Leaving South Africa with our newly arrived truck, we drove to Tofo, Mozambique to volunteer with Underwater Africa, a marine science and conservation program. The month we spent there is the longest we’ve ever been in one place outside of Reno. One of the things I crave when traveling long term is a little consistency.
Casa Barry (the lodge we were staying at) was one of the few places where we found it. Once we got a feel for how they interpreted food orders, we pretty much got the same thing every day! We did find a frog in our lettuce once, but after all, we are in Africa. Although it was wonderful to have a temporary home and really get to know the people we were spending time with, it was one of the hardest goodbyes we’ve ever said.
Volunteering as a kid, your contribution is always underestimated, for good reason most of the time. You’re given the less important jobs, as well as the ones that will benefit your goal the least. However, almost as soon as we arrived, my brother and I were each given a marine question to research and give a hypothesis and conclusive proof on. Not only would the answer to the question benefit the program but it also gave us the experience of formatting the correct response to a scientific question in a real situation.
Diving was a critical part of collecting data, and us and the other volunteers had a dive scheduled four days a week. Although I wasn’t able to dive properly when we were in Thailand several years ago, I was with my parents right up until they got in the water, so I knew some of what goes into a dive. Usually you would board a catamaran off a dock, with all you gear strapped in and prepared for you. Snacks and drinks were below decks, and the ride was more or less smooth and quick.
Nothing could have been more different from Tofo diving. Since the lodges and dive shops are based out of a bay, the water is too shallow for a dock, so the rubber dinghies (imagine the type of boat seal team six would use, except ours are bright orange) are prepared on the beach, then pushed into the shallows by a tractor. It’s the divers jobs to haul the boat into deeper water, fighting against the waves and current. Once you are on board, the dive masters yell at you to secure your feet in the straps on the floor and hold on tight to the ropes running along the sides. It’s a hair raising journey (forty-five minutes at most) out to the dive site through massive waves.
Finding the dive site and actually getting in the water is an adventure all by itself. When we arrive at a seemingly random point in the middle of the Indian ocean (our skippers need a GPS to find them) we all try to balance and not throw up as the boat rocks and we put on our gear. Then on the count of three we roll backwards into the water with what’s called a negative entry (you suck all the air out of your flotation devices so you sink immediately and avoid getting carried away by a surface current). Not terrifying at all! A negative entry is completely disorienting.
You enter with a splash, so not only are you surrounded by other people with heavy metal tanks and black wetsuits, but the bubbles make it impossible to see. The only way I could deal with it was swimming as hard as I could straight down and away from all the people near the surface. Sometimes somebody wouldn’t empty their flotation device all the way, so they would shoot back up to the surface and have to descend again. Once you found the descent line (sometimes you can’t see the ocean floor) we would all float down and collect on the bottom. After we are all calm and ready, we continue with the dive. Once the dive is completed you haul yourself into the boat and the skipper hands you a lollipop!
When it is time to land, hopefully after swimming with a whale shark, you secure yourself again before the skippers head at full speed at the beach. If all goes well and nobody chokes on their lollipop, it’s a relatively smooth slide onto the sand. Naturally, our very first landing was anything but smooth. At high tide there is a bowl of harder sand formed so our thirty mph charge was stopped short. We were all thrown to the front of the boat, and the skipper who stands behind the wheel at the front did a kind of summersault over the dash board. Thankfully no one was hurt and despite reassurances that it was one of the roughest landings ever, we were a little timid the next time it came to landing. Occasional screaming or swearing became the family norm!
Long story short, Tofo beach has become my favorite place to be while away from home.