The giant whale sharks and manta rays in the ocean off Tofo in southern Mozambique are a tourist attraction, giving the local economy an enormous boost.
Inhambane is the most visited province in the country, with 1 million visitors annually, lured primarily by the pristine water and the underwater show of resident marine megafauna.
The ocean around Tofo has a particularly high concentration of plankton, attracting the world’s largest population of whale sharks and manta rays. Humpback whales pass through on their annual migration from Antarctica. A huge variety of turtles and dolphins are resident. A myriad tropical fish and other creatures can be encountered on wide array of reefs.
An enormous number of visitors from all over the world come to Tofo to scuba, snorkel and swim with these unique underwater creatures.
Brodie Dearman of the oldest scuba dive centre in the area, Tofo Scuba, confirms, “Ninety-five percent of our divers are international, with the most coming from Europe. Clients come from everywhere – from Japan, Israel, America – you name it! They come for the whale sharks and mantas, as you can see both of these on the same trip, which is quite unusual. Also on a global level, the prices are low for swimming with the whale sharks.”
Diving is growing as a sustainable and empowering business platform for locals. There are training initiatives to create employment for locals in the diving industry, not only as instructors but also as boat skippers, tractor drivers and compressor operators.
One of the first locals to begin diving was Luciana Adamo in 2010. Adamo was holding down a night job at a bar in Tofo when he began training at Tofo Scuba during the day. He said: “That was my routine for 6 months. But I got tired and I quit my job to dive full time.”
Training to become an instructor took Adamo eight months. Now he is the head instructor at Tofo Scuba. He has trained 15 to 20 local Mozambicans, and is currently training two advanced-level candidates.
Marine conservation is a priority for all Tofo businesses.
A large number of volunteers and students do research on the unique marine life of Tofo.
Dive centres also act under an agreed code of conduct concerning both in-water and above-water activities. However, although the centres and local fishermen respect one another, and seek ways to use the ocean sustainably, there is a lack of education and sharing of information.
According to Adamo it is crucial the local community is aware of the value of marine species, some of which are already endangered, due to over-fishing.
“There are lots of conservation organisations working in Mozambique but few of them focus on community education. We can do a thousand things today but if the community living along the coast is not educated, they can destroy it in one day. I would like to get more locals involved in conservation. That is the only way we can save our species here in Tofo.”
Dearman said: “In our opinion, the populations of small reef fish at our dive sites have remained reasonably constant since we have been in operation. It is a different story for our megafauna.”
She cites a study from 2011 on “Trends in sightings and environmental influences on coastal aggregation of manta rays and whale sharks” by C Rohner, which claims there was an 88% decline in reef manta ray sightings and a 79% decline in whaleshark sightings from 2003 to 2011.
Since September 2015, Adamo has kept personal records of sightings and believes there is a levelling off of the number of sightings.
“We still have whale sharks. In January 2016, we saw three whale sharks and the same in January 2017. That is a standard.”
Every month, Adamo delivers a talk in a local village to educate the community about the value of the underwater species.
“We have tourism in Mozambique because of whale sharks and manta rays. Tourists who come to Tofo do all their shopping at our local market and that benefits the whole community.”
A study published last year showed dive tourism in Inhambane province provided $10.9 million direct revenue to dive operators, and that the local economy benefited by $34m every year.
As the town and tourism industry in Tofo grows, the number of activities offered to visitors is diversifying. The pristine sea off Tofo is perfect for learning to surf, while Barra and Tofinho beaches, with their 2m swells, are popular with more experienced and professional surfers.
Kayaking, kite surfing, quad biking, guided island tours, cultural village tours and horse riding are year-round attractions.
The hospitality industry is also developing fast, providing opportunities and employment.
Delicious seafood; ice-cold local beer, an abundance of cashews and coconuts; warm sea and fine weather year-round are the makings of a paradise beach experience. As a result, Tofo is expanding in all directions.
The central market has seen new developments, while the surrounding area has new houses being built and renovations taking place all the time.
International visitors to Tofo are given a uniquely African experience. A catch phrase from the Shangaan language is khanimambo, meaning “thank you”. Gratitude is extended to the local community via various development initiatives. One of the longest running businesses in Tofo, Fatima’s Nest, has been bringing visitors to the area since 1989.
Founder Fatima Vieira contributes directly to social upliftment through developing talent and supporting local orphanages and old-age homes.
Tofo Scuba is raising money through crowd funding for villagers who lost their homes and most of their belongings in cyclone Dineo, which hit the town on February 15.
Fatima’s Nest: mozambiquebackpackers.com for accommodation and transport between Maputo and Tofo
Tofo Scuba: tofoscuba.com for ocean safari’s and dive courses
Underwater photography by Arco de Man www.arcodeman.com