.
Of major concern is the use of long line & net fishing related to satisfying the ever-increasing demand from locally based Chinese ‘businessmen’ for shark fins, of which manta rays are basically collateral damage rather than the main game.
On my last day in Tofo I also witnessed first-hand a sickening example of this collateral damage – my two weeks of diving over, I was getting a nitrogen break before the long flight back to Sydney and was out taking early morning photographs when I saw a tiny local fishing boat returning from its nights work.
Thinking this may provide a scenic photo opportunity I positioned myself to catch the boat being pulled up on to the beach by the weary fishermen.
Then I realized that under the nets piled up on the boat was a barely alive but fully mature mobula ray. To my horror the ray was promptly pulled out of the boat and slaughtered in front of me as I struggled to capture the scene.
Then I saw that one of the fishermen had a shark fin in a plastic bag and realized that the victim had obviously just been thrown over the side after being parted from its prized appendage.
It was a totally shocking scene to behold and one that was made even worse by the realization that similar events had probably taken place everyday that I had been in Tofo had I actually looked for them.
While it is very easy to self-righteously tell the Tofo fishermen that they should not do such things, the fact is that my stomach was full from a pleasant breakfast at my guesthouse while the fishermen need to earn money to do the same for themselves and their families.
With no other way to do it but take their catch from the sea, the lure of easy money from the Chinese ‘businessmen’ is understandable.
Andrea Marshall & Simon Pierce understand this mechanism very well and are trying to establish a Marine Park in the critical 200 km Tofo corridor that will achieve the dual objectives of protecting the area’s mega fauna while allowing the local population to benefit – not just the hotel & dive shop owners…
Easier said than done, but their work over the last 6-8 years has provided essential insight in to the most problematic areas, such as the southern village of Ligoga which has become a manta ray hunting black spot.
An all-encompassing southern Mozambique Marine Park, with no fishing at all is highly unlikely to either get approved or be successful. But if the key locations can be effectively protected it could ensure the survival of the very special mega fauna of the Tofo area.
Diving Mozambique – Andrea Marshall
Andrea Marshall arrived in Tofo in 2003, from the USA looking for subject matter for her PhD in marine biology and when she discovered the sheer numbers of manta rays & whale sharks in the area quickly realized she had found the right spot.
Describing it “like choosing between chocolate & pizza” she elected to study the mantas and has since built up a visual database of over 700 manta rays.
After finishing her thesis and gaining her PhD on the population ecology of manta rays, Andrea stayed on in Mozambique to further her research and spearhead local manta ray conservation efforts by starting the Foundation for the Protection of Marine Megafauna.
In 2008 she was credited with the discovery of a new giant species of manta ray – one of the largest new species to have been described by any scientist in the last 50 years.
Andrea is also an accomplished underwater photographer and uses her images as an educational tool to inspire children and scuba divers alike about marine conservation – something she is clearly very passionate about and devoted to.
Diving Mozambique – Simon Pierce
Simon Pierce is from New Zealand – not a country normally associated with whale sharks… and he readily admits to never having seen one before arriving in Tofo in 2005!
That said, over the last 6 years he has established an equally impressive whale shark database to the one on manta rays built up by Andrea Marshall and is credited with personally identifying around 20% of the known world population of the species.
This data, together with aerial surveys by South Africa’s Natal Shark Board has shown that there is a very high concentration of whale sharks in the Tofo area of around 3 per square km, which means around 70-80 of them at any one time.
Simon’s whale shark research focuses on population ecology and conservation management in what is clearly an extremely important area for the world’s largest fish.
Also a dedicated but pragmatic conservationist, Simon has developed an excellent code of conduct for the local safari operators that enables visitors to experience the whale sharks but to do it an sustainable manner.
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