Do you speak ‘Whale’?

Monday morning dawned, and we were preparing to head out to monitor humpback whales. This was a shore-based exercise, and basically we’re supposed to be looking at numbers and behaviour patterns. Typically, though, there was a change in plans and our afternoon dive had been brought forward. This time, the trainees were heading out with others in our group who were doing the advanced programme, so we were all diving together for a change.
Arriving at the dive centre, the ocean looked benign enough. When I say ‘benign’, what I actually mean is ‘only mid-level puke-inducing’ as opposed to ‘full-scale puke party’. It was overcast and very windy, so we donned our wetsuits plus a rash vest and an additional ‘shortie’ to try and keep the hypothermia at bay. Not lookin’ quite so hot today, eh?! Unfortunately the extra wetsuit meant extra weights on my belt, and I was now carrying an extra stone around my waist. Maybe I should try this for paragliding to get me back in the weight range for my wing. We managed to get the rib into the water and hop on, minus the whale-beaching impressions this time. We bounced out over the waves towards today’s dive sight, discovering on the way that the ocean was a little rougher than it looked. I was feeling a little green when we arrived, despite taking tablets to reduce the puke-factor. Unfortunately there was then a lot of faffing around adjusting weight belts, looking for fin-keepers, and basically doing other stuff that should have been sorted in the dive centre. My face was going greener, and I was desperate just to get in there.
Finally, we hit the water and descended to the reef below. Extra wetsuit notwithstanding, I managed to sink without too much effort this time. When I hit the bottom with the others, I found myself close to a rock with a big anemone on it, which was playing host to a group of clownfish. They were all similarly patterned but varying in size from tiny to quite large (as clownfish go), so they looked like a big family. The underwater surge was blowing them in and out of the anemone, and again I cursed myself for not bringing the camera, although i’d have killed it at that depth anyway. We did some more skills practice – the one that everyone hates where you have to completely remove your mask and then put it back on, and establishing buoyancy and ‘hovering’, which I discovered was more difficult than previously and it took me a few minutes to get my ass off the bottom. That part done, we enjoyed the rest of the dive before surfacing and looking for the boat. Back aboard, the puke party had started. Travelling at speed across the waves was fun, because it’s a bit like a thrill ride in a theme park. Bobbing stationary, however, was positively horrible and four of the other girls on the boat were heaving over the side. By the time we returned to shore, I pretty much wanted to die, but was proud of myself for not decorating the hull.
So it seems that once again I have a new hobby, and have chosen to do it the hard way. I thought that Mozambique would be a perfect place to dive, and had pictured a sparkling smooth surface on a calm, blue ocean, but once again i’m battling the weather – it’s paragliding all over again, but i’m enjoying it less. High winds and choppy seas are making this a bit of an ordeal. When I qualify, as with paragliding, i’ll pick and choose and fly / dive only in the conditions that suit me. For now, however, I have to suck it up since I have no choice. I keep reminding myself that future experiences will be better, since I would never elect to dive in the conditions that we had done so far. Still, ultimately it will probably make me a better diver than if i’d done it the easy way in the Maldives or somewhere similar.
The good news, was that were were one dive short of our OPEN Water qualifications. The bad news, was that they were throwing us straight back in for the last one that afternoon, and the waves were getting steadily higher. We just had time to dash home and grab a snack, before having to suit up again. I was freezing cold, dog-tired, and my stomach was still rolling around after the boat ride. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was slip back into a cold, soggy wetsuit and go do it all over again, but that’s exactly what I did. And it SUCKED. The marina fauna was pretty awesome, but the negative entry was a ball-ache and I floated straight back to the surface after rolling off the boat. Apparently the way they do things here is pretty hardcore, and we’re assured that if we can get through this, anything will be an improvement. Finally we surface and prepare to get the last of the surface skills assessments out of the way. I am reluctant to remove my BCD in the huge waves with seven kilos strapped around my waste, but the decision is postponed temporarily while I throw up all over myself, finally surrendering to the inevitable. At least I wasn’t under the water and didn’t have to puke in my reg. I finished my skills assessment and dragged my weary self back aboard the boat, lamenting the puking part, but delighted that i’d finished the course in just about the most revolting conditions possible. That night I went to bed and tried to sleep, the sensation of being on the sea still with me.
The next day was all about whales. At 7.45am we struck out for the sand dunes, where we were shown how to monitor humpback whale behaviour. This basically involves standing in a high, exposed place for a couple of hours, staring at the sea and getting a complimentary sand exfoliation. As it was still windy the white horses made the whales harder to spot. It’s also coming up to the end of the season so there are fewer of them. However, it’s still possible to see them, and the first sign is usually water blowing – just look for the spray! We spent two hours watching the ocean (and getting a tan, since the sun has returned with vengeance today) and managed to identify a number of whales during that time, tracking their direction of travel, distance from shore and behaviours, which unfortunately didn’t get any more exciting than water-blowing and back-arching in the water, although it was cool to be able to see them so close to shore. We returned to the volunteer house with our completed data sheet, and got ourselves ready for the day’s ‘Ocean Safari’.
‘Ocean Safari’ is pretty much just as it sounds. We all pile aboard the rib, and spend about 2 hours scooting up and down the coast, looking for whale sharks and other large marine creatures. As well as we volunteers, there is a skipper, a safari leader (usually one of the dive instructors or Divemaster students), one of the researchers (geek squad), and some paying tourists. Today, the whale sharks were being somewhat shy. We spent over an hour cruising without seeing anything at all, and just when we were giving up hope we encountered a pod of dolphins who were happy to entertain us for a while. This, however, was as exciting as it got, and we arrived back on shore feeling a little cheated. Still, there was always tomorrow and the trip had been relatively successful in the respect that only one person (not me!) got sick.
The next day dawned, and as our safari wasn’t scheduled until lunchtime, we decided to put in some quality beach time. The sunshine was back, and it was seriously warm by 10am that morning. We walked the 100m or so the the beach, found ourselves a smooth patch of sand, and stretched out to roast. The beach was virtually deserted, and we had paradise to ourselves for a couple of hours. Maximum burn time reached, we headed back to get ourselves ready for the safari. We piled onto the boat again, hoping today was going to be our day. The divers returning from the previous trip out had reported seeing whale sharks on their way back in, and so expectations were running high. Five minutes off the beach, and we spotted a pair of humpback whales, which looked to be a mother and calf, playing in the deep water. The skipper slowed the boat to allow us to get to within 10 metres of the pair, and we watched them blowing spray, and the baby breaching the water and falling back, leaving a churning mass of white foam on the surface. We watched them for several minutes before going on our way in search of even bigger game.
We continued to cruise along the coast, miles of deserted white beach, turquoise blue ocean and crashing surf as far as they eye could see. Once again we were struggling to find the elusive whale sharks, which was now getting depressing since other boats had been reporting encounters regularly during the time i’d been in Tofo. “Maybe someone should jump in and try to speak whale ‘Dory Style’,” the guide joked. On our way back to base we encountered a another pod of dolphins, and we jumped into the water to swim with them. Unfortunately it was a pretty bad day in visibility terms, so we ended up pretty much chasing our tails. Still, it was great to see them so close. Back at the dive centre, we were starting to think that we might be a jinx, since both our safaris so far had yielded absolutely nothing. Well, no whale sharks at least. On the plus side, I had survived both safaris (around 2hrs each) on choppy waters, with a crazy skipper, without puking. Celebrate small victories.
Thursday, and today is my first ‘pleasure dive’. That is to say, a dive where i’m just doing it for fun, not as part of training, and I don’t have to take my mask off or anything like that. It was a beautiful day – the sun was out and the ocean was about as calm as i’d seen it (although it’s still a long way from flat). I intended to relax and enjoy it, since I was being thrown in for a ‘deep dive’ as part of my advanced training the following day. The programme organisers really encourage you to do at least the deep dive and qualify to dive to 30m, since that’s where most of the really cool shit is (think giant mantas, hammerhead sharks etc.). Presently I was qualified to dive only to 18m, so to make the most of my final week I needed to get that deep dive done ASAP. Today however, drop depth was a little under 16m. The main challenge was the ‘negative entry’ – roll back off the boat, head down, and kick to the bottom. I managed to roll off the boat, get my head down and kick. Unfortunately, same shit different day … I floated, stubbornly, on the surface. I eventually gave up and descended feet-first down the reference line, making it to the bottom having sucked nearly 50 bar out of my tank again. Anyway, it was a good dive, and I didn’t feel crappy at the end of it for once. Lots of pretty fish, and a really cool and colourful (if slightly aggressive) moray eel.  The 3 minute safety stop on the ascent, however, was about the longest three minutes of my life. Nothing to do but float in midwater and find something to focus on to keep the vertigo at bay. Hmmmmm.
Deep dive day, and I was shitting myself. Suddenly this didn’t seem like the best idea I ever had – perhaps I should have got a little experience under my belt before starting on the ‘adventure dives’ I need to get my Advanced certificate. Still, why change the habit of a lifetime? I was reassured slightly by the presence of the guy who owns the dive centre, who was leading us for the dive and would be running through my exercises with me at the bottom, and I put on a brave face. By the time we arrived at the drop I was practically catatonic with fear and could only manage a wild-eyed stare when asked if I was ‘ready’. Maybe I squeaked out an ‘okay’. On three, I rolled back off the boat … and got a mask-full of water. For fuck’s sake, I was supposed to be over this!! I cleared my mask and started for the bottom, feet first, since i’d now totally blown my negative entry again. It wasn’t the sleekest descent, but I made it to the bottom without incident. After a few minutes of heavy-breathing I started to relax, and our leader Steve (what do you call a ferret from Manchester …?) tested my ability to count to five, since apparently this can be impaired at depth. Apparently I am still capable of counting to five on the bottom; admittedly not quite as quickly.
Now this was pretty cool. For the first time since I started the training I really got the feeling that it had all been worth it. Manta Reef, as it’s name implies, is a haunt for Giant Manta and Mobula rays, as well as lots of big fish. Once i’d finished freaking-out, I looked up and realised I was sitting right underneath a huge school of big silver-blue fish and, ascending a few feet, I was surrounded. It was definitely the best dive so far, although i’m still managing to burn my air a good five minutes before the majority of the group. Thankfully I wasn’t the only one on this occasion, and I started to make the ascent with my friend Christina and trainee-Divemaster Sid. This time we made the world’s longest safety stop, since Christina got distracted a couple of times taking photos and finding herself deeper again. Her computer kept readjusting and we ended up hovering at 5 metres (give or take!) for well over the normal three minutes. I hate safety stops, since with no bottom to look at I start to get disoriented and feel squiffy. I have to find something to focus my eyes on, usually my dive buddy. Since Christina was floating around taking photos of the mobula ray that was gliding below our feet I focused intently on Sid. Have to say, focusing intently on wetsuit-clad Sid is not an unpleasant way to spend seven minutes.
This trip is actually one big science geek-out. We spend our dives getting excited when we see something on the fish list, or seeking out different varieties of Nudibranchia (brightly coloured ‘sea slugs’), which we’re all developing a bit of an affection for. Geek-outs aside, I could stay here for a few more months quite happily. In Tofo that is, not the ‘All Out’ house. It honestly is like living in a student house – it’s a tip most of the time, and we’ve been living on white bread and packet noodles on the days when we’re not being cooked-for and can’t be bothered to go out for something more nourishing. Still, it has to be said, Tofo has its compensations. Of which, more next time.

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