I’m pretty lucky to get to travel and dive in some pretty cool locations around the world, but I feel like I have gotten to a stage where I want to learn a little more and also contribute a little more to things that I’m passionate about. So I booked to do a 2 week stint with MMF’s Underwater Africa. Their normal minimum volunteer period is 4 weeks but considering I was in there in their low season I managed to book 2 as that is all I could get off work, though longer would have been amazing.
Whilst an MMF project Underwater Africa is run in conjunction with Peri-Peri Divers who give places on their boats to researchers and volunteers, and Cassa Barry Lodge. The ‘big house’ behind Cassa Barry is where the volunteers and some of the MMF staff live. Staying here was a great experience and made you feel a sense of belonging right from the start. 3 meals a day are included in the package and served in the picturesque Cassa Barry restaurant.
Unfortunately Manta’s and Whalesharks weren’t the only absentees during my stay, the foundation founders Dr Andrea Marshall and Dr Simon Pearce were also missing in action (on far more important marine saving crusades I’m sure), however the staff on hand were more than adequate at showing me the ropes. I was the first volunteer of the season, so luckily a bit of a novelty for the guys living there and we instantly bonded over a few sundowners on the beach.
My one recommendation for anyone off to donate their time is to make your skill set clear from the start. I for example am terrible at science. I realised this when I was about 14, and it seems not a lot has changed in the many years since then. I am however rather nifty with a computer and have a business minded brain. Making these things obvious will mean that both Underwater Africa and your good self will get the most out of your stay and be as productive as possible.
The days were varied which meant that you got to learn and experience many different aspects of life in Tofo. 4 dives a week are included in your package, but the fellas soon realised that I was super keen to get in as many hours underwater as possible. So I went out with Per-Peri nearly every day and just paid for the extra at the end. You are taught to be more observant of things you wouldn’t normally take notice of when diving such as cloud cover, sea conditions (according to beaufort scale no less), water clarity at different depths and, something I never thought I’d be taking notice of, plankton activity. These aspects of each dive need to be logged so as to accurately keep a record of data surrounding the megafauna activity. We also checked batteries on acoustic listening posts underwater too and recorded fishing activity with a GPS. If we had seen megafauna on the dives then we would have uploaded the amazing ID shots that I would have for sure taken, to mantamatcher.org or whaleshark.org where we would then have been able to see if the megafauna in question had been spotted before and where. Citizen science, how cool!!
Another task that I particularly enjoyed was helping out with the Nemos Pequenos program. This initiative was set up to educate the children of Tofo about marine safety and the marine environment. Unfortunately despite living on the waters edge many locals cannot swim so swimming lessons are conducted twice a week as well as a water games day or beach cleanup. This not only is advantageous from a safety perspective but also creates employment opportunities for the kids. Jerry for example is a Nemos Pequenos swimming graduate who is now doing his divemaster internship with Peri-Peri and will hopefully now go onto have a career in diving. Other graduates of the program have now been certified as swimming instructors and continue working with the younger kids. All these amazing activities are done whilst always learning about our fragile marine environment and how to protect it.
MMF run education nights in the Cassa Barry bar 3 nights a week for not only Cassa Barry guests but also any other tourists who happen to be in town. They include Manta Monday, Whaleshark Wednesday and Fishy / Fauna Friday. This is just another way that MMF are raising the awareness of vulnerable species and also advocate the work that they do.
One of the highlights of my trip was on my last day which was spent on a local dhow in the estuaries around Barra. It was such and amazing experience to be out on the water in such a traditional way. We spent all day snorkelling in only a few meters of water and found the most amazing (and sometimes strange) creatures. It was like a never ending muck dive with more to see than my eyes could keep up with such as frog fish, swimming eels, crabs and crustaceans, cowfish and about every juvenile version of more tropical fish than I could ever name. For sure the best snorkelling experience I have ever had.
The staff who work for MMF don’t get paid in anything besides food and board, they do their work because they are passionate people. They are super well educated and have spent many more years at university that I can possibly imagine, yet they work for free. It’s people like this that make you sit up and realise how busy we all get constantly chasing the dollar and look at if it’s all really worth it for the results that you get? I walked away from this experience with, more than anything, a total admiration for these volunteers who have dedicated their time to a worthwhile cause and are actually making a difference. The planet needs more people like them..
Rowan, Alex, Daryn, Anna, Delila, Jo, Martina, Claire, Oli – you guys made this a trip one I will never forget, thanks so much!
Read about the diving here!
Check out the gallery here!