We surge between the angry grey sky and the angry grey sea and then the engine cuts.
My heart leaps and topples and leaps again – and it is not just the swell. After a fortnight, it’s my second last day in Tofo. Perhaps I’ll finally see it – the animal I came all this way to see. Nick, the dive instructor, points; the boat curls round and I squint in his finger’s direction – and wonder if I’m imagining a flash of white, but there is nothing, nothing. We carry on towards the dive site.
My bum perches on the edge of the boat; the oxygen cylinder is now harnessed to my back like Pilgrim’s burden. As butterflies flitter, I tighten the straps and weights, tugging on flippers and mask. Final checks, a countdown, and then I flop backward. As I fall to the seabed, hope rises. Today will be the day.
But it is not the day. As our fingertips cling to coral, a current buffets our progress. We glimpse a moray hiding between rocks; a few brightly coloured fish. But no mantas.
A decade ago this would’ve been startling. Tofo Beach, a laidback village six hours’ drive from Maputo, has long been considered one of the best places in the world over to see manta rays, along with other kinds of marine megafauna – whale sharks, bottlenose dolphins, loggerhead turtles and humpback whales.
This is thanks to the huge cyclonic eddies that spiral through the Mozambican channel up to a dozen times a year, bringing with them the plankton that form the bottom of the oceanic food chain. Along most of Mozambique’s coast, the continental shelf drops off very far from the mainland, keeping this upwelling at a remove. Along the length of the Inhambane province, however, the shelf plunges right next to the coast, meaning the nutrient-rich eddies brush right past the shore, luring everything from the tiniest fish to mantas – which, with a wingspan sometimes reaching over 7m, are one the ocean’s largest fishes.
These graceful giants brought the California-born scientist Andrea Marshall to here in 2003. She has lived in Tofo, on and off, ever since, her research revealing a new manta species, and earning her National Geographic Emerging Explorer status in 2013. Alarmed by the gradual decline of the species, she founded the Marine Megafauna Foundation (MMF) with whale shark researcher Simon Pierce; together, they aim to research and conserve the world’s largest sea animals.
Back in Joburg a few weeks after my Mozambique visit, it’s World Oceans Day and I’m chatting on Skype to Marshall.
“When I first moved here you had like over a 90% chance of seeing mantas,” she says from Tofo. Often you saw 6 to 8 individuals at a time – and, in some instances, up to 40. She is not surprised when I tell her I didn’t see one in two whole weeks – today there’s only a 27% chance of seeing them – and when you do see them, they’re often flying solo.
“This used to be one of the greatest populations in the world and in the future I might not be even able to show my daughter a manta here. That’s what drives me,” she says as, if on cue, her four-month old squeals in the background.
I didn’t come to Tofo with the intention of learning how to scuba dive, but quickly realised I didn’t stand a chance of seeing a manta if I didn’t. And so I spent three days with Nick Bateman of Peri-Peri Divers becoming PADI-certified.
A diver since the age of 12, it was witnessing 18 mantas on one of his first dives off Tofo that inspired him to move here from Joburg. “It just blew my mind,” he says. “Diving still blows my mind, that’s why I’m still doing it, but it’s sad to see these mantas slowly dwindling. Last year there was a four-month period without seeing a manta.”
“We’ve had to try change the way we sell diving,” he says – divers are warned ahead of their their arrival that megafauna sightings have been sporadic. “We are actually finding different fish species now, that we never actually looked for before. It’s not often that we get a disappointed diver because they haven’t seen a manta or a whale shark. They still leave with a smile.”
Nevertheless, the disappearance of these remarkable animals worries him – as they should. An MMF study estimates that divers coming to Inhambane on manta ray tours earn the province’s roughly 20 diver operators $10.9m annually, while the broader economic impact is a whopping $34m a year. If manta ray dive tours weren’t available, expenditure of between $16.1m and $25.7m a year would be lost.
The research illustrates that if mantas went extinct it wouldn’t just mean the disappearance of – in the words of Marshall – “an incredibly iconic, beautiful and inspiring species” that have the largest brains of any marine fish. It would also have a devastating impact on the ecotourism economy of one of the poorest countries on the planet.
What is going on – and what is to be done?
“We’re trying to tackle it from a lot of different angles and I think you have to have a multi-pronged approach to have success,” says Marshall.
And so while I didn’t see mantas, my sojourn in Tofo did let me discover the various ways in which the MMF is trying to save them.
The biggest culprit responsible for the decline of manta numbers is fishing. While it’s difficult to gauge the impact of big commercial fishing boats far out at sea, the MMF’s monitoring of artisanal fishing along the Inhambane coastline suggests that between 25 and 75 are caught by small-scale fishers a year. At their height, there were about 1400 here but because mantas bear pups only once every several years (and these don’t always survive) it means that removing as few as 50 a year over a decade can easily wipe out a third of the population.
After several years of the MMF’s intense lobbying, the Mozambican government is due to declare mantas a protected species later this year.
But although local fishers will eat them (or sell the gill rakers which are as prized as much as shark fin is in east Asia), most aren’t trying to catch mantas deliberately. The gill nets that have become popular in the last ten years are indiscriminate – snaring not just the fish they do want to catch, but mantas, humpback calves and much else besides.
More than half of Mozambicans depend on fish for protein and half a million rely on it to earn a living – so banning fishing entirely won’t work. Instead, MMF’s Sustainable Seas project is working with fishing communities to establish Locally Managed Marine Areas by the end of 2017 that will allow fishing to continue in a more sustainable and strategic manner, through collaboration, quotas, site closures and a sharing of best practice. So far, eight ambassadors are currently training in alternative selective fishing techniques that they will share with their compatriots – this should both improve yield and reduce by-catch.
A class of toddlers watch rapt as Luis Macamo tells them about whale sharks. I’ve joined the MMF’s Nemos Pequenos team on one of their weekly lessons about marine megafauna that they conduct in three schools near Tofo. Nemos Pequenos also teach swimming lessons to 300 kids. The aim? To spawn a new generation of “ocean guardians” committed to protecting the animals within it.
A few of programme’s graduate swimmers have found internships and even employment with Tofo’s dive centres, such as the 21-year-old Jerry Nhamússua who is training to become a dive master at Peri-Peri. If there is to be a reduction of fishing, finding alternative livelihoods for those who depend on it is crucial. While dive tourism is the most developed option, others the MMF is exploring is tilapia- and seaweed-farming.
Tofo is a petri-dish where programmes like these are being tested; the aim is for the MMF to replicate these across the region and beyond. I sit down with Josh Axford who joined the MMF last year as its COO after stints in project management and the British Army. His mandate has been to make the foundation “more institutionalised and professionalised” after its decade of organic growth. Axford has developed a global strategy with a focus on specific regions (aside from east Africa, research is happening in South America and south-east Asia). For the MMF to have a global impact, he believes it needs to engage with regional initiatives such as the West Indian Ocean Marine Science Association and the Nairobi Convention (an annual meeting of east Africa’s environment ministers) – “linking the great research MMF is doing to changing government policy on a regional spectrum”.
This approach is already bearing fruit elsewhere. By comparing photos, researchers in Indonesia could prove that reef mantas were completing migrations between two protected areas 450km apart. When presented with this evidence, the Indonesian government declared reef mantas a protected species in all its waters – and not just marine reserves. Reef mantas were also added to the Convention of Migratory Species (protecting them internationally) using the same findings – joining giant mantas who have been on the list since 2011.
The discovery was possible thanks to Manta Matcher, the online wildbook co-founded by the MMF which allows divers, citizen scientists and full-time researchers to upload and compare photo IDs of manta rays.
“That was a huge victory,” the programme’s Tofo-based coordinator Anna Flam says. And happily for the under-funded organisation, “we didn’t have to pay a cent for it. Every diver can help us do the research. We’re hoping to replicate this all over the world.”
Marshall founded MMF so she could spend “365 days in the field in the places that the problems were occurring” as opposed to being stuck in an office faraway. “I also wanted to be an organisation where the money was really going specifically to the research and education projects and not building this big corporate kind of image.”
It’s fitting, then, that rather than open up expensive offices in different countries, Axford is working on plans for a research vessel – which would provide MMF scientists with huge reach and flexibility to get to the hotspots where they need to conduct vital research.
Closer to home, there are also signs of hope. 2M in hand, I’ve joined representatives from Tofo’s four dive centres who are discussing the MMF’s proposal of stopping fishing and diving at two reefs for a six-month period, beginning July, to see if that will help rejuvenate the reef ecosystem and encourage mantas to return as studies have shown that dive tourism can significantly affect mantas’ behaviour. The agreement to close the reefs is unanimous – which is good news, as local fishermen have agreed to the closure only if diving on those sites stops too.
“There’s very good relationship amongst all the dive centres and the fishing charters and what-not so I think this will work,” Bateman tells me afterwards.
Perhaps the next time I come to Tofo, I’ll get to see my manta after all.
An edited version of this appeared in the 21 August 2016 edition of the Sunday Times.