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Swimming with the gentle giants of Tofo

By Henry Wismayer
Globe Correspondent / February 27, 2011

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PRAIA DO TOFO — Eyes stinging with the wonder of it, my head breaks the surface and a rippling swell sloshes about my ears. Up here all is hysteria, hyper-adrenalized euphoria: 16 goggle-eyed tourists treading water, yelling astonishment through surf and snorkels. Bubble, splash, gurgle . . . “ . . . mazing’’ . . . “ . . . did you see?’’ It’s an understandable reaction when you have just been for a paddle alongside a shark the length of a bus.

It didn’t require much courage. No one has been left with a ragged stump where an arm once was; no one’s innards are bobbing on the water. We had come to swim with sharks, not the toothsome kind, but the big, friendly teddy bear of the shark fraternity — the whale shark.

The quest had brought me to Praia do Tofo, a 4-mile golden crescent on the eastern rim of Mozambique’s Inhambane panhandle, a couple of degrees south of the Tropic of Capricorn. The beach here has been on the tourist map for a while: a haven for South Africans escaping their short winter and a popular stop for the increasing flow of divers and drifters passing along Mozambique’s hedonistic southern circuit. It’s one of those perfectly balanced coastal vortexes — half sleepy backwater, half beachfront party zone — where everyone stays longer than planned.

But it can also lay claim to being the best place on earth to swim with the world’s biggest fish.

That’s not to say it has a whale shark monopoly. Although the species is classified as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List, Rhincodon typus can be found throughout the globe’s warmer saltwater from California to the Caribbean, Tanzania to Taiwan. Unlike some of their disreputable cousins, whale sharks have the gentle temperament of the filter-feeder. One of the ocean’s biggest organisms, they cruise the tropical seas feasting on some of its smallest: plankton, krill, and schools of tiny fish.

In recent years, their docility has spawned a mini-industry of companies offering people the chance to swim with one, a niche tourism market worth more than $50 million a year. Many specialists claim that interactions between whale sharks and humans, when carefully managed, have little negative impact on the animals’ behavior, with some advocating responsible tourism as a key means to safeguard them down the line.

Even among international company, this beach is special. “Tofo is unique,’’ says Simon Pierce, a conservation biologist and New Zealand native whose interest in whale sharks drew him here in 2005. “Whale sharks are widely distributed, but there aren’t many places where sightings are virtually predictable. That’s what makes it such a hot spot.’’

As chief scientist for the Tofo-based Foundation for the Protection of Marine Megafauna, or FPMM, Pierce has identified more than 470 individual sharks common to Tofo, each one distinguishable by the unique checkerboard pattern of white polka dots they carry on their grey flanks.

The real boon for Tofo’s shark hunters, however, is not how many there are, but where they are and how long they stick around. In other destinations with a stake in whale shark tourism, the fish tend to swim the stage for three or four months a year and, in places like Western Australia’s Ningaloo Reef, their dispersal has prompted guides to employ spotter planes to pinpoint their silhouettes from the air. By contrast, Tofo’s sharks — mostly adolescent males — hang around throughout the calendar in a subaquatic corridor of nutrient-rich water less than a mile offshore, known locally as Whale Shark Alley.

At least, that’s the rumor. It is 11 a.m. on a balmy May morning and my knuckles are slowly turning white on the grip-rope of a supercharged 200-horsepower rigid inflatable, as the Indian Ocean breakdances beneath the hull. Fifty dollars has bought me a patch on the rubber alongside 15 other sun-burnished tourists, all of whom are excited by the thought that we may be minutes away from spending quality time with the creature that the Swahili boatmen up-coast call Papa Shillingi.

The numbers suggest that our excitement is justified. A recent FPMM study revealed that day trips like this one, run out of the dive shops that line Tofo’s dunes, stand an 87 percent chance of encountering a whale shark. On average, trips sampled over a two-year period resulted in three encounters, and interaction time — time spent in the water with the shark — averaged nine minutes. Some groups saw more than 10 behemoths in one outing.

“But there is no guarantee that we’ll find them,’’ guide Rafael had parried during our onshore briefing. After all, his excursion — one of several now circling above Whale Shark Alley like a school of hungry tuna — is dubbed an “ocean safari,’’ not a “whale shark safari.’’ As with any wildlife-watching, there’s no such thing as a safe bet.

The hunt, we are discovering, is not without its discomforts. We’ve been bobbing around a off Praia da Roscha for half an hour without seeing so much as a fin. The sea is restless and half the clientele are feeling queasy after over-indulging in too much rum the night before. It’s also blazing hot under the noonday southern African sun. Trips leave in late morning to allow for spotting with minimum glare.

But soon we get the payoff, as the guide on the spotter’s chair above the engines starts gesturing toward the port-bow, and we catch a glimpse of a tall dorsal cutting across the horizon. The pilot guns the outboards to arc us around in front of its projected path, while Rafael runs through the protocol for the third and final time: “Avoid the head, stay out the way of the tail, and above all don’t touch.’’

Then: “Put your masks on everyone. . . . OK, in the water.’’

Any semblance of ordered swimming stroke, I quickly realize, goes out the window when you come face-to-face with a whale shark. Ours turns out to be a monster, a full-grown male several feet longer than our 26-foot boat, with gills working like an industrial bellows and an oval mouth big enough to swallow three of us side-by-side.

The first few moments pass in a blur of flippered violence, as each member of the tourist melee tries to find some viewing space. Meanwhile, the shark, true to its reputation, cruises along seemingly indifferent to the swarm of interlopers.

And he is staggeringly beautiful. With little need for muscular acceleration to hunt down prey, the whale shark swims in lazy arcs, mesmerizing S shapes that seem to accentuate the peace of the underwater world, as if it had been created for him alone.

It can’t last forever. Whale sharks have been known to spend an hour with swimmers. Ours is less generous, gracing us with just a few minutes.

But he is pure magic: worth the butterfly-kick one of my companions accidentally delivers to my right ear, worth the mildly sun-burned shoulders, even worth the endurance test it took to get here. Definitely worth 50 bucks for a wildlife encounter that is unique, unforgettable and largely guilt-free.

Until, with a flick of his mighty crescent tail-fin, he is gone.

Henry Wismayer can be reached at www.henrywismayer.com.

If You Go

How to get there
The Mozambican capital, Maputo, is served by a number of European carriers. But a cheaper option is to fly into Johannesburg, in South Africa, where it is possible to take a direct flight with LAM Mozambique Airlines (www.flylamsouthafrica.com) to Inhambane. From here, it’s a 12 1/2-mile drive to Praia do Tofo.
Planning your trip
A two-hour “ocean safari’’ with Tofo Scuba (www.tofoscuba.co.za, 011-258-293-29030) costs $55 per person. Trips run daily throughout the year, but may be canceled during adverse conditions as cloud cover and choppy water make the whale sharks difficult to spot. Mozambique’s rainy season runs from January to April. Though very quiet for most of the year, Tofo becomes very busy during the South African holidays, when it is wise to book ahead.
Where to stay
Mango Beach 011-258-82-943-4660
www.mangobeach.co.za
A charming collection of grass-thatched cabanas nestled in the dunes near Barra Point. The “casas,’’ which come with self-catering facilities and can sleep a group of six, are a particularly good value at $105 per night.
Bamboozi Beach Lodge 011-258-293-29040
www.barraresorts.com
Slightly livelier than Mango Beach, but with a similar set-up, rates at Bamboozi range from $15 a night for a dormitory bed to $110 for a chalet with a sea view.
Where to eat
Dino’s Beach Bar
Located just off the beach, north of the village center, this lively bar-cum-restaurant dishes up reggae vibes and tasty food. It also hosts a monthly Full Moon Party.