Treasures of Tofo

Text : Dray and karin van Beeck

Photos : Dray van Beeck

When we visited Tofo beach near Inhambane in Mozambique we were all geared up to see big stuff.  We’d heard that mantas and whalesharks were spotted pretty much all year round, whales came to visit in June and July and big rays and turtles were a common sight.  We weren’t disappointed.  We saw all the big animals we hoped for and more and the dive operator did their utmost to get us to the best sites to have close-up encounters.  What completely blew us away in Tofo was the macro life on the reef though!
I suppose that if you’ve never seen a manta before then you couldn’t care less about some lesser-spotted-nudibranchs.  Now call me blasé (and I’m sure if you’ve never seen a manta you could happily throttle me right about now...), but after the 30th manta in 3 days I started to crave a bit of variety.  Once I managed to direct my attention away from the big stuff I discovered that the reef was absolutely teeming with life.
I suppose it’s easy to underestimate the reefs in Tofo because they do not look very interesting at first glance.  There are none of the spectacular hard coral formations or huge colonies of swaying sea fans like you can see in the Red Sea for example.  Instead most of the Tofo reefs consist of various types of sponges, tunicates and algae.  From a distance it looks like a big, uniform brownish mass.  Once you start taking a closer look though, the variety of macro life is truly mind-boggling.  On one of our favorite dives, a reef called Arena, we counted over twenty different kinds of nudibranchs.  There were also at least ten bright orange spanish dancers, two of which were mating.
On the Tofo reefs we literally found something different every meter.  Yellow, pink, white and black leaffish were swaying in the current on most reefs.  An abundance of huge scorpionfish were scattered all over the place and blended in perfectly with their environment.  Common and painted frogfish balanced on top of sponges pretending to be invisible to the world.  We also found a strange yellow and brown sea cucumber that seemed more like a nudibranch at first glance.  It had yellow tentacles that resembled the gills of the spanish dancer but were used to capture plankton in the water.
Moray eels were another common sight and were found on all the reefs.  Sometimes we saw 2 or 3 morays of different species sharing one crack.  Yellow-mouth morays co-habited peacefully with peppered and white-eyed morays.  Curious moustache morays would come right up to the camera lens to get a better look.  Gorgeous honeycombed morays were everywhere and seemed completely unperturbed by eager photographers.  We even spotted a few ribbon eels, a dragon moray and a few unfamiliar species that we couldn’t identify from any of the fish books.  Often we saw the morays at cleaning stations where Durban dancing shrimps, white banded shrimps and banded boxer shrimps were in competition for the cleaning rights.
Another creature that we managed to find was the harlequin shrimp.  Their diet consists solely of starfish and the male and female work together to prize the starfish from the substrate and turn it over.  They then feed on its delicate tube feet.  The starfish has the ability to regenerate all its parts except for the central body, so the harlequin shrimp will sometimes feed the bigger starfish to allow the eaten tube feet to grow back.  By the time they have eaten the last feet the first ones have grown back already and they can start all over again.
Hiding in anemones we found beautiful porcelain crabs, jealously guarded over by anemonefish.  Close-by the crevasses were stuffed with row upon row of colorful spiny lobsters.  Darting in and out of hiding places were juvenile angelfish.  Normally it’s rare to see them, but here we found a few of these strikingly colored babies on almost every dive.  Another rare fish we found was the pineapple fish, so named for the distinctive yellow and black pattern on its body.  They are very shy and are usually hiding in small caves or under deep overhangs.

Hovering over the sand we saw bright red and white fire dart gobies.  Occasionally you’d spot a flash of green which would turn out to be a mantis shrimp scuttling over the sand and diving into its hole to eyeball you from there.  We even saw a birdlike seamoth crawling over the bottom on its pectoral fins.   These strange little fish normally live in pairs but the mate was nowhere to be seen.  Must have been a bachelor!
I can go on and on.  We saw crocodilefish, different types of boxfish, pufferfish, porcupinefish, octopus, torpedo rays and huge schools of red-tooth triggerfish, bannerfish and bigeyes.  There was an abundance of flounders, lionfish and Kuhl’s stingrays.  Massive potato groupers followed us around some of the divesites.  We were encircled by schools of trevallies and batfish on some of our safety stops, with the occasional mobulas passing by.  It was unbelievable diving!   
For those of you who ever have the privilege of going to Tofo beach, we can only recommend this; go and see the big animals, it’s worth it.  Don’t forget the macro diving though; it’s an often forgotten world that is well worth exploring.

RESEARCH​​​​​​
Dr Andrea Marshall and Dr Simon Pierce are marine biologists doing research in Tofo.  Dr Marshall is American has been there for 6 years and is considered the worlds’ foremost manta expert.  She has managed to establish that there are 3 distinct manta species in the world, instead of 1 as was assumed until recently.  Two of these species are found in Tofo.  A tagging and tracking system was started recently with the help of donations and volunteers.
Dr Simon Pierce is from New Zealand and has been in Tofo for 4 years to research the whaleshark population.  He has also tagged and tracked some individuals to try and understand the range of their migration and where they go to breed.  Both of these scientists do very interesting weekly presentations at Casa Barry where they talk about mantas, whalesharks and marine life in the Tofo region.  Information about their projects is available on www.giantfish.org

PRACTICAL INFORMATION​​
Location
Tofo is in the south of Mozambique, 500 km north of Maputo.  The closest town is Inhambane, which is a 25 min drive from Tofo.
Travelling
Fly to Johannesburg and from there either direct or via Maputo to Inhambane with LAM (Linhas Aéreas de Moçambique), the national airline.  LAM can be hard to contact, we’d recommend booking through Janet at Traveltoday in Nelspruit.  Contact her on janetn.travelt@galileosa.co.za or phone 0027 13 755 2146.  It is also possible to drive from Johannesburg to Maputo or go by bus.  From Inhambane there are buses and taxis to Tofo.
Accommodation
There’s a big variety of accommodation available in Tofo, from with very basic backpacker huts and tents to luxurious self-catering cottages.  We loved Nordins Lodge for the spectacular location right on the beach.  For more options check out www.tofotravel.com
Dive Centers
There are 3 Dive Centers in Tofo; Diversity Scuba, Tofo Scuba and Liquid Adventures.  We dived with Diversity Scuba both times we were in Tofo and were always impressed with their great service and friendly staff.  They have 3 well maintained RIB’s, brand new Scubapro rental equipment and provide Nitrox for free as long as you’re certified.  This is a big plus on some of the deeper reefs.  They also have one of the best storage areas for customer equipment we’ve ever seen.  Check out www.diversityscuba.com or contact them on info@diversityscuba.com.  Internet reception is not always reliable in Tofo so a reply might take a few days.
Other Information
Visas are required for most nationalities but can be purchased at the airport on arrival.
Tofo is in a malaria zone, so take malaria medication or stock up on mozzie spray.  Most resorts provide mosquito nets.